Economic necessity, not external pressure, prompts Saudis to lift women driving ban

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Saudi Arabia's historic decision to lift the ban on women driving in the Kingdom has many Saudis and foreign activists tripping over themselves to claim credit for the move.

The claim goes something like this: The international community and Saudi opposition leaders in London and Washington, D.C. put immense pressure on Saudi authorities to lift the ban. By rallying Saudi female activists to raise international condemnation of the Kingdom's human rights practices, the government was left with no choice but to give women the right to drive cars.

Absent from any meaningful analysis of Saudi Arabia's motives is the economic implication of dropping the ban. For better or for worse, Saudi Arabia has a long and entrenched reputation of ignoring foreign critics and opposition activists living abroad. The best example is its never wavering position on how it interprets Islam and how that interpretation is practiced by Saudis and the expatriate community in the Kingdom. It’s difficult to imagine that external pressure to lift the driving ban would have any impact on government decision-making.

Saudi activists deserve credit for raising awareness and sparking discussion, but that credit goes to the women who stated a driving protest in Riyadh in 1990. Those courageous women, and the female activists who followed, opened the door to debating the issue of women driving. That door, despite numerous setbacks over nearly three decades, has never been shut. Yet Saudi Arabia's critics fail to take into account that discussing the issue served as a trial balloon to determine whether Saudi society is ready for women to drive. It took 27 years to take measure of our society's attitude. Obviously the government and the Saudi people took their time to determine when it was appropriate for women to drive according to our customs and traditions. It was not external pressure, but the domestic discussion that evolved since 1990 that allowed for an organic change in Saudi society and led to this landmark decision.

And that time is now because it makes economic sense. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has made it clear that he wants to reduce the number of expatriates -- numbering about 11.7 million today -- working and living Saudi Arabia. A new policy implemented July 1 raising fees to renew residency permits that will reach $106 per month by 2020 already has many expats reconsidering living in the Kingdom. Banque Saudi Fransi recently reported that 670,000 foreign workers are expected to return to their native countries by 2020.

In 2015, a total of $40.5 billion were transferred by foreign workers to their home countries. From an economic point of view the negatives of remittances leaving the country far outweigh the positives of foreign workers in the Kingdom. If Saudi Vision 2030 is to be successful, the key to that success lies in female employment. Women returning from foreign universities armed with graduate and post-graduate degrees need jobs. Women with limited education seek employment in the blue-collar sector. But opportunities are limited without the means of transportation, especially since public transport is substandard.

Many Saudi women -- and that includes me -- have complained that our salaries are eaten by paying up to $500 a month to foreign drivers, which provides little economic incentive to seek employment. Further, drivers have been increasingly bold in price gouging because they know that Saudi women have few transportation choices. Female passengers are also exposed to sexual harassment, sexual assault, theft and robbery with drivers often identified as the attacker.

Simply, it makes economic sense for women, not to mention strengthen the nation's economy, to be employed and to drive to their jobs. According to the International Labour Organization only 20 percent of the adult Saudi women were employed in the Kingdom, lagging far behind their GCC counterparts with 40 percent of Gulf women in the workforce.

The knock against Saudi Arabia now is that it lifted the ban as a public relations ploy to improve its international standing. No reasonable person would fault a government to initiate a campaign to burnish its image, but ending the driving ban was not a knee-jerk reaction to criticism that Saudi Arabia is oppressing women. Rather, it's an organic move that follows a series of changes in the public and private sector that give women greater participation in Saudi society. Rapid changes in women gaining a foothold in the public sphere are evident with appointments of women to the Shoura Council, the Kingdom's advisory body. Female executives have been named to important positions in the Saudi stock exchange, the right to work without the permission of a male guardian and the tens of thousands of women now working in the retail sector are also examples of natural shifts in Saudi society. Lifting the driving ban is the natural next step with the end of male guardianship to allow women to travel freely on the horizon.