Opinion

Can Saudi Women Drive and the King Still Rule at the Same Time?

Saudi Arabia’s reform efforts will strike at the heart of the system that has made the kingdom so steady and stable in recent decades

Saudi women take part in Glowork exhibition in Riyadh, September 28, 2017.
Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters

It would be impossible to find a dissenting voice against Saudi Arabia’s decision last week to finally allow women to drive cars. The kingdom is a pastiche of medieval Muslim dynasty, late Renaissance absolute monarchy, 20th-century petroleum economy and American consumer culture that by every conventional measure should have long gone the way of dial telephones and propeller planes.

Letting women drive would give the Saudis a long-overdue toehold into the 21st century, or more accurately a toenail hold into the 20th century. After all, in the rest of the world, people’s great-grandmothers were allowed to drive Model Ts a hundred years ago.

In any case, apart from a few religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia itself, everyone agrees that women driving is the right step if the kingdom is going to survive in the modern world. The only real question is whether the reforms the monarchy is undertaking, led by king-in-waiting Mohammed bin Salman, will proceed fast enough to prevent the inevitable crash of the monarchy.

Observers have been writing obituaries for the Saudi regime for decades, but it has survived the transition from a poor and backward economy to a rich and quasi-developed one, as well as the political gyrations of the Arab world set off at various times by Nasserism, Islamicism and the Arab Spring. And, in the Middle East the Saudis aren’t alone: Monarchies, albeit less absolute, rule in all the Gulf states as well as in Jordan and Morocco, and their kings are still sitting on their thrones long after the regions’ many dictators and presidents passed from the scene.

Shouldn’t we finally put the death notice aside, especially as Saudi Arabia seems to be finally and slowly moving in the right direction?

Let me take a completely contrarian view, namely that reform isn’t going to prolong much less save the Saudi regime but is almost certainly going to hasten its demise. And that’s not because slow and piecemeal reforms will whet the appetite for more and create anger and frustration. Rather, it’s because these reforms will undermine everything that makes the Saudi monarchy work.

Saudi Arabia doesn’t make the slightest pretense of being democratic, but behind the face of autocracy is a more responsive system than outsiders give it credit for. The ruling family doesn’t simply hand down orders but operates through a traditional network of tribal, regional and economic elites who are consulted on a regular basis and give the rulers an ear to what the street is thinking and saying. Add to that the power and legitimacy that comes from a dynasty with a history that precedes the state, indeed created it and its Islamic imprimatur. That’s the difference between a traditional monarchy and a modern dictatorship.

Quid pro quo

There’s an economic aspect to the system as well. It’s true that the Saudi regime has the oil profits that let it swap with the Saudi people — you let us rule and we’ll shower you with government largesse. When the regime suddenly produced $100 billion in goodies as the Arab Spring was spreading across the Middle East in 2011, this was widely seen as the this quid pro quo in action. But the fact is, the Saudi economy works for most Saudis: The country’s underclass is much smaller than the population that benefits from government jobs, state-funded benefits and business ventures with the ruling family.

Framing it as a cynical deal misses the point. Despite its veneer of a modern capitalist welfare state, the Saudi economy is nothing of the sort. It’s more medieval or tribal, where those in power see to the needs of the followers, including their economic needs. It’s no surprise then that 70% of employed Saudis work for the government, where they get paid generously and aren’t required to do much actual work. In the same vein, the monarchy also builds highways, hospitals, schools and universities, and even sends hundreds of thousands of ordinary people for an overseas education.

FILE - In this July, 23, 2017 file photo, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman poses while meeting Erdogan
Presidency Press Service/Pool Photo via AP

Saudi Arabia isn’t just religiously conservative, it’s a tribal society writ large and wealthy. But reform threatens to undo the whole arrangement and turn the monarchy into another dictatorship — and we know where that will inevitably lead.

Let’s start with the economy. The Vision 2030 reform drive that Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he’s popularly known, launched a year and a half ago aims to wean the economy off oil by increasing non-oil income sixfold and boosting non-oil exports to half the total. These are ambitious goals, and probably unrealistic, but certainly MBS is determined to pursue them, and that involves creating a real private sector and making government more efficient and responsive.

To do that, however, means exposing ordinary Saudis to the vicissitudes of capitalism. It means working at a job that requires you to actually work and know that your pay and career prospects are determined by your performance. It also leaves the very real possibility you’ll lose your job in a recession or because your company fails. It also means civil servants will be more accountable and may even be answerable at times to a business class and a more engaged and active citizenry. The king won’t be there to make it right.

On the road to reform

Letting women drive is a small part of that change. If women are going to enter the workforce in greater numbers, which the Saudi economy needs, they have to be able to get to their jobs without being chauffeured. Since there is no public transportation of any kind, driving yourself is the only alternative.

But women driving also upsets the Saudi social order in ways no one can predict. Vision 2030 also proposes (unintentionally of course) other reforms that will have the same effect: creating a green-card system to let Arab and Muslims work in the country, opening the country to foreign tourists, and even creating a Red Sea resort zone where visitors can dress as they want, or as little as they want.

Not surprisingly, Vision 2030 was the brainchild of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which views business and economics in a very different way than the common Saudi in the street. A 2015 report it prepared for the government is filled with references to “transformation,” “efficiency” and “synergies” that sound good unless you’re going to be affected by them. Ordinary Saudis may say they want reform, but like other people, they tend to envision them as all benefits and no costs.

Alas for MBS and the monarchy, they don’t really have much of a choice but to push the kingdom in a new direction. Oil prices are in a long-term (and perhaps perpetual) funk, and the kingdom’s population is growing. The economic and social arrangements that have kept Saudi Arabia stable are no longer financially feasible.

The problem is that Vision 2030 calls for economic reform but hasn’t a thing to say about political reform. It does talk about cracking down on corruption and making government more efficient, but this is a drop of oil when the mechanisms that have kept the kingdom running are being subject to so much stress.

Perhaps religious and political tradition will continue to give Saudi rulers legitimacy, but Vision 2030 is certainly going to make it harder to distinguish the man who is king and custodian of the Two Holy Mosques from just another autocrat who can be dispensed with.