Saudi Bargain of Governance

Andrew Hammond:

The forlorn hope that the Saudi ruling family would budge on this issue reveals some misunderstandings – which can be attributed to wishful thinking – about the way the system works. Governance in the country is first and foremost a bargain between the al-Saud family and the religious scholars, or ulama. There are other bargains, such as that with the Hejazi commercial elite, which was replaced by a Najdi elite after the oil boom of the 1970s; but the key alliance for ensuring the social and political peace that al-Saud needs to maintain its rule is that with the ulama.

Saudi Women Continue Push to Lift Driving Ban

Campaigners for women driving in Saudi Arabia continue their push for lifting the decades old ban despite mixed reactions to a planned day of protest that fell exactly two weeks ago.

If you ask supporters of the campaign, they will tell you that October 26 was a success. The story dominated the headlines for days and some women drove despite the government warning. Women will keep on driving, they say.

If you ask opponents of the campaign, they will tell you that it was a failure. The campaign prompted the government to come out with a strong statement reaffirming the longstanding ban. The number of women who drove was embarrassingly small, they say.

Probably the most interesting outcome of the campaign was the decision of the Ministry of Interior to take a clear position on the matter. After years of vague statements by Saudi officials who emphasized that driving is a social issue and laws in the country do not ban it, spokesman Mansour al-Turki was forced to explicitly announce that they do not allow women to drive.

“It is known that women in Saudi are banned from driving and laws will be applied against violators and those who demonstrate in support,” he told AFP on October 24.

The Interior Ministry also placed phone calls to leading women activists warning them against getting behind the wheel, a warning that was not enough to deter some of them who went ahead and drove anyway. Columnist Tariq Almubarak, a male supporter of women driving, was detained for a week as authorities investigated his links to the campaign.

While the government now-explicit ban may have caused dejection to some activists, it can also be seen as a gain for the cause. Saudi officials can no longer deflect the blame for the driving ban to society when the Ministry of Interior made it clear that they are responsible for enforcing the ban. Campaigners are likely now to focus their effort on changing the government’s position instead of spending time trying to convince observers that society is not against lifting the ban.

This has already started. Several women have tried to send cables to King Abdullah about driving. However, that effort again appears to be hindered by the Ministry of Interior. In one audio recording obtained by Riyadh Bureau, a woman who wants the driving ban lifted is told her message cannot be delivered to the King.

“We have received instructions not to deliver cables on this matter,” the man on the line told the female caller. When she asked why, he replied: “a directive from the Ministry of Interior.”

The demand to end the ban was also included in a petition signed by 14 women rights activists and sent this week to the female members of the Shoura Council, an advisory body that serves as a quasi-parliament. All members of the Council are appointed by the King. The activists asked the councilwomen to tackle issues like male guardianship and discrimination.

“It is clear that women suffer from injustice and subjugation due to the absence of laws that protect them and give them their rights,” the petition said. “In some cases, written and documented laws reinforce discrimination against women which send them to the dark ages.”

The female members of the Shoura Council remain careful about pushing women issues in the chamber that was a men-only club until the beginning of this year. Earlier last month 3 councilwomen introduced a recommendation to lift the ban on women driving, but they stressed at the time that this has nothing to do with the campaign started by activists.

Meanwhile, some activists continue to drive in different cities around the Kingdom in the hope that this would normalize the act and make government and society accept it as a reality. A video uploaded to YouTube on Saturday showed a lady named Azzah al-Shamasi smiling as she drove on some side streets in the capital Riyadh to the tunes of a nationalistic song.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. While international human rights organizations have urged the government to lift the ban, authorities do not appear under high pressure take that step. Speaking in Riyadh earlier this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry said they have no intention to push their Gulf ally on that issue.

“It’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure choices and timing for whatever events,” he said.

Saudi Government Reaffirms Women Driving Ban

Saudi Arabia warned that it will take measures against women who plan to defy the driving ban on October 26 after activists called on women to get behind the wheel.

Following confusion after a statement that was published on Wednesday, Ministry of Interior spokesman Mansour al-Turki told several media outlets today that women driving is banned.

“It is known that women in Saudi are banned from driving and laws will be applied against violators and those who demonstrate in support” he said according to AFP.

This was the first time for the government to say explicitly that women driving is banned. Saudi official used to say in the past that women driving is a social matter and that laws in the kingdom do not ban it.

Activists also said that they have received phone calls on Thursday from another ministry official warning them against driving.

