Steering all Saudis toward a brighter future
To say that the Kingdom is a nation of a million Saudi drivers is not far from the truth. Add to that the number of drivers along with domestic helpers employed by Saudis and the number exceeds 1.5 million, with most of them working for families and draining their income. With the end of the ban on women driving, however, there are no compelling reasons to continue employing them.
As soon as the driving ban was lifted, 120,000 women applied for a driver’s license. This number suggests a high level of popular support, something nobody was sure of before given that the issue of allowing women to drive was a religious and social problem for a long time.
Reforming the social and economic situation of the Saudi family is in the interests of the local economy, since the financial wastage that results from a lack of such reforms is huge. Due to the ban on celebrations, parties and cinema, for example, hundreds of thousands of families were forced to travel abroad in search of entertainment. Meanwhile, due to strict government regulations on the employment of women, tens of thousands of qualified women have been sitting without jobs and no source of income.
All of this is changing gradually. Two years ago, only a few shops in the Red Sea Mall in Jeddah allowed women to work there. Today, female employees are the majority at the mall and men are the minority. Their employment was often at the expense of foreign workers.
This year, female employment featured in a wide range of governmental jobs, including the police, traffic, insurance and accident companies, and passport offices, as well as those Saudi women who can now work driving private taxis and so forth.
In recent months, we have also seen Saudi women working for the first time in airports, hotels and restaurants, although their numbers are still limited. The government’s Social Development Bank offered women cheap loans to buy private cars for use with hire companies such as Uber and Careem, while auto dealerships have been competing to offer similar deals, and have started hiring women in their showrooms.
Reforming the social and economic situation of the Saudi Arabian family is in the interests of the country’s local economy.
We can see that this government valor in deciding to break social taboos, rare in the history of Saudi Arabia, has been achieving quick and amazing results and leading society, in general, toward change. Everything we have seen so far as a result has been positive, peaceful and smoothly accomplished.
The authorities must have taken into account many possibilities and taken many precautions in anticipation of the potential for negative reactions and rejection of the reforms; and no doubt, has deployed thousands of uniformed and undercover police across the country to keep the peace and ensure the respect of law and order.
In the event, change has passed peacefully. Moreover, it was preceded by the introduction by the government, under the guidance of King Salman, of a harassment law that protects everyone, women in particular, and punishes violators harshly.
“We were waiting for any harassment violations to apply the immediate punishment, in order to make the perpetrator an example to others, but we did not observe even a single case,” said one police official.
As for those who have been observing the ongoing change with cynicism, aside from their ignorance of the historical circumstances and local traditions of inherited wrong practices, they do not actually realize that it is not easy to confront these issues.
This is similar to what US authorities faced after they had allowed racial discrimination, which for a long time prevented non-whites from studying, traveling, working and even eating in the same places as white people. As a civilized country, America, suffered from a bad social legacy in terms of racial discrimination; and this somehow has also been the case in Saudi Arabia with attitudes toward women.
However, the difference remains huge. There still are significant pockets of Saudi citizens who continue to reject the idea of hiring women to work in mixed public places, and denounce the idea of women driving; but despite these deep feelings we have seen those who hold them dealing respectfully with royal decisions on reform in the past two years.
This reminds us of the widespread social protests organized by conservatives against women’s education in Saudi Arabia in the late 1960s. When they met King Faisal, he replied with a statement that is repeated until today: “You are not forced to send your daughters to schools, but we will open schools anyway.” Within a few years, women were fully integrated into the education system, and now there are more female students in Saudi universities than males.
The progress of positive social change stopped with the rise of the religious ‘awakening’ movement in Saudi Arabia during the early 1980s, and the extremist and conservative groups were not confronted until recently.
Finally, in addition to correcting social malformations and strengthening the local economy, these changes also end the suffering of women.
- Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Twitter: @aalrashed