On the last Tuesday in September, Rindala al-Ajaji, a twenty-year-old N.Y.U. student from Saudi Arabia, was spending the afternoon doing homework in the Bobst Library. Shortly after 3 P.M., she took a break to check her Facebook feed and saw a headline that struck her as an obvious attempt at satire: “Saudi Arabia Agrees to Let Women Drive.” Irritated—Saudi women living overseas are wearingly familiar with their personal freedoms being treated as fodder for comedy—Ajaji clicked on the link. When she realized that it wasn’t an Onion article but rather a breaking-news story in the Times, Ajaji burst into tears. King Salman had issued a royal decree granting Saudi women the right to drive. She rushed out of the library and called her mother in Riyadh. Ajaji could scarcely make out her mother’s voice over the sounds of jubilation in the background. “I could just hear screaming,” she told me. The family was hurrying out to an impromptu party at a relative’s house, and Ajaji wished that she were home. “I didn’t think I’d see this happen in my lifetime,” she said.
Ajaji had grown up hearing stories about the forty-seven female activists who, on November 6, 1990, drove through Riyadh to protest for Saudi women’s right to drive. Two of Ajaji’s maternal aunts, Wafa and Majida al-Muneef, were among “the drivers,” as the demonstrators are collectively known. The drivers were jailed, fired from their jobs, and excoriated from mosque pulpits across the kingdom, but, for the Muneef sisters’ family, the protest became a source of quiet pride. “Growing up, November 6th was always a day to remember,” Ajaji said. “I was raised with the idea that it’s one of the biggest things that has ever happened in Saudi women’s history.”
International media coverage of last month’s royal decree focussed, understandably enough, on the reactions of the Saudi female right-to-drive activists, who have become relatively well-known figures in the West. But it’s worth noting that, in her abiding and passionate interest in the right-to-drive movement, Ajaji is unusual. For most Saudi women, even in the generation that has grown up with the Internet, the protest in 1990 is not widely remembered. At the time, the international media covered it as a major story—the drivers had intentionally looked to attract attention from the high number of foreign journalists who were in the kingdom covering the buildup to the first Gulf War—and it subsequently became an important reference point for Western scholars and journalists writing about Saudi Arabia. Yet, within the kingdom, the protest retained no such status. After Saudi leaders satisfied themselves that the dissenters had been crushed, the episode effectively vanished from public conversation. In nearly a decade of reporting trips to the kingdom, I have met no more than a handful of Saudis who have even heard of it.
In 2007, on my first trip to Saudi Arabia, I spent more than two months interviewing dozens of female students at three Saudi universities. Rather pedantically, I made a point of asking each young woman what she thought about a petition that the Saudi feminist Wajeha al-Huwaider had recently submitted to King Abdullah, asking that women be given the right to drive. I’d hoped to turn up an intriguing theme for an article, but, to my disappointment, Huwaider’s name and my descriptions of her efforts produced nothing but blank stares. Though the young women were all bright and well informed, they were neither aware of Huwaider nor interested in driving, and seemed puzzled about why I had imagined that they would be.
In 2010, visiting the kingdom to report on the women’s-rights campaigns that had begun to proliferate thanks to the Internet, I went to meet Huwaider herself, at her home in Dhahran. At the time, Huwaider was running several online campaigns, including the right-to-drive campaign, and a campaign calling for an end to Saudi Arabia’s strict guardianship laws, which put Saudi women under the legal authority of male relatives. Earlier in the trip, I’d met with women’s-rights activists in Riyadh who were working on these issues and so, after the interview, and because Huwaider had mentioned that she didn’t know the women, I suggested making introductions. Huwaider demurred, which baffled me; I’d imagined that, by coördinating with activists in another city, she’d be able to increase the awareness of her campaigns within the kingdom. I spent five more years reporting on activism in Saudi Arabia before I finally understood that, for Huwaider and other social-justice and pro-democracy advocates in the kingdom, their fellow-Saudis have never been the primary intended audience. They were speaking to the world outside.
Activists can properly take some of the credit for King Salman’s decision to overturn the ban on women driving. But their activism was of a rather peculiar kind: it was aimed less at galvanizing fellow-citizens than it was at attracting, and holding, the sympathies of foreigners. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the Saudi government maintains a high degree of control over media outlets in the kingdom. And, in a society with strong traditions of privacy and weak traditions of individual rights, activists are reflexively viewed with suspicion. But the most important reason for Saudi activists choosing to focus on foreigners is that the kingdom is a kingdom: domestic public opinion means infinitely less to an absolute monarch than it does to an elected official.