“My wife has received on her cellphone a call from the Interior Minister’s office warning her against driving tomorrow and that if she does they will enforce the laws against her,” activist Waleed Abu Alkhair said on Twitter.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International called on the Saudi government to respect the right of women to drive.

Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the organization, said in a statement “it is astonishing that in the 21st century the Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny women the right to legally drive a car.”

“The driving ban is inherently discriminatory and demeaning to women and must be overturned immediately,” he said.

Saudi Interior Ministry Issues Warning Ahead of Women Driving Day

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior warned against “disturbing the public peace” ahead of a campaign organized by women activists to defy the ban on driving on October 26.

The statement released Wednesday and carried by the state news agency reads in full:

The security spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior issued a statement on rumors exchanged over social networks and some media outlets calling for congregations and marches against an alleged day of female driving. The laws of the Kingdom prohibit activities disturbing the public peace and opening venues to sedition which only serve the senseless, the ill-intentioned, intruders, and opportunity hunters, the statement said. The Ministry of Interior assures all, the statement added, the concerned bodies will fully and firmly enforce the laws against violators. At the same time, the Ministry values what many citizens have voiced concerning for the importance of keeping the peace, stability, and avoidance of what leads to disunity and stratification of society.

The vaguely worded statement appeared to have given both sides on the women driving debate a reason to celebrate.

On social media, opponents of the campaign tweeted under the hashtag “MOI statement represents me,” saying the statement sends a clear message against the calls for driving. Meanwhile, supporters of female driving said the statement is on their side as it does not explicitly say that it is banned for women to get behind the wheel.

To add to the confusion, the original Arabic text of the statement and its English translation seemed to say contradictory things. In the Arabic version, the Interior Ministry refers to “congregations and marches under the pretext of an alleged day of female driving.” The English translation published by the Saudi Press Agency that appears above says “congregations and marches against an alleged day of female driving.”

The statement by MOI comes only few hours after 150 conservative clerics went to the Royal Court to express their objection to what they called “Westernization” and “the conspiracy of women driving.”

There is no law that bans female driving, but authorities do not issue licenses to women. In recent weeks, several women have been driving their cars in different cities around the kingdom and publishing videos of themselves as they drove in support of the October 26 campaign. No arrests have been made.

Saudi Clerics Protest Women Driving at the Royal Court

A group of more than 100 conservative Saudi clerics gathered Tuesday at the Royal Court in Riyadh to protest against what they called “the conspiracy of women driving.”

“The clerics came from around the Kingdom to meet the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and officials to indicate the serious risk facing the country,” Sheikh Nasser al-Omar said in a video uploaded to YouTube.

The King and most senior officials remain in Jeddah, but photos posted on social media appeared to show that the clerics were allowed inside the Royal Court.

Saudi clerics have held similar protests earlier this year after the King announced appointing 30 women to the advisory Shoura Council. Before that clerics also swarmed the Ministry of Labor over women employment in retail stores, warning Minister Adel Fakieh that they would pray to God to give him cancer if he does not reverse that policy.

But unlike previous protests, this latest visit to the Royal Court on Tuesday features some prominent names like al-Omar who is known to be a staunch opponent to any changes that cleric perceive as threatening to the Kingdom’s conservative principles. The visit also comes few days before a scheduled day of protest when Saudi women plan to defy the ban on women driving on October 26.

“We came here for many issues, most importantly to combat Westernization and particularly women,” said cleric Abdulrahman al-Mahmoud in another YouTube video.

Saudi Shoura Councilwomen Want to End Driving Ban

Three female members of Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council on Tuesday introduced a recommendation to lift the ban on women driving. Councilwoman Latifah Ashaalan said on Twitter that she, along with her colleagues Haya al-Manea and Mona Masheet, recommended giving women the right to drive cars in accordance with Sharia and traffic regulations.

This step comes about 3 weeks before a planned day of protest on October 26 when women activists will challenge the ban on driving by getting behind the wheel in different cities around the kingdom.

However, Ashaalan told al-Hayat daily that the recommendation in the Council has been in the works for months and has nothing to do with the protest campaign. Ashaalan told the newspaper it is “shameful” that Saudi women are not allowed to drive even after many of them reached senior positions in government, adding that the ban has become an “embarrassment” to the country on the international level.

King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shoura Council for the first time last February. The King told American journalist Barbara Walters in 2005 that it will be possible to lift the ban on women driving but said that the “issue will require patience.”

As soon as the female members joined the Council, many of them expressed their desire to push the driving ban issue under the dome of Shoura. Prominent conservative cleric Nasser al-Omar criticized these female members and questioned their motives.

