Over the years Saudi officials became so accustomed to being asked by foreign dignitaries and journalists when women would be allowed to drive that they developed increasingly tortuous excuses. They claimed society wasn’t ready, women preferred to be driven, and men seeing women drive would be such a shock it could cause mayhem on the roads.
Having asked the question myself over and over again, I gave up on the day, two years ago, when a senior official told me the debate had been settled: there would be no need for women to drive anyway because driverless cars were on the way.
And then, late on Tuesday, with a stroke of a pen, the taboo that Saudis held on to so tightly, and absurdly, was shattered. King Salman issued a royal decree announcing that women could drive as of June 2018. Given that Saudi Arabia is the only country on earth where women are banned from an activity everyone else takes for granted, the decision met with a chorus of international approval.
In fact, it won’t be the first time that Saudi women have found themselves behind the wheels. Elderly Saudis will tell you that their mothers drove camels and trucks in the desert. As Saudi rulers ceded social ground to the clerics of the puritanical Wahhabi establishment who help sustain their rule, women were relegated to the status of second-class citizens and forbidden from mixing with men.
Now, however, King Salman and his ambitious 32-year-old son and crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), are on a path of adjustment. Since taking over two years ago, the king has been seeking to recalibrate the relationship with the clerics and to promote Saudi nationalism as an alternative source of legitimacy. He has clipped the wings of the dreaded religious police, while his son has defied the conservatives by introducing public entertainment to Saudi Arabia. Concerts, which clerics deem corrupting to the soul, have been staged in recent months, and cinemas, considered equally evil, may soon open.