Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has issued a decree allowing women to drive for the first time. This is big news in a traditionally conservative Kingdom.
“It’s a very significant development,” said Raj Bhala, the Brennesein Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas Law School, and a Senior Advisor at Dentons. “What it means, first, in the most technical way, is that the Saudi government will start issuing driver’s licenses to women in June of 2018. Technically, they were allowed to drive, but the government was not issuing the licenses, so, in fact, they could not drive.”
This is significant because it reflects a change in the way the Saudi government interprets Islamic law.
“The view inside the Kingdom, unique to all other countries in the Islamic world, was that the general duty that women have in Islamic law of obedience to their male guardian meant, under the Saudi interpretation, that women were not free to leave the home, much less the country, without the permission of their male guardian and in most cases they had to be accompanied by their male guardian.”
This issue has been in the forefront for quite some time.
“After much debate and dissent from women, starting around 1990, the Saudi government is distancing itself from that perspective,” Bhala said. “They’re saying no, women are free to leave the home without the permission of the male guardian and without having to be accompanied by the male guardian and can drive freely anywhere they want in the Kingdom.”
So, why should Americans care about the developments in Saudi Arabia?
“One reason to care is the sheer human rights,” said Bhala. “As we know, women’s rights are human rights. From a sheer human rights perspective, it’s important to care. Another reason to care is economic. There are a number of economic implications. First of all, somewhere on the order of 800,000 chauffeur drivers who have been coming into the Kingdom from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, etc., will probably be sent back to their home countries. They will lose their jobs.”
That’s going to be a major reabsorption into their home economies of those drivers who had been sending money home from the Gulf.
“Inside the Kingdom, it’s going to make all sorts of economic activity,” said Bhala. “Retailing, restaurants, all sorts of travel and tourism. It’s going to open it up within the domestic market. It’s not just going to be something that men plan and men do. Women can go out and do it on their own.”
In addition, there are the typical things that mothers in the U.S. do as a matter of course.
“They’re going to be able to take their kids to school on their own, to pick them up, to drop them off, to take them to educational programs outside of school, to go to sporting events,” said Bhala. “Their life is much more normalized, as you would expect. Those will have their own economic implications.”
One way this could help economically is in bringing top talent to the Kingdom from throughout the world.
“A lawyer or a media person or an engineer, say from Kansas City, wanting to bring their family with them for a year, two year long stint of service, of work in the Kingdom, it’s a lot easier now. It had been very hard for the Kingdom to recruit top notch talent worldwide when the spouses or women workers could not actually freely move about.”
Bhala said this should allow the Kingdom to implement their Vision 2030, their goal to modernize and diversify their economy. It should be much easier without that restriction on talent.
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