Saudi women train drivers: MbS’s ultimate constituency?

Summary: Mohammed bin Salman is following through on his plan to bring Saudi women into the workforce and he is doing so at speed while making it very clear that none of the gains women have been given are a result of grassroots pressure.

We thank Christopher Davidson for today’s newsletter. He is an expert on the comparative politics of the Gulf states and was previously a reader at Durham University and an assistant professor at Zayed University, Dubai. Christopher’s most recent book, published last year is From Sheikhs to Sultanism: Statecraft and Authority in Saudi Arabia and the UAE (London: Hurst & Co., 2021.) His latest Digest podcast is available here.

Last week’s viral international news that 28,000 Saudi women had applied for just 30 female train driver positions has predictably sparked all sorts of debates within the kingdom.  Understandably, much of the focus has been on the overall labour market situation, with many taking to social media to lament that Saudi female unemployment is twice higher than for men — officially standing at 24 percent.

Beyond the headlines and some of the more outspoken voices, however, this latest news seems further evidence of two vitally important Saudi trends.  Firstly, that under Mohammad bin Salman’s controversial de facto rule (as deputy crown prince, then crown prince), the economic role and status of Saudi women has fundamentally and irreversibly shifted.  After all, despite still high unemployment levels, the Saudi female labour force participation rate has mushroomed from about 20 percent in 2015 to now somewhere over 33 percent (and seemingly on an exponential trajectory).  At this pace, women workers might one day soon outnumber men, at least in terms of Saudi citizens.

Secondly, and perhaps more remarkably, the train driver story underlines just how willing Saudi women now are to assume — and fiercely compete for — non-traditional ‘men’s jobs’, including those in the transport industry.  Again closely associated with MbS’s rule — though not entirely, with much of the groundwork having been laid by the late King Abdullah  — society seems to have significantly liberalised, with the majority of women evidently unconcerned over the views of previously influential conservative clerics, tribal chiefs, and indeed even family patriarchs.  Indeed, on top of train-driving (and the recent announcement that women will soon be able to hold taxi licences), the post-2015 era has seen Saudi women both willing and able to take on a vast range of hitherto unimaginable jobs, including roles in all branches of the armed forces.

Saudi women soldiers
Graduation of a new batch of Saudi women soldiers, January 2022 [KSA MoD]
Crucially, this second, more societal trend is undoubtedly now serving as one of the most powerful internal fortifications for MbS’s nascent regime, and is arguably far more important to him than any guns, tanks, or elite US-trained praetorian guards.  Though much granular work needs to be done on the subject, there certainly seems a consensus that the vast majority of Saudi women are ‘with’ MbS all the way, and have thus become one of his largest and most loyal constituencies.  Among the New York Times’ recent interviewees, for example: a Saudi businesswomen has told how she “is grateful to Prince Mohammad;” an aspiring new female worker has explained how “the big picture I’m seeing is that every woman in life benefits… and women and men benefit from social progress;” a female municipal health inspector has extolled how she “[felt] lucky to be part of this generation… even five years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible;” and a female academic has revealed she was “hopeful that ten years from now we will have a public sphere that is more humane and safe for women, freed of the guardianship’s abuses, and that will be good for the Saudi economy.”

Certainly, Saudi women’s lives – much more so than those of their menfolk – have dramatically improved over the past few years (at least from a liberal or cosmopolitan perspective).  Notably, beyond unprecedented work opportunities, they have been recently permitted to: attend football matches (January 2018); drive cars on public roads (June 2018); mix with men in cafes (late 2018); travel internationally without a male guardian’s permission (August 2019); apply independently for passports and divorces (August 2019); stay in hotel rooms on their own (October 2019); use shared entrances to enter restaurants at the same time as men (December 2019); and participate in a new women’s football league (February 2020).

That said, there clearly remains a red line drawn around women’s rights activism, with all manner of campaigners having fallen foul of the regime, and many ending up in prison, the most notable of whom is Loujain al-Hathloul. At first glance, this seems counterintuitive, with this vocal minority having mostly been pushing for exactly the same reforms as those championed by MbS’s government.  But in the wider context of Saudi Arabia’s emergent autocratic-authoritarianism, there is undoubtedly a certain logic: a clear signal is being sent that no form of independent social action will be tolerated; the only successful reforms will be hierarchic and personally approved by MbS; and all credit must go to the de facto ruler.  As Saudi scholar Eman Alhussein puts it, “now, change comes from the top… and those at the top have made clear that grassroots activists are not to request or demand change… the state is firmly against any form of mobilisation or grassroots demands for reform.”

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