Women take the wheel in Saudi Arabia: Are social and economic reforms possible?

Saudi Arabia ended its status as the last nation to prohibit women from taking the wheel, move which should have a great positive impact in the desert kingdom’s economy

Women take the wheel in Saudi Arabia: Are social and economic reforms possible?
Majdooleen, who is among the first Saudi women allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia drives her car in her neighborhood in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Photo: Faisal Al Nasser/REUTERS
English 27/06/2018 17:14 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 15:33
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Last Sunday, Saudi Arabia concluded its position as the last nation to prohibit women from taking the wheel—at the start of the working week in Muslim countries—, a move which should have a great positive impact in the desert kingdom’s economy being part of the ambitious Agenda 2030 enacted by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

In the context of a highly oil-dependent economy—70% of total revenues are from hydrocarbons exports—and low oil prices, allowing women to drive could help Riyadh reap as much income as selling shares in Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, according to local and International Monetary Fund (IMF) analyses.

The end of the ban, in itself a reminder of the long-delayed reforms in the conservative Saudi society, could add as much as USD $90 billion to economic output by 2030, with the benefits extending beyond that date, while the plans to sell a 5% stake in Saudi Aramco in 2019 could generate about USD $100 billion.

Being one of the affluent Persian Gulf monarchies, 87.2% of Saudi families have private chauffeurs.

A foreign house-driver is paid a minimum of Saudi Riyals (SR12,000 (nearly USD $3,200) per year in addition to food and accommodation provided by their sponsors, thus 1.3 million foreign drivers will be forced to leave the country and SR $33 billion (USD $8,800 billion) will come back to the economy.

Lifting the ban on driving could increase the number of women seeking jobs, boosting the workforce, and lifting overall incomes and output.

With only 20% of females economically active, Saudi Arabia even lags behind its neighbors in the Gulf, where participation averaged 42% in 2016.

Adding one percentage point to the participation rate every year might add about 70,000 more women to the labor market, and increase the economic growth by 0.9 percentage points.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, is expected to record a 1.8% in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) thanks to expansion in the non-oil sector this year after overall economic growth contracted in 2017.

The country’s economy slowed down in the last three years due to a slump in oil prices that fell more than half from the mid-2014 high of USD $115 a barrel.

Feudal traditions

Since his emergence as the real power in the Saud dynasty last year, Mohammad bin Salman, 32, also known as MbS, has been trying to modernize his nation, where feudal-style traditions and a strict social and religious code emanated from the Wahhabi Islamic sect are the norm.

Continuing the gradual reforms promoted by his ailing father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saudwomen were granted the right to vote and run for office in 2015—MbS has understood the need for change in a complex economic, political, and international environment.

His own consolidation of power came as a result of rule-breaking. He was appointed Crown Prince after King Salman’s decision to depose his nephew, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef and relieve him of all positions.

Hailed by the Western press as a “liberal reformer”, MbS then launched a purge of all potential competitors and Prince Nayef allies incarcerating 500 people in the Ritz Carlton hotel of Riyadh under charges of corruption, in order to extract up to USD $800 billion in assets from them.

In the global arena, MbS, also First Deputy Prime Minister, President of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, and Minister of Defense, has made no secret of his alliance with Israel and the United States against the growing regional influence of Iran.

He supported the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al Assad using jihadists from the Islamic State and Al Qaeda labeled as “moderate rebels”, and is behind the invasion of Yemen that has unleashed the worst international humanitarian crisis.

Facing economic problems—the country’s foreign reserves dropped from USD $730 billion in 2014 to USD $487 billion in 2017—the government cut public expenditure, imposed a value-added tax and tightened restrictions on foreign workers who constitute about 12 million of the country’s 33 million population (66.7% of Saudis have maids) in a bid to reduce unemployment among Saudi nationals, which is closer to 29%.

Thanks to MbS, Saudi Arabia’s first cinema in 35 years was opened in April in Riyadh and a sports stadium admit women for the first time.

However, two more women’s rights activists were arrested just weeks ahead of the much-anticipated lifting of the driving ban and the authorities have placed travel bans on numerous others since May.

The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have documented Saudi Arabia’s use of its Specialized Criminal Court and counterterrorism law to unjustly prosecute human rights defenders, writers, and peaceful critics.

If the young Saudi ruler is to live up to the expectations generated by his reformist program and go beyond a mere economic modernization from top to bottom, serious challenges ahead include the instigation of religious hate in primary schools, the prohibition for women to leave the home alone, open a bank account and get a fair trial; the prosecution of women for sorcery and the widespread use of torture, coerced confessions and corporal punishment, ranging from flogging to the death penalty by stoning and decapitation.

The country performed at least 130 executions in 2017 and so far this year (until April) 48 people were executed, half of them for nonviolent drug offenses.

Edited by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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