Joy and pride among Saudi women who are at last allowed to drive. Delight in the car dealerships that anticipate a lot of new business. And dismay in the families of the 1.4 million chauffeurs, almost all from South Asia, who have been earning around $1,000 a month driving Saudi women around. But it will take a lot more than this to change Saudi Arabia.
Just before driving became legal for women, seventeen women activists who have been campaigning for years against the driving ban were arrested. Eight have now been released, but the others are facing possible trial in a counter-terrorism court and long prison sentences for their activism. Does the right hand know what the left is doing?
Yes, it does. Letting women drive is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s project to win popular support by modernising some aspects of daily life. Looking like he is giving in to popular pressure is definitely not part of his programme. The change must look like a free gift from his hand, not a retreat in the face of public protest.
It’s a less dramatic initiative than last winter’s three-month anti-corruption campaign, which detained 56 high-profile royal family members and prominent businessman (in the capital’s best hotel) until they had ‘paid back’ some of their ill-gotten gains.
The exercise allegedly yielded $100 billion to the government, although none of the thieves saw the inside of a courtroom, let alone went to jail. But the message was the same: I’m on the side of ordinary people and I’m doing the right things, but I make the decisions when and as I choose.
The notion that Mohammed bin Salman is liberalising the Saudi system is a fantasy. Having ruthlessly sidelined all rival claimants to the throne – his father, King Salman, is 82 and ailing – he has now centralised power to an unprecedented extent. Saudi Arabia was a traditional, deeply conservative monarchy that always ensured there was a fair degree of consensus among the elite. It is now a dictatorship.
MbS, as he is known, is an impulsive man, and one of his bigger mistakes was to invite the UN’s special rapporteur on anti-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, to visit the country to report on how it was reconciling the need to prevent terrorism with respect for human rights. Emmerson came back in early May. His report was unusually frank for a diplomatic document, and in a subsequent media interview, he went well beyond that.
The Saudi anti-terrorism law is written in a way that criminalises all dissent, he told The Guardian. Torture in Saudi jails is commonplace, the guilty officials go unpunished, and Saudi Arabia “is undergoing the most ruthless crackdown on political dissent that the country has experienced in decades.”
“Reports that Saudi Arabia is liberalising are completely wide of the mark,” Emmerson said. “The judiciary has now been brought entirely under the control of the King, and lacks any semblance of independence from the executive. Put simply, there is no separation of power in Saudi Arabia, no freedom of expression, no free press, no effective trade unions, and no functioning civil society.”
Moreover, MbS’s successes in crushing dissent within the country have made him over-confident about his skill in foreign policy. He summoned the Lebanese Prime Minister to Riyadh and forced him to resign, only to see Hariri get his job back in alliance with Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist group that MbS utterly detests.
He declared a blockade of Saudi Arabia’s small but wealthy neighbour, Qatar, to force it to close down the Al-Jazeera network, the most influential Arabic-language news service, and to break its ties with Iran, the country that MbS fears most. One year later Al-Jazeera is still alive and kicking, and Qatar has moved closer to Iran.
And in his biggest blunder, he launched a military intervention in the Yemeni civil war to defeat the Houthis, a Shia tribe that has captured most of Yemen and that he believes (wrongly) is controlled and armed by Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s air strikes have killed thousands, its ally the United Arab Emirates has thousands of troops on the ground – and three years later the Houthis still control most of the heavily populated parts of Yemen, including the capital.
It’s not exactly Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam – the Saudis have no troops on the ground, and the Emiratis are mostly using foreign mercenaries – but the Yemeni intervention is very expensive, deeply embarrassing, and probably unwinnable. In the long run, it may be MbS’s undoing.
The wealth has been more widely shared in Saudi Arabia than in most oil-rich countries, and for the non-political majority life is still pretty good. Even for women, things are very gradually getting better: 60 percent of Saudi university graduates are female, and now they can drive too. But the country is now being run by an erratic and over-confident dictator.