Women’s roles in Saudi Arabia: What they said, what we said

Abdullah bin Bijad Al-Otaibi
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As part of the cultural development which Saudi Arabia is witnessing, King Salman issued a historical decision to allow women to drive cars like their brothers. This is a complementary step towards a bright future.

Developing societies is greatly important but some secondary major issues are often exaggerated for several reasons and become major obstacles. Women’s driving is an example of this in the Saudi social context.

Vision 2030 led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under the sponsorship of King Salman says: “Our vision begins from society and ends with it. We believe in the importance of building a vital society where people live according to Islamic principles and moderation and centrism while taking pride in their national identity and ancient cultural heritage.. Perhaps what distinguishes our society is its commitment to Islamic principles and values and strong familial ties. This urges us to provide families with the necessary factors for success to empower them towards looking after their children.” The vision’s aims also include “increasing women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%, empowering women and investing in their capabilities.” The decision lifting the ban on women’s driving is only one practical example of the vision.

The new Saudi Arabia is the glorious Saudi Arabia that pairs what it says with actions. The crown prince told Bloomberg in an interview on April 23, 2016: “We believe women have rights in Islam that they've yet to obtain.” The agency also quoted a former American officer as saying that he met with the prince once and told him he is willing to allow Saudi women to drive but he is waiting for the right moment to discuss the matter with the religious institution. The right moment has thus come paired with good management and determination.

Those following up with the statements of the crown prince, who is leading major domestic and foreign measures towards enhancing the country’s status and pushing it towards the future, knows well that he does not say anything unless he truly means it. His statements about any cause or crisis means that he has a complete plan that he will implement once all the requirements are met. This applies to politics and economy as well as to cultural and social-related matters.


No society can rise when half of its members are facing obstacles. Saudi Arabia passed through a phase which the prince calls post-1979. The crown prince is leading a generation of young Saudis undeterred by that phase’s problems as countries which renew themselves are those which set their priorities and draw their ambitions away from obstacles and present constraints.

In the past, certain political Islam movements used to say that reliance must be on the nation but national movements responded saying that reliance must be on one’s homeland. They said affiliation and belonging must be to an ideology but we said it must be to the state. They said political borders are the limits of faith but we said they are the limits of geography and the modern national state. Regarding women’s affairs, they said she is incapable but we said she is fully competent and she is a partner at home, work and the country. They said educating her is haram and that working and leaving the house is haram but we said these were basic rights in order for her to be an efficient member in the society and a contributor to the state and country. They insisted to keep her dependent on others in everything that concerns her and we insisted that she must be responsible for herself and must build her future herself. As for mingling, we said it is normal because it’s present in all societies, including in the society during the prophet’s time. They’ve been saying things for so long and we’ve been responding. In the end, only what’s right prevailed and the state emerged victorious achieving what’s best for it and for its future and society.


There has been a rhetoric that hurled insults at women and besieged them via concepts, decisions, generalizations and institutions. This aimed to obstruct any attempts to empower women.

The decision to lift the ban on driving, like other decisions that preceded it and others that will follow it, was greatly welcomed by the Saudis. The world also commended the move and welcomed it. This proves that the new Saudi Arabia, which is redrawing its regional and international status and working to implement major programs and transformations, is overcoming obstacles from the past and building a bright future that will help it cross towards the aspired future.

A big decision like this calls for preparing an appropriate environment to implement it. Commissions were formed in several ministries to devise plans and follow up on their implementation. A legislative environment is also required to handle any problems while executing these plans. A law that criminalizes harassment has thus been issued. This is necessary not only when it comes to women’s driving but it’s also important for all major development projects in the transportation sector, i.e. metro, trains and buses, and in the trade, tourism, culture and entertainment sectors. It will basically deter attempts to hinder the society’s development.

The issue pertaining to women’s driving has witnessed several phases since the beginning of the 1990’s. The political leadership back then insisted it was a social matter that needs certain requirements and measures. They have now finally been provided and it was time to make this historical decision.

Before the so-called Sahwa, the Saudi society was developed like other societies particularly when it comes to women and their role. Women in agricultural areas drove their cars and run their errands without any objections or condemnations. This could have smoothly become the case in rural areas and cities but the so-called Sahwa’s rise stood in the way and dragged the society down the ladder of civilization in terms of women and their status.

Amid this rapid pace of the Saudi state to catch up with civilization and engage in a competition over the best international standards in all fields to prove that the kingdom is capable of renewing and developing, the society received this historical decision as part of a comprehensive vision that overcomes obstacles and takes action. The approach is now directed towards further development amid a desire to be the best and culturally compete to be among the first ranks.

This article is also available in Arabic.
Abdullah bin Bijad al-Otaibi is a Saudi writer and researcher. He is a member of the board of advisors at Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center. He tweets under @abdullahbjad.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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