Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman represents a new generation. He might not be a reformer in the Western sense of the word, but he does infuse a new perspective into a country traditionally dominated by octogenarians. “We believe women have rights in Islam that they’ve yet to obtain,” he said last month. Evidently, those rights do not yet extend to driving. According to Bloomberg:
Allowing women to drive is “not a religious issue as much as it is an issue that relates to the community itself that either accepts it or refuses it,” said the 30-year-old prince, who has amassed unprecedented powers since his father, King Salman, ascended to the throne. “The community is not convinced about women driving” and sees negative consequences if it’s allowed, the prince said on Monday after outlining a plan to reduce the kingdom’s reliance on oil.
Alas, the prince gets it wrong. If Saudi Arabia wants to reduce its dependence on oil, it is essential to allow women to drive. In the West, the prohibition on Saudi women drivers is largely framed as a feminist issue, but it’s actually much more an issue of economic opportunity and vitality. Their inability to drive doesn’t hamper richer, upper-class Saudi women. After all, they can hire drivers to shuttle them around town and, if they so desire, to and from work. However, for the middle class, the prohibition on women driving can create an insurmountable Catch-22: They cannot afford to hire a driver without first getting a job, and they cannot get a job without first hiring a driver.
Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister from 1962 to 1986, famously argued that Saudi Arabia must diversify its economy. “The stone age didn’t end for lack of stones,” he pointed out. He was right, and the hemorrhaging of Saudi cash reserves against the decline in the price of oil only underlines his foresight. Saudi Arabia has made strides to develop other industries but, if it is to build a functional middle class upon which to base lasting development and diversification, it cannot delay: let women drive.