What Would Self-Driving Cars Mean for Women in Saudi Arabia?

Not very much—because technological progress doesn’t inherently lead to social progress.

A Saudi woman and her children get into a taxi in Riyadh on June 14, 2011, three days before a June 17 nationwide campaign by Saudi women who are planning to take the wheel in protest against a driving ban which is unique to the kingdom that applies a strict version of Sunni Islam.
A Saudi woman and her children get into a taxi in Riyadh days before a June 2011 nationwide campaign by Saudi women protesting the driving ban.

Fayez Nureldine/Getty Images

The sun in Saudi Arabia is relentless yet suffuse, hot rays suspended in a chalky ambience of dust. A few years ago I stood in this familiar heat, my skin prickling with sweat beneath my black abaya as I scanned an avenue snarled with Jeddah traffic. Glossy SUVs, grimy taxicabs, and battered pickups wove crooked rows—far outnumbering the allotted lanes—as the air above them curdled with engine fumes. The drivers of these vehicles were exclusively male, a few of them casting lurid or bewildered glances in my direction as they passed. I knew I was a peculiar figure: female, blonde hair slipping from beneath a loose scarf, with no male guardian in sight. I was relieved when I spotted my ride approaching: a black sedan with a bearded driver at the wheel and a young, abaya-clad woman in the back. I stepped closer to the curb and heard the click of unlocking doors. With a rustle of my robes, I slipped into the car.

I was carpooling to a meeting by hitching a ride with an acquaintance whose route happened to pass near my home. Yet, the arrangement was far from straightforward. Our event would not begin until evening, and I would have to accompany my friend home and loiter for several awkward hours before her private driver dispatched us to the meeting. Along the way, we’d drop off her brother at a friend’s villa, adding at least 30 minutes to our commute each way. Cumbersome as all this would be, I felt lucky to have found a ride at all. Women in Saudi Arabia are unable to drive, and that evening my father—the only male of legal age in our family—was working late. My family considered taxis both costly and unsafe, and during the five years I spent living in Saudi Arabia’s coastal city of Jeddah, I was often left with only two options: stay at home or beg a ride from a friend who employed a chauffeur. Losing several hours of my afternoon seemed a small price to pay for mobility.

The degradation of women in the kingdom is, like the Saudi sun, pervasive and unyielding. In 2015, the World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia 134th out of 145 nations for gender equality, with women trailing men in virtually every political, social, and economic metric. Yet, among the myriad of discriminatory policies in Saudi Arabia, few are as iconic or emotionally charged as the driving ban. Despite being the only country in the world with such a policy, Saudi Arabia has been resistant to activists calling for reform, responding harshly to protests and repeatedly affirming the ban on female drivers.

Aside from its symbolic weight, the driving ban has significant socioeconomic effects on women as well. Although the majority of college graduates in Saudi are women, their lack of mobility contributes to an unemployment rate that is five times higher among females than males, topping 34 percent in 2014. For women who do land jobs, working around the ban is an essential but costly endeavor. Many professional women, like Haifa al-Harbi, rely on full-time drivers to get to and from the office. Al-Harbi, a 32-year-old recruitment specialist living in Jeddah, is thankful to have a job, but says maintaining her driver—a middle-age migrant worker from India—costs about 20 percent of her monthly salary. (She has to pay him a salary plus cover his room and board.) Her sister also shells out hundreds of dollars each month for a shuttle service to her college campus. “We have different schedules, so we can’t even share the driver,” says al-Harbi. “It’s very frustrating to always depend on men to drive us.”

For many others, paying for a driver is out of the question. Mysoon S., a 43-year-old single mother of eight, also lives in Jeddah, where she subsists on a $250 monthly government stipend and occasional contributions from relatives. Mysoon, bankrupt after a lengthy battle to divorce an abusive husband, can rarely afford taxis and says services like Uber are prohibitively expensive. As a result, she seldom leaves home apart from grocery shopping and parent-teacher meetings, relying on her brothers to drive her for these essential trips. “It’s difficult to find a time that they are available,” she says. “The whole thing is very tiring.”

Critics have accused Saudi Arabia of being medieval in its restrictive social codes, but the kingdom has a hearty, if selective, appetite for modern luxuries. While traditional Bedouin culture persists in many rural areas, Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth has bolstered an urban class of ostentatious spenders, sparking an explosion in smartphone use, broadband internet, and social media engagement. Much of this new money has been channeled toward Silicon Valley, with Saudi investors buying stakes in American tech companies and sponsoring domestic research to emulate Western products. As the buzz over Google’s driverless car technology swept the news cycle in 2015 and early 2016, Saudi officials were eager to jump onboard, announcing plans to accommodate autonomous cars in future infrastructure.

