This might be the real motive behind Saudi Arabia’s decision to let women drive

Some believe the gesture was meant to draw attention from a growing crisis in Yemen. Others claim a victory for Saudi feminists is being ignored.

Aziza Yousef drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving.  CREDIT: AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File
Aziza Yousef drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. CREDIT: AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File

As Saudi Arabia welcomes praise from human rights advocates over a decision to finally let women in the country drive, Saudi officials are simultaneously issuing threats over a proposed U.N. probe in Yemen.

In an royal decree issued Tuesday, King Salman announced that women seeking drivers’ licenses would be allowed to finally access them. Saudi Arabia’s new ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, hailed the decision. “I think our leadership understands our society is ready,” he said. Officials stated that the change in driving rules would take place in June 2018.

Saudi women have widely expressed excitement over the change, a cause for which feminists across the country have long been fighting.

“It is amazing,” Saudi university professor Fawziah al-Bakr told the New York Times. Al-Bakr, who participated in a 1990 protest against the female driving ban, told the publication the moment was a huge victory.


“Since [that protest], Saudi women have been asking for the right to drive, and finally it arrived,” she said. “We have been waiting for a very long time.”

U.S. officials also embraced the news, with State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert calling the move “a great step in the right direction for the country.”

But others argue Saudi Arabia is receiving too much credit, in no small part because allowing women to drive is only a one incremental step towards equality. Women in the conservative country are still subject to a strict dress code, as well as to “guardianship” laws which hinder their ability to work, travel, receive medical treatment, and more without the consent of a male figure — typically a father, husband, or son. That point of contention is one a number of Saudi feminists have raised online, including Manal al-Sharif, who praised the policy shift on Twitter, before indicating that fighting other misogynistic policies would now become priority.

“#Women2Drive done,” she wrote. “#IAmMyOwnGuardian in progress.”

Failure to achieve full rights for women isn’t the only issue spurring activists on.

Saudi Arabia has been one of the main actors driving a devastating war in Yemen since 2014, one which has notably been backed by U.S. funding and support. That war has made life in Yemen — the poorest country in the region — even more untenable. Thousands of people have been killed, with many more in a precarious and dangerous position: a cholera outbreak has already infected 700,000 people, and things are about to be made worse by looming famine, which could impact upwards of 7 million Yemenis. Approximately 80 percent of children are also in need of aid.


Saudi Arabia has come under fire from human rights organizations, as well as the United Nations, over its actions in Yemen. But numerous attempts to hold the kingdom accountable for its role in driving the conflict have been met with extreme resistance from the Saudi government, which holds considerable sway with western powers like the United States. Last year, the kingdom successfully had its name removed from a U.N. list of countries responsible for killing and harming children in war time. That lobbying is part of a larger effort by Saudi Arabia to distance itself from wrongdoing — efforts to establish an independent probe in Yemen were also effectively quashed two years ago.

Saudi officials have pushed instead for international monitors to work with Yemen’s officials to carry out a probe, something human rights group have rejected, noting that Yemen’s national commission receives Saudi funding and lacks access to key parts of the country. But with a vote from the U.N. Human Rights Council on an independent probe expected this week, the kingdom has become even more aggressive in its efforts, seeking to block a Dutch-Canadian resolution that would document human rights abuses in Yemen.

“Adopting the Netherlands/Canadian draft resolution in the Human Rights Council may negatively affect the bilateral political and economic relations with Saudi Arabia,” a letter sent by the kingdom to several unnamed Western countries read. The letter noted that the kingdom “will not accept” the resolution’s passage and emphasized the “importance of adopting a unified stance to face the conflict in Yemen.”

It is unclear whether Saudi threats over the vote are even necessary — the United States, a chief ally, has declined to take a side, and past attempts have been derailed due to Saudi lobbying and pressure.

With the kingdom already notorious for its ability to garner Western support, some have argued that the timing of the Saudi Arabia’s female-driver announcement is simply another tactic meant to curry favor and put off U.N. action.

“Saudi Arabia announces it may allow women to drive, in a PR distraction two days before UN vote on Saudi atrocities in Yemen,” foreign policy analyst Rula Jebreal wrote on Twitter.

In a piece for the Independent, Middle East Correspondent Robert Fisk similarly argued that the move was little more than an effort to distract from other human rights abuses.


“Saudi women will be able to drive for the first time in the history of the kingdom. And the act begat the headlines and the headlines begat a tweet from the President of the United States who himself begat a $110bn arms contract with the Saudis three months ago,” Fisk wrote, referencing a major weapons sale overseen by President Donald Trump. “And so it came to pass. For 24 hours, the world was told about the lifting of the driving ban rather than the chopping-off of heads, the arrest of human rights activists and the horrific war in Yemen.”

Egyptian-American journalist and commentator Mona Eltahawy, however, argued that there was a fine balance: government efforts to avoid accountability for war crimes in Yemen could be called out alongside praise for Saudi feminists’ hard-won victory.

“1. Condemn the #Saudi regime for its crimes, incl misogyny,” Eltahawy tweeted.
“2. Support Saudi feminists who risk all for rights.”

“It’s really important to stop diminishing the decades-long efforts by #Saudi feminists by calling any victory they achieve a ‘distraction,'” she continued. “[Saudi women] didn’t suddenly wake up yesterday & say ‘OMG,yes of course I should have the right to drive so that the world can forget Yemen.”‘