When I called him in Riyadh on Tuesday night, the Arabian Warren Buffett, as the billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud is known, was quite definite in his views on allowing Saudi women to drive. “We’re not calling for diplomatic relations with Israel,” he said. “We’re just asking for ladies to drive the car. The issue of women driving can happen tomorrow morning because it’s not really an issue at all. Frankly speaking, we need strong political leadership to do it and get it behind us. What are we waiting for?”
Of course, Prince Alwaleed is a pillar of modernity in the medieval kingdom. In his skyscraper office in Riyadh, women in tight jeans and suits rule the roost, working side by side with men, something that is forbidden elsewhere. Government offices in Saudi Arabia are segregated by gender. The prince made a point of hiring a woman, born in Mecca, and training her to be the pilot of his private jet. “Ladies can fly above but not drive on the street,” he said dryly, noting, “My wife drives in the desert and in every city we go to immediately from the airport. She’s an excellent driver — better than me, for sure.”
In 1990, 47 women from the Saudi intelligentsia were so inspired by American troops — and female soldiers — gathering in the kingdom for the first President Bush’s war against Saddam that they went for a joy ride to protest Saudi Arabia being the only country where women can’t drive. The fundamentalist clerics went into overdrive, branding the women ‘whores’ and ‘harlots’. They lost their jobs and were harassed. Their passports were revoked and they had to sign papers agreeing not to talk about the drive. When I interviewed some of them 12 years later, they were only beginning to shake off the vengeful backlash.
Driving may not be as important an issue as the end of male guardianship, but it is the high-octane nexus where our hypocrisies interlock. The latest drive to drive started last month, a Twitter and Facebook feminist blossoming in the Arab Spring, following a Saudi ‘Day of Rage’ in March where nobody showed up except the police.
King Abdullah passes for progressive in Saudi Arabia. (He just issued a decree allowing women, instead of men, to sell women lingerie.) Frightened by the uprisings all around him, he snuffed out wisps of democratic protests the Saudi way: with his chequebook. After the ‘Day of Rage’ fizzled, he rewarded his complacent citizens with $130 billion in salary increases, new housing and financing for religious organisations.
But then a 32-year-old single mother named Manal al-Sharif, an internet consultant for the State-run oil company Aramco, posted a video of herself on YouTube, driving in a black abaya in the Eastern Province city of Al-Khobar. She told CNN that the last straw was one night when she was trying to get home to her 5-year-old son and she couldn’t catch a cab or find her brother to pick her up or get away from male drivers harassing her as she walked alone. “I’m a grown-up woman,” she said, adding: “And I was crying like a kid in the street because I couldn’t find someone to pick me up to take me back home.”
She was put in jail for a week and forced to sign a document agreeing not to talk to the press or continue her calls for reform. This had a chilling effect on women. But, this week, Reem al-Faisal, a princess, activist and Jidda photographer who is the granddaughter of the late King Faisal and the niece of the foreign minister, spoke out, writing in The Arab News that “it is truly tragic that we have to fight for such an essential yet mediocre right” and be treated as “eternal minors”. She suggested that women simply drive pollution-free camels. Except then men would “deny women camel-driving rights, too. Then we will have to content ourselves with taking the backseat of the camels or start looking for other options — mules maybe?”
The New York Times. The views expressed by the author are personal.