“Corrupt beginnings lead to corrupt results,” he warned on Twitter in February. “Wait for more Westernization.”

Last month women activists launched a new online campaign calling for an end to the ban and asking women to drive their cars on October 26. Saudi authorities blocked the campaign website, but more than 14,000 people have already signed the petition published by the organizers.

This will be the third time for Saudi women to challenge the ban on driving. In November 1990, 47 women drove their cars in protest on some major roads in the capital Riyadh. That daring act was forcibly stopped by the police, and women who participated were prohibited from traveling outside the country, fired from their government jobs and denounced in mosques by conservative clerics.

In June 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, Saudi women made a second attempt to lift the driving ban. After weeks of campaigning on social media, more than 50 women drove their cars in different parts of the country. The police appeared to ignore the female drivers. There was no mass arrests, and only two women who were stopped but they were shortly let go after signing a pledge.

As activists are gearing up for their third attempt, some women have already begun driving in Riyadh and Jeddah and posting videos of themselves behind the wheel over the past two weeks.

“I’m driving my car in a street near my house,” said a veiled woman in this video that was uploaded to YouTube on Monday. “People are looking without disapproval, as if we have been driving for quite some time.”

The Saudi Duality on Women

Madawi al-Rasheed:

The ban on women’s driving keeps Saudis busy and fragmented. It distracts Saudis from more urgent questions such as political representation, civil and human rights and unemployment among both men and women. Above all the ban keeps the gender war hot as it sets women against men in an endless battle, thus preventing any alliances across the gender divide. 

The Saudi leadership has much to gain from ridiculous opinions that expose the misogyny and ignorance of such clerics — it can convince the international community that it is an enlightened leadership struggling to bring a conservative society into the 21st century. As such, it should not be pressured to implement measures that threaten social harmony and peace.

New Women Driving Campaign Launched

Yours truly for al-Monitor on the new women driving campaign:

The new campaign comes at an interesting time for Saudi Arabia. The country has largely managed to escape the wave of Arab uprisings without a major street-protest movement challenging the government, but the tech-savvy young population has become increasingly critical of official policies, using social-media sites like Twitter and YouTube to express their displeasure.

The official campaign’s site is here.

‘Image of Benign Paternalism’

The Economist:

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 Saudi Arabia has marketed itself as a moderate regime, a bulwark between Western interests and a backward population. King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud’s reformist approach has helped to develop this image of benign paternalism. The rulers are more progressive than the society, the argument goes. A case in point is the king’s decision earlier this year to appoint 20 impressive female MPs to the country’s 100-strong Shura Council, the body that advises the government on legislation.

The number is incorrect. Saudi Arabia appointed 30 women to the Shoura Council which has 150 members in total.

Saudi Mufti Says Women Driving Not in Their Interest

Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti says it is not in the best interest of women or society to lift the ban on women driving. His statement came during a television interview on the privately-owned conservative al-Majd channel on Friday evening.

“If women knew the evils and consequences of driving they would realize it is in their interest and society’s interest that they do not drive,” Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Alsheikh said, according to local news site An7a. “Women driving would lead to more accidents. When women are in danger, they don’t know how to act. How are they going to deal with accidents?”

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. Although there are no written laws in the country that make women driving illegal, authorities continue to refuse issuing driving licenses to women and do not accept licenses issued from other countries. Some women who challenged the ban on driving in recent years have been stopped by the police.

Several Saudi officials have in the past described women driving as a “social” matter and that it is up to society, not the state, to decide when women can drive. The latest of these statements came last month by the Minister of Justice Muhammad Al-Isa who was quoted by al-Hayat daily as saying there is no constitutional or regulatory barriers to prevent women from driving in Saudi Arabia.

Reacting to the Grand Mufti’s statements on Twitter, some users criticized him for underestimating women. “Does this guy know that there are women in this world who build their own cars?” one tweep asked. Others decided to take a more optimistic view of what the Mufti said on television. “A very significant development since he didn’t say it’s a ‘sin’,” tweeted Hisham Malaika.

The significance of the Mufti’s statements is debatable, of course. A decision to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia must come from the top. Earlier this year, King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the consultative Shoura Council for the first time, a step described by many as a major advancement for women empowerment in the country.

Shortly after their appointment, some women members of Shoura said they plan to push for lifting the ban on driving. Local media reported that the Council is set to discuss the issue, but they are yet to announce the time for when that discussion will happen.