A Saudi woman gets out of her car after driving.
A woman in Riyadh drives her car in 2011 in defiance of the government ban. Fahad Shadeed/Reuters

It’s not just about women’s rights.

Earlier this year, Hatoon Al-Fassi, a Saudi academic who teaches at Qatar University, told CityLab that for over a quarter of a century, Saudi women activists fighting for the right to drive had heard the occasional rumor that they would be granted licenses. Though the rumors had always come to naught, Al-Fassi believed that change would come—sooner rather than later. “It could happen at anytime,” she said.

This week, it did. On Tuesday, King Salman issued a royal decree allowing women to obtain driver’s licenses. Social media erupted. Manal Al-Sharif, an activist who was jailed in 2011 for posting a YouTube video of herself driving, posed behind the wheel of her car in a celebratory Twitter photo.

Others used the announcement to point out that the Saudi government still had a lot of other repressive stuff to answer for, including the recent crackdown on clerics, intellectuals, and scholars.

Still others saw a business opportunity. Car companies, anticipating a market both new and wealthy, immediately began blanketing Twitter with advertisements directed at Saudi women.

The law goes into effect immediately, but a committee will present recommendations for its implementation in the next 30 days. A variety of issues will need ironing out, such as whether women will be allowed to be professional drivers. The government then has until June 2018 to carry out the directives.

The law will particularly benefit urban residents—rural women in the kingdom often drive anyway, despite their lack of a license. It’s women in the cities who generally depend on rides from male relatives or hire foreign workers to drive their cars.

Of course, the decree would put many of these foreign drivers out of a job. That’s no accident: The kingdom has been moving toward the “Saudization” of its workforce for years, in an attempt to decrease its dependence on foreign workers, many from South and Southeast Asia.

This foreign labor force constitutes about a third of the population, and they mainly work in the private sector, while Saudi nationals generally enjoy better-paid government jobs. Saudi leaders have been looking to bring more Saudis—men as well as women—into the private sector in order to lessen nationals’ dependence on costly government subsidies and decrease the need for foreign workers, who dispatch much of the money they earn to their home countries—thus sending it out of the kingdom. Allowing women to drive will facilitate their employment and, ideally, replacement of these workers, both as drivers and in other jobs.

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (King Salman’s son) is credited with putting these desired changes on a faster track through “Vision 2030,” a plan he launched in 2016 to diversify the country’s economy away from oil, which is currently the source of about 75 percent of government revenue.

“Gender segregation is costly,” says Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C. “As Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil becomes untenable, the kingdom will need a more productive workforce—and that includes women.”

Analysts are pointing to this economic impetus, rather than a desire to improve women’s rights, as the principal reason behind the change. “It was not external pressure, but the domestic discussion … that allowed for an organic change in Saudi society and led to this landmark decision,” wrote Saudi Arabian journalist Sabria Jawhar in the Huffington Post. “And that time is now because it makes economic sense.”

Diwan notes this shouldn’t detract from the advancement the decree represents for Saudi women and the activists who fought for the right. “All suffered for their actions by being socially ostracized, losing their government jobs, and in some cases facing imprisonment,” she says.

Many more hurdles for women remain, however. Though earlier this year the king issued a decree relaxing the enforcement of Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system—which gives a woman’s father, brother, husband, or even son the power to make decisions for her—men still have the final word on, say, whether a woman travels outside the country or gets married. (Their permission will not be required for a driver’s license.)  

Diwan says Saudi women activists have been campaigning for a full year to repeal this system. “Though the driving decree is a big step forward, other restrictions exist and the informal barriers from society are formidable,” she says.

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