King of the Road

Why is King Abdullah willing to let Saudi women vote but not drive cars?

A Saudi woman

King Abdullah announced on Sunday that Saudi women will be allowed to vote and run for office in municipal elections beginning in 2015. Saudi watchers view the move as a weaker step than allowing women to drive, a right women have been demanding publicly for more than two decades. Why did Saudi women find it easier to get the vote than a driver’s license?

Because the right to vote is meaningless. Elections are mostly symbolic in Saudi Arabia. Only half of the seats on the municipal councils are up for election, while the ruling al-Saud family appoints the other half of the members and the mayors. The councils have little power. The government reserves the right to postpone elections, as it did in 2009. There’s no guarantee that the 2015 elections, in which women are supposed to participate, will happen on time, or at all. Moreover, King Abdullah’s announcement doesn’t carry the force of law. He could change his mind at any time. Or, if the 87-year-old king isn’t around in 2015, his successor could easily go back on Abdullah’s promise to Saudi women.

While voting in municipal elections is hardly a move toward true political authority, Saudi conservatives view female driving as the first practical step away from the kingdom’s guardian system, which keeps women reliant on men. As things stand, women in Saudi cities can’t get around unless they can afford a driver or have a male family member who’s willing to chauffeur them. (Young men with many sisters have it tough in the kingdom.) Public buses have separate doors and seating areas for women, but they are slow and unreliable. Some women are afraid to ride in taxis because there have been reports of inappropriate comments by Saudi drivers. (Foreign-born drivers don’t have the same reputation, because the Saudi criminal justice system has treated immigrants brutally.)

Allowing women to drive could upset family customs as well. It’s difficult for Saudi young people to find a mate without the help of their family. Young men have been known to toss their phone numbers—or even whole cellphones—through the open windows of nearby cars in a desperate attempt to communicate with fetching strangers. Social conservatives fear that, if women were allowed to drive alone, a Western-style dating scene would emerge. Worse still, driving might enable women to organize politically, a tactic that has so far eluded them.

The right to drive would also encourage millions of women who don’t currently work to start job-hunting. Over the long run, that would be good for the country’s economy. But, right now, there aren’t enough jobs for the men. None of this is to say that King Abdullah’s announcement is disingenuous. Many Saudi women think he’s on their side, but his reformist instincts have been stymied by the conservatives who surround him.

The king, in addition to opening municipal elections to women, announced on Sunday that he would soon appoint women to the Shura council, which, in 2005, discussed the issue of female drivers. They debated whether it was consistent with Islamic law, and even batted around some practical issues. They considered allowing only women over 35 to drive, limiting female drivers to daylight hours, and banning the practice outside of city limits. (In fact, many women already drive in rural areas of the country, where police intervention is rare.) The council even suggested raising a force of female traffic cops, so woman drivers wouldn’t have to interact with male officers. Even though the 150-member council is merely advisory, the discussion upset conservatives. When the Shura council considered women’s transportation issues in 2011, no one suggested licensing women to drive. The king’s move may be an attempt to revive those discussions inside the council.

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Explainer thanks Ali Alyami of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, Kay Hardy Campbell, author of the blog Saudi Women Driving, Philip Luther of Amnesty International, and Christoph Wilcke of Human Rights Watch.