JEDDAH: A Saudi lobbyist in the US has expressed optimism that women will get the right to drive in the Kingdom.
In an opinion piece published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Friday, Salman Al-Ansari, president of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), referred to the transformative changes put forward by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“He explicitly hinted that an end to the ban on women’s driving is in the pipeline,” said Al-Ansari.
“Despite the many challenges, the deputy crown prince is attempting to undertake LBJ-like social reforms and Thatcher-like economic reforms in a country that is infamously resistant to change.”
Former US President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) was known for supporting path-breaking reforms, especially regarding civil rights. The late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher changed the UK with her economic reforms.
Granting women the right to drive “would arguably be the most symbolic change toward women’s rights in the Kingdom,” said Al-Ansari.
Prince Mohammed has taken bold decisions, such as issuing “a transformative order that barred the religious police from making arrests, which they previously did to young men and women for even attempting to mix with the opposite sex,” said Al-Ansari.
He added that Prince Mohammed was keen on putting Saudi women in positions of power and influence.
Al-Ansari cited the appointment of Princess Reem bint Bandar as vice president of women’s affairs at the General Authority of Sports, and Sarah Al-Suhaimi as chair of the Saudi stock exchange (Tadawul).
He said the deputy crown prince “is strident in his pragmatic efforts toward reforming the traditionally conservative Kingdom (and) he recognizes that the key ingredient to any resilient and diverse economy is the unbridled empowerment of women.”
Delving into the Kingdom’s recent history, Al-Ansari said it was “on the cusp of full legal gender equality” in the 1970s, but two factors stopped the march toward full rights for women.
“Saudi Arabia’s collaboration with the US in the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan could not have been done without giving hardline religious voices more space to influence Saudi society,” said Al-Ansari.
“The second factor was the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 1979. Saudi Arabia made some concessions to the religious establishment as a guarantee to preserve social cohesion.”
He said the primary beneficiaries of not giving women the right to drive were a few influential religious parties.
“They have shamelessly used women as a socio-political tool to gain socio-political influence,” said Al-Ansari.
Whenever there is talk of granting women more rights, he said, Saudi intellectuals raise two critical points.
“First, they must be small, slow, and gradual, so that no overwhelming cultural upheaval will be imposed on the Saudi people. The second point is that this openness must come from within, rather than from external forces.”
Al-Ansari said he agreed only with the second point. “I vehemently disagree with the first (because) the harsh reality is that the ‘gradual-change’ approach would take a needlessly long time to fully implement.”
He said the Kingdom had gone through a number of cultural shifts since it was established in 1932.
“Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly a conservative country, since it revolves around the sacredness of the Two Holy Mosques. It still, however, possesses a capacity for opening up,” he added.