Saudi Arabia took another step towards modernity with the lifting of its ban on women driving. There was joy all over as women took to the streets in their cars at midnight in the conservative kingdom even as Formula One put out a special parade in Paris with a Saudi woman driving an F1 car before Sunday’s race. The lifting of the world’s last remaining ban on women driving is a transformative moment for Saudi women, whose rights are abridged by the arbitrary authority of husbands or male kin. However, it’s feared a backlash could see still more action against the original activists from early in this decade who demanded the women’s right to drive.
Saudi Arabia is just recovering from the crackdown on princes by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is committed to a more moderate Islam in a society dominated by the harsher Wahhabism strain. He has opened cinemas and permitted mixed-gender concerts too while trying to steer his kingdom away from total dependence on oil for revenue. The modernisation drive comes even as rulers keep an iron hand on society in gestures like action on activists. The Crown Prince may wish to be seen as the most powerful driver of change even as he placates the conservative clergy. A caution to people not to stalk women drivers and action promised against sexual harassment are also pointers to some progress in this male-dominated society. However, nothing is likely to change in the region’s hardcore geopolitics in the kingdom’s opposition to Iran, its role in the Yemen war and other stands on regional issues like Qatar.