WHEN Saudi women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif was taken to a women’s prison in Saudi Arabia, the prisoners inside crowded around her in shock. They were not surprised to see a woman there; after all, the prison was for women. They were, however, shocked to see a Saudi woman there. By the rights activist’s account, there were very few, only eight or nine of them, in the facility.
The rest of course were the women who are thrown into Saudi prisons all the time — the Indians, Sri Lankans, Filipinas, all the lesser women who can, often just on the basis of a mere accusation, find themselves in prison for long periods of time. Sometimes they languish there for months and years before their families even find out where they are.
That was 2011 and Al Sharif, an employee of Aramco, had defied Saudi authorities by driving a car on the streets of the kingdom. In the middle of the night that followed, a horde of annoyed Saudi secret police showed up at her doorstep at the apartment she inhabited inside the Aramco compound.
When it comes to the decree of the Saudi king, even clerics can be overruled.
Her brother, who was with her when she took the wheel and who had remained with her, told them that they could not arrest her because it was the middle of the night. The men did not listen; before long Al Sharif had to leave with them. She would remain in prison for nine days: her crime, driving; her fate somewhat better than the other women she encountered in detention.
Last Tuesday’s royal decree came in the form of a reprieve to women like Al Sharif and other Saudi women activists who have been trying to wrangle the freedom to drive from the kingdom since they held the first driving protest in 1990. As per the king’s decree, announced live on Saudi television and also via a live media event in Washington D.C., this restriction would exist no more. Saudi women could drive cars and drive them without the presence of one of their guardians in the vehicle.
With the king’s decree, the complaints of conservative clerics, who had even gone so far as to insist that women’s reproductive organs were harmed by driving, were shunted to the side. So were all the supposedly ‘Islamic’ reasons that the same clerics had proffered as the basis for the restriction on driving. When it comes to the decree of the king of Saudi Arabia, even clerics can be overruled, which it seems is exactly what happened last week.
That, of course, is the story as it appears, the sort of jubilant tale of progress and advance that the Saudis are so eager to sell to the world — at least to a Western world increasingly sceptical of their intentions for the region. While the new US president and his advisers (several of whom have already been fired) were eager to peer through illuminated globes and partake of traditional sword dances, others in the US are not so dazzled by the regime’s recent doings. Reports of rising Yemeni casualties are routinely reported in major Western publications, and large arms sales (while they happen anyway) consistently meet with the ire of watchdog groups. If the Saudis cannot be stopped, they argue, at least arms sales to them must cease. If innocents have to be killed, the Saudis can arrange for munitions from other countries to do so.
Then there are the prerogatives from within Saudi Arabia. As analysts have pointed out, the governing Vision 2030 that is marking the kingdom’s transition requires that foreign workers not be employed in government jobs by 2020. According to this ‘Saudi first’ policy, developed to give the Saudis priority in employment, thousands of these expatriate workers have already left the kingdom as part of the transition to all-Saudi state employees. It is likely that many more will leave in the days and months to come as the march towards the new Saudi Arabia continues.
This second internal reality, the fact that Saudi Arabia has identified the elimination of expatriate workers from its state-employed workforce, is not well known among Western analysts. In the copious congratulations that poured in for the kingdom’s lifting of the ban on driving, hardly any of these analysts considered how the new directive fits into the new Saudi Arabia led by the new king.
Saudi women, which going by the kingdom’s definition are only those born to a Saudi father, are an integral part of the new Saudi Arabia that seeks to banish all foreigners from its government. As if to emphasise just this, the day after the driving ban ended, a woman, Eman al-Ghamdi, was appointed assistant mayor of the Al Khobar governorate. The message from the country’s rulers was clear: with expatriates banished, it is Saudi women, or at least those of them interested in working outside the home, who would be in line to be hired for important positions. If they decided to work, they may also like to drive. If they wanted to drive, they needed to be able to obtain a driving licence.
A victory for Saudi women thus comes at the expense of heightening Saudi nationalism and even xenophobia. The kingdom’s immigration policy has always been a contrast to its rhetoric: Muslims, it seems, are one polity bound in unity and equality until a Saudi official decides to ask for a passport and then uses nationality to determine merit or pay. So it is with Saudi women, sisters in struggle all eager to drive, particularly if the non-Saudi maid or nanny or cook follows submissively behind.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.