There are reasons driverless cars could appeal to Saudi society—not least of which is a cultural penchant for luxury vehicles. The dual appeal of technological novelty and convenience could draw Saudi’s wealthier consumers once such technology becomes commercial. Implementation would be a challenge in a country notorious for its dysfunctional roads, but if existing data holds true, and the vehicles could cope with the particularly erratic driving of Saudi streets, autonomous cars could decrease traffic casualties and alleviate grievous parking shortages.

To these speculations, some have added another hypothesis: Driverless cars could offer Saudi women a technological loophole in the driving ban. Perhaps, say the optimists, a vehicle requiring no driver—male or female—will allow women the mobility they’ve craved for so long.

Picture me shrugging my black-shrouded shoulders as I reply: I doubt it.

While it’s easy to conflate technological advances with modernity, Saudi Arabia has shown an incredible knack for mitigating progress to maintain existing social structures. A case in point: In 2012, as cellular coverage exploded in the kingdom, the Saudi government rolled out a text-messaging system that alerted Saudi men whenever females under their care left the country. It is likewise easy to imagine how Saudi authorities could adapt driverless technology to suit their commitment to “protect” and surveil women, from video chaperone systems to GPS tracking.

The roots of this obsessive restriction of women run deep. Saudi gender codes are based on a particularly harsh interpretation of the Islamic principle of “guardianship,” which render women “perpetual minors” under the supervision of male “guardians” for life. Women must request permission from their guardians—usually a male relative or husband—in order to travel, work, access higher education, and even seek certain medical procedures. The result of this dualistic mindset is a society segregated to its core with separate (and unequal) domains of social, political, and material access for the respective genders. As long as these underpinnings of gender inequality remain unaddressed, even the most cutting-edge technology will do little to advance the position of Saudi women—on the roads or elsewhere.

It is the Saudi government’s ability to digest its own contradictions that makes it so intransigent. The kingdom is rife with jarring contrasts: In a country where public beheadings are still a routine practice, there are also 8 million Facebook users and one of the fastest-growing Twitter markets in the world. Through this newfound digital access, women have had their virtual horizons expand to global proportions, even as they are subject to relentless physical constraints.

Similarly, Western-imported luxuries like Uber present complex debates about “progress.” Although such services offer short-term convenience, these “developments” are poor substitutes for reform. What’s more, while some touted Uber as a solution to women’s immobility in Saudi Arabia, others have objected to the company’s profiting off of discriminatory laws. This is a valid contention, considering Uber has reported 80 percent of its Saudi clientele is female. The issue reached a head when the kingdom moved to make a $3.5 billion investment in Uber earlier in June, prompting activists to call for a boycott of the company’s services in Saudi Arabia. Critics accused the company and its Saudi partners of making “cash cows” out of a captive female market, reiterating that women need better laws—not better taxis.

A similar dilemma applies to the question driverless cars. Elaborate, expensive new vehicles would not challenge the Saudi guardianship system’s fundamental logic. The key to transforming women’s position in Saudi Arabia lies not in gadgets or apps but in an overhaul of the Kingdom’s social infrastructure. Manal al-Sharif, a leader among Saudi women calling for reform, reiterated this point to a TED Talk audience in 2013, saying the real obstacle to women’s equality is the country’s “oppressive society.” As she points out, generations have grown up without female drivers, and entrenched mindsets among both men and women stand in the way of real transformation.

Technology is neither inherently political nor is it a guarantor of social progress. Autonomous vehicles will do little to advance women’s own autonomy if not accompanied by reform, but new waves of online activism have offered dissidents new platforms for engaging social discourse. With the help of this new “digital mobility,” women like al-Sharif, Mysoon, and al-Harbi may succeed in moving their society in more equitable directions, paving the way for a future where technology—from smartphones to smart cars—will offer equal empowerment across gender lines. Until such a cultural shift takes place, however, women in Saudi Arabia are likely to remain marooned on the proverbial street corner, forever waiting for a ride.

Update, June 23, 2016: This piece was updated to protect the safety of one of its subjects.

This article is part of the self-driving cars installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through June 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on self-driving cars:

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