The Arrests of Saudi Women’s Driving Activists Underlines the Limits of Reforms

A Saudi woman puts on her seat belt during a driving lesson in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 7 March 2018. Photo: AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images.
A Saudi woman puts on her seat belt during a driving lesson in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 7 March 2018. Photo: AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images.

Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has arrested a wide range of critics, independent activists, and even princes seen as potential challengers to the leadership. Nonetheless, the latest arrests bring a new twist – just a few weeks before a law allowing women to drive comes into effect, the authorities have arrested at least 10 activists who campaigned for this reform.

Details are very limited, but the official news agency has stated that those detained are accused of trying to wield influence over people in sensitive government roles on behalf of foreign actors – which sounds likely to mean Western governments. A local news site printed photos of the arrested women, some without hijab, with the word ‘traitor’ stamped over their faces in red.

Arresting women’s rights activists will backfire in terms of the international PR efforts to which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has been dedicating so much time and effort in recent months. He has sought to showcase the achievements and dynamism of Saudi youth and women in an effort to change the country’s image, particularly in the eyes of key allies. Meanwhile, some Western observers have been happy to turn a blind eye to the arrests of clerics or commentators said to be Islamist, apparently thinking – even if they don’t say it publicly – that an autocratic approach may be necessary to force through social change. By contrast, arresting women who campaigned for exactly what the Saudi government is now implementing muddies the waters.

The rationale for the crackdown is not yet clear, but several factors may be at work. One is that the authorities tend to see bottom-up activism as a threat – even if it is directed towards a goal that the government shares. When King Salman announced last year that women would be allowed to drive from June 2018, women’s driving activists rejoiced, many posting his photo on Twitter.

Then the women who had spearheaded the campaign started to receive phone calls from the royal court warning them to keep quiet. It seemed that the Saudi leadership didn’t want them to share the credit; the decision was intended to showcase MBS as a bold reformer, not someone yielding to societal pressure. After all, responding to grassroots activism could set a precedent that would encourage more of the same.

Instead, according to supporters of the government, the decision on driving showed that the #Women2Drive campaign had been misguided and unnecessary. In their view, women’s driving activists should realize that the leadership could be trusted to deliver everything that society needed once the time was right. In this context, the government may have wanted to ensure activists would not publicly celebrate or declare victory when women actually start to drive in a few weeks’ time.

Moreover, the government faces some resistance within society to the various social reforms being introduced, mainly regarding the role of women and the rules governing social life and entertainment. In this context, the issue of women driving is one of the most symbolic and highly charged of all.

The reaction from conservative forces to the law permitting women to drive has so far been more muted than was expected by many observers, inside and outside the kingdom. This is probably because a number of prominent clerics and critics have been imprisoned, and as a result very few others dare to criticize the country’s leadership.

But there are mutterings and grumblings all the same. Instead of complaining about the government, which is risky, conservatives are instead directing their ire at individual women and other liberals. Rhetorical attacks on social media increasingly display a chauvinistic form of nationalism whereby Saudis of Persian origins, or those who highlight their Hijazi or other regional identity, have found themselves targets for supposedly not being ‘Saudi’ enough. As social norms change and as austerity measures bite, this represents the latest channel for those troubled by the speed of change to assert their authority over Saudis whose values they do not share.

Given this societal pushback, the authorities may think that cracking down on a few liberals will provide a sense of balance, even if it is a balance of repression. After all, when Saudi Arabia executed a dissident Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr, in 2016, some argued that the authorities were seeking ‘balance’ – that as they cracked down on ISIS, and executed some members, they needed to be seen to be targeting Shia ‘extremists’ as well as Sunni ones.

It is unclear whether MBS himself wants to be seen as responding to conservative concerns, or whether the arrests reflect the views of other senior figures in the establishment. The crown prince has kept a low profile in the past few days, fuelling speculation that the arrests could even be a sign of machinations within the ruling family against him and his liberalization projects – but the opaque Saudi system is prone to frequent rumours and there is nothing as yet to substantiate this.

Overall, the arrests add to the various contradictions in the Saudi system. As it develops economic reforms, the government is supposed to be encouraging young people to play a more active, engaged and entrepreneurial role in their economy and society. But it is all too easy for independent-minded, socially engaged Saudis – who could contribute significantly to this reform agenda – to fall foul of the highly sensitive political system and its shifting red lines.

Jane Kinninmont is Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.

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