The real weight of public opinion in Saudi Arabia lies among its young people, an Internet generation eager for social change. Or at least, so says one member of that cohort.
And Mohammed Bin Salman, the 32-year-old who effectively runs the country in his father’s name, just placed a big bet on his millennial peers. By ending the world’s only ban on women driving cars, the crown prince has upset plenty of people in this Islamic kingdom, founded on a pact between clerics and the royal family. He may be calculating that an even larger number of Saudis are ready to go along for the ride.
Will it work? It’s hard to gauge the mood of a country with little freedom of expression or opinion polling, though a 2014 survey found the public almost equally divided. Much depends on who wins the argument, because Prince Mohammed’s promise of a more “vibrant’’ society is just part of an all-embracing reform program. Further down the road lie economic changes that are likely to unsettle many Saudis accustomed to government largesse. Some measures have already met with resistance.
Steffen Hertog, a professor at the London School of Economics and longtime Saudi-watcher, acknowledges that there’s guesswork involved. “My best guess is that there is a silent majority in favor” of letting women drive, he said. There’s also “a vocal minority that is very unhappy about the move.”
‘It’s a Gamble’
Whatever the outcome, he sees a decisive break with the Saudi ruling family’s past. “The leadership is giving up the old, tight coalition with a super-conservative, fairly well-organized minority,” Hertog said. Instead, it’s seeking “more diffuse support in society at large, particularly among younger Saudis. It’s a gamble. But the old coalition has held up change in many regards.”
Pushback against the driving decision began the morning after its announcement — which came in a news bulletin on state media, followed by a press conference that took place outside the kingdom, at the Saudi embassy in Washington.
“The people reject women driving” was the top-trending hashtag on Twitter. One Saudi user tweeted the shift would be followed by women removing their veils, and Saudi decisions being issued by the White House. The top religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars, commended the order but expressed reservations about the need to abide by Islamic requirements.
“Like any society, people resist change,” said Basmah Omair, executive director of the Khadijah Bint Khawilid Center in Jeddah, which lobbies for women’s economic empowerment. Her group carried out the poll of about 3,000 people in 2014, which found the public evenly divided on the question of whether women should be allowed to drive. But she says more recent work shows opinion is shifting in favor. “Once change is implemented, and they see the positive effects of it, people get accustomed to it pretty fast,” she said.
‘Elements That Resist’
Opening the roads to women drivers may lift economic growth by almost 1 percentage point every year, adding about $90 billion of output by 2030, according to BI Economics.
Some potential critics had already been silenced. Saudi authorities arrested several prominent clerics and academics earlier this month who they accused of having ties with foreign powers and extremist groups.
Yet it won’t be possible to stifle all opposition, according to Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group. Among the clerical establishment, and perhaps also the royal family, “there are going to be elements that resist this.’’
If dissenters were cowed, Saudis who’d campaigned to let women drive weren’t encouraged to celebrate. Starting about an hour before the announcement, and continuing the following day, some female activists received calls from the authorities telling them not to discuss it on social media. The government’s Center for International Communication said nobody “has been censored or warned about expressing their views.”
“Saudi Arabia welcomes both the enormous interest and contributions to the debate, especially those from our own citizens,” the center said in a statement.
Alongside social reforms, Prince Mohammed has outlined radical changes to the economy, including a proposed share-sale in state oil company Saudi Aramco that may be the world’s biggest IPO. And he’s already upended Saudi Arabia’s traditionally cautious diplomacy, sending the army to fight rebels in Yemen and leading the isolation of Qatar.
In both those foreign ventures, Prince Mohammed has struggled to get results. And while the goals of his economic program — which include raising women’s participation in the workforce — have been widely praised, some of its measures have proved tough to implement, especially as low oil prices have brought growth to a virtual standstill. Prince Mohammed wants to end Saudi reliance on government jobs, as well as on oil, shifting the workforce into the private sector. But cuts to bonuses and allowances for state employees have been reversed, amid signs of public opposition.
“Economic reform is proving to be very hard work,” Hertog said. “Decreeing female driving is technically a lot easier and will win him plaudits in the West.”
Hertog says that Prince Mohammed “does seem to have a long-term vision of a more socially and economically liberal kingdom that could become a regional business hub.” There’s a successful example almost next-door. But “it won’t be easy –- no one has been able to copy Dubai to date.”
‘What Will I Create?’
With more than 20 million citizens, and a further 10 million expats, the kingdom dwarfs its city-state neighbors in the Arab Gulf. That makes turning oil wealth into public welfare, or achieving full employment, a more complex task. It’s also the custodian of Islam’s holiest places, elevating Saudi clerics to a status they don’t enjoy everywhere in the Gulf — even if their influence is now coming under challenge.
In interviews last year, Prince Mohammed — then in the early stages of his meteoric ascent — recalled his childhood at the royal court. He said he looked ahead and saw two possible versions of himself. The first would adapt to the monarchy as it was. The second would pursue his own vision, like the great tech pioneers did.
The prince namechecked Steve Jobs, Bill Gates — and his near-contemporary Mark Zuckerberg, who famously wanted to “move fast and break things.”
“If I work according to their methods, what will I create?” Prince Mohammed asked.
The world may be about to find out.
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