In overturning the ban, the King and his family, too, were speaking more to the world than to their subjects. News of King Salman’s decree, which will allow Saudi women to begin driving in the kingdom next June, was released simultaneously in Riyadh and Washington, D.C.—and it was no accident that the splashier media event, a press conference hosted by Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States, was the one held in D.C. While Prince Khalid’s meeting with reporters was held in the mid-afternoon, maximizing the announcement’s effect on the news cycle in the U.S., Saudi leaders chose a more subdued approach—a short statement read aloud on the nightly news—for the domestic announcement. Many Saudis, including Hessah al-Sheikh, an academic who took part in the driving protest in 1990, missed the initial broadcast. “It was late, and I was already in bed, reading a book,” Sheikh told me. She was startled when a niece, who had been watching the news, called after 10 P.M. “I was very surprised. It won’t be easy for many people to have this happen.”
For Sheikh, part of the surprise was that the decree was issued by King Salman, a ruler who, in an earlier role, as the governor of Riyadh, had led the crackdown on her and the other forty-six drivers in the protest. “Everyone had this expectation that, once Salman is king, you can forget about women’s rights,” Dara Sahab, an attorney in Jeddah, told me. Unlike his much beloved predecessor, King Abdullah, whose eponymous scholarship program sent thousands of young Saudis to study overseas, and who allowed Saudi women to become lawyers and to work in retail, King Salman has a longstanding reputation as a hard-liner. His ascension to the throne, in January, 2015, had an immediate chilling effect on activism in the kingdom, and it was followed by a seventy-six-per-cent spike in the rate of executions by beheading.
It seems fairly safe to conclude that, with his driving decree, King Salman was not announcing any newfound ideological commitment to human rights or gender equality. During the past two weeks, numerous academics, human-rights researchers, and expatriate Saudi dissidents have offered theories to explain Salman’s motivations. Many of these analysts have suggested that the decree was an effort to deflect attention from the arrest, in September, of more than thirty dissidents and clerics, and from a United Nations Human Rights Council vote on whether to investigate Saudi war crimes in Yemen. But while these specific events may have played a role in the timing, it is likely that King Salman’s decision was largely an acknowledgment of a fact that the kingdom has taken years to realize: Saudi Arabia can no longer afford to ignore global opinion about its treatment of women.
For years, high oil prices kept the ruling family comfortable. But, in 2014, plummeting oil prices sent Saudi leaders racing to diversify their economy. The following January, King Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman (who was named Crown Prince this June) was placed in charge of the effort. Saudi Arabian leaders were then finally forced to think hard about the gender-segregated infrastructure—the women-only offices, shops, bank branches, sections of government agencies, and all the rest—that have been built and maintained for decades at enormous expense. These leaders have shown no sign of wanting to abandon gender segregation wholesale, but some analysts believe that they have begun to recognize the real costs involved in squandering the talents of nearly half their population.
“Saudi women get better degrees, and they work harder. They have more to prove,” Bernard Haykel, a professor in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, told me. “The Saudis finally understand that the economy will not diversify or reform without bringing women into the workforce.” But even if they are soon able to drive, millions of Saudi women won’t be employed overnight. If Saudi Arabia is to avoid a prolonged period of austerity, Haykel explained, it needs foreign investment. Mohammed bin Salman understands that the foreign investors the kingdom hopes to attract aren’t impressed by “a weird situation where women aren’t present,” Haykel said.
The Saudi government has many issues that it needs to discuss with the world, but women’s-rights issues were derailing those conversations. Giving women the right to drive was a relatively painless concession for the king to make. Some Saudis warn that the decision to end the driving ban may turn out to be mostly symbolic. Women will still need power of attorney from a male relative to acquire a car, and will risk jail time for disobeying male guardians. Activists in the country will still live under threat. (According to one women’s-rights campaigner I emailed, at least two dozen female intellectuals, including some who have not been involved in recent right-to-drive efforts, received threatening calls from security officers at the Diwan, warning them against even making positive public comments on the new decree.) But, to my surprise, several of the Saudi women I’ve spoken to in the past two weeks expressed relief that their leaders have moved to retake control of the narrative about their country. In a Facebook post shortly after the announcement, Dara Sahab, the Jeddah attorney, summed up the general mood: “Good news to the rest of the world. You can leave us alone now.”
Katherine Zoepf's first book, “Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World,” came out in 2016.