In a somewhat surprising move for the strict and conservative nation, Saudi Arabia has finally lifted driving restrictions on women, allowing them to drive on the country’s roads.
With the rescission of the rule, Saudi women may now obtain driver's licenses and can also take the wheel without permission from a man of the family. The move has been met with generally positive reactions, both worldwide and at home. Women all over the country were overjoyed in realizing that such a huge step towards improving women’s rights has finally been taken. Unfortunately, there are still some ultra-conservative holdouts within many facets of Saudi society who are adamantly opposed to the new change.
Fortunately, whatever backlash may ensue won’t have the backing of the government, in part because lifting restrictions on women’s rights is seen by many high-level officials and princes as essential to the country’s future. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a businessman and part of the royal family, has strongly advocated for increasing women’s rights, of which driving was a top priority. He, along with the current crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, recognized that for generations the country has been severely limiting the economic growth potential in limiting women’s rights.
Jean Etienne, a senior studying business administration, agrees.
“You essentially had entire industries based around driving women around,” he says. “For example, during World War II you didn’t have people concerned about a driving ban, it didn’t make sense for men to be taken away from other responsibilities to drive women around.”
Saudi Arabia’s top exports are crude oil and related products. Due to low oil prices over the past several years as a result of an explosion of oil production in the US, the price for a barrel of oil has hovered around or below $50 a barrel. While that price allows for slim to no profit margins at a US based production facility, in Saudi Arabia that translates into a severe reduction on governmental revenues. Any effort by the Saudi government and OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) to cut production of petroleum to raise prices is almost immediately offset by increased production by US and other non-OPEC producers to take advantage of the raised prices.
Because of this, the recent Saudi government, at the behest of Prince Muhammad, has announced Vision 2030, a master plan to make the country progressively less and less reliant on oil and more reliant on manufactured goods and providing services. This includes selling a small stake in their massive state-owned company, Saudi Aramco.
Even more crucial to this plan, however, is ensuring home-grown talent, such as engineers, coders, businessmen (and now, women) are effective enough to compete on the global scale. This is where allowing women to drive comes into play, or more broadly, allowing greater participation for them in the workforce. With a few policy changes, the country has essentially doubled its potential economic output.
In essence, the country has realized that the current conservative ruling structure cannot survive if the economy is allowed to tank, as was previously almost guaranteed. The only way forward into the future is rapid, drastic change, in both the economy and in society. Giving women back the rights they were unjustly denied for generations is an incredibly crucial part of this change.
Jesse Shoghi is a junior studying computing.