Explainer: Gender Equality in Saudi Arabia

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60 years ago (and 25 years after its founding), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enacted what would become the most famous example of gender inequality – a ban on female drivers. In spite of a series of protests in the 1990s which lead to the arrests of several women for driving, the kingdom’s stance on the matter seemed inflexible (bar sporadic comments from King Salman that changes would come when they were ‘ready’.)

So the announcement a week ago that the longstanding law would at last be lifted was greeted as a victory for women’s rights in the kingdom. Certainly, it suggests that public pressure can have an impact on even the most recalcitrant of nation-states, trumping ideological purity. Was this, suggested some more optimistic thinkers, a sign of greater things to come? Women had their first chance to vote at local elections just two years ago.et law, but not removed, certainly. As publications including The Week, a large number of rights remain outside of the domain of Saudi Arabian women including wearing make-up, trying on clothes, or make a number of major decisions including getting married or divorced.

In the context of these wider, continuing restrictions, it’s not difficult to see this as a piece of clever publicity, seeking to remove the most unpleasant and visible aspects of gender inequality. Nevertheless, more conservative elements reacted with considerable anger in spite of the state’s considerable attempts to clamp down on dissent. Whilst it’s unlikely to catalyse anything larger, it suggests a potential divide between the most hard-line elements of the religious establishment and the monarchy.

On the other hand, it’s possible to view this as simply a step in a wider move towards a modernisation of the traditional recalcitrant nation-state under crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose rise to power has upset the traditional order. At 31 years of age, he represents a challenge to the traditional and highly ossified hierarchy of the country – and potentially represents what’s needed for a country struggling with monopolies, fallen oil prices, and increasing (if still relatively impotent) discontent amongst a young populace with access to the internet.