Saudi women beyond the wheel!

With princes not spared charges of corruption and women granted permission to start driving, Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is certainly displaying its credibility. Saudi government has stated that women will be permitted to drive cars from June next year. At present, regulations regarding this are being worked upon. Interestingly, “news,” of Saudi women being permitted to drive has been accorded substantial media coverage, more than most news items regarding the Kingdom usually are. This isn’t surprising. The hard truth is that in most non-Arab countries, a stereotyped image about Saudi Arabia prevails. Yes, there is no denying that the trend in most parts of the world is to think of Saudi Arabia primarily as an oil country and a conservative Islamic nation where Muslims periodically gather for pilgrimage. There is also the perception that women here are discriminated against. Besides, spread of conflict in several Arab nations has enhanced negative perception of linking Muslims with terrorism.

These factors apparently prompted the Saudi King and Crown Prince to move ahead with some dynamic measures needed to change others’ opinion towards Saudi Arabia. If they had not come out with Vision 2030, in all probability the Kingdom would not have attracted much attention. Careful analysis of this programme suggests that it was probably viewed as pertinent to prevent Saudi citizens from losing hope in coming years, to instil confidence in them about their promising future and also to derail prospects of regional chaos spilling into the Kingdom. After all, the landmark, set for 2030, that is 17 years from now, carries promises for children as well as youth of today. They include women, as laid out specifically in the Vision.

A close analysis of Saudi women’s status suggests that the issue of them being permitted to drive is not the first or only step taken by the Saudi government for their progress. It may be recalled that in 1957, with the support of the then King’s wife, private schools for girls were established in Jeddah. Though there were protests in certain areas, this movement continued and from late 1970s, university education for women was paid greater attention. The same drive is expected to be continued with greater dynamism through Vision 2030. Drawing attention to the high literacy rate of Saudi women and their being engaged in the development of the country’s society and economy, the Vision diligently states, “With over 50 per cent of our university graduates being female, we will continue to develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.” The Vision also plans to raise the percentage of Saudi women employment rate from 12 per cent to 40 per cent and increase their participation in workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent. 

Slowly but definitely, the Kingdom has been taking strides to ensure progress of Saudi women and also change the stereotyped image held about them as well as the country. Less than a decade ago, the first women to hold a cabinet post was Norah Al Faiz. She was appointed as deputy minister of education in charge of women’s affairs in February 2009. The period was also marked by visits between Saudi Arabia and several countries, with delegations including women. When the Saudi King visited India as the Republic Day chief guest in 2006, the media delegation included women. 

Vision 2030’s agenda rests on three pillars — the first being religious and the other two being economically as well as regionally oriented. This was certainly not conceived and/or planned overnight. The steps being taken over the past few decades, for instance, regarding progress of women, are a testimony to this fact. Earlier this year, Vision 2030 led to Sarah Al Suhaini’s appointment as the chair of Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange. For the first time in this country, a woman was appointed to this position. Besides, Rania Mahmoud Nashar was appointed as chief executive of Samba Financial Group, one of the country’s largest national banks, and Latifa Al-Sabhan as chief financial officer of Arab National Bank. Globally, only around four per cent women chair boards and around 12 per cent hold board seats.

Emphasis laid in Vision 2030 to create job opportunities for Saudi youth and ensure their qualifications to build a vibrant and ambitious nation is directed towards gaining their confidence. And this apparently is viewed as vital to maintain political stability in the country. Crisis elsewhere in the Arab world has been primarily linked to unemployment faced by youth there. The ruling monarchy is well aware that at this stage it cannot afford to lose confidence of its youth. More than 50 per cent of the Saudi population is below the age of 25 years. The Vision states, “We will guarantee their skills are developed and properly deployed.” A priority of Vision towards Saudi Arabia emerging as a “global investment powerhouse” and a “regional leader” also guarantees citizens of employment opportunities in their own country. The iron hand with which several Saudi princes and ministers have recently been arrested and/or dismissed on charges of corruption cannot be de-linked from Vision 2030. This sudden move may be viewed as yet another step to boost people’s confidence in the “ambitious” Vision and that the country is “effectively governed.” The Vision states, “We shall have zero tolerance for all levels of corruption, whether administrative or financial.” 

Overall, the greater thrust of Vision is on Saudi Arabia’s economic drive, globally, regionally and nationally. There is also an economic angle behind Saudi women being permitted to drive. Drivers employed in Saudi Arabia form around 60 per cent of foreign domestic workers. The remittance from drivers that leaves Saudi Arabia annually is higher than $4 billion. When women actually start driving, it is expected to spell advantages for Saudi Arabia socially and economically. Also, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the global media paying attention to the country through a new lens, for a change, which is not totally tainted with negative approach. Vision 2030 is thus directed not just towards the agenda outlined in it, but also to compel people across the world to change their stereotyped perceptions about Saudi Arabia.

The author is a veteran Middle East watcher and writer