This post was written by Guest Contributor Aisha Jamal. Aisha is a former features editor of the Saudi Gazette, and graduate of the London School of Economics.
Last year, Saudi Arabia announced that it was finally going to allow Saudi women to drive. It was hailed as a watershed moment, the result of Saudi female activists campaigning for years for the right to drive. Media portrayed it as Saudi Arabia joining the ranks of enlightened nations, and granting Saudi women as a measure of freedom.
What Western media and Saudi activists fail to realize is that this is not just about a transformative moment for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The realpolitik behind lifting the ban is that it is part of an overall plan to overhaul Saudi Arabia’s economy. It was one of the first in a series of political and economic chess moves undertaken by the Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (referred to in western media as ‘MBS’).
It is a calculated move to accomplish two societal shifts within the kingdom. The first is to deport as many non-Saudi migrant workers as possible. The second is to tap into a new supply of Saudi workers for the economy.
In 2017, the Guardian described it as a “landmark moment”, and the New York Times called it “dizzying days in Saudi Arabia”. Reuters quoted a Saudi female activist as saying “I’m going to buy my dream car, a convertible Mustang, and it’s going to be black and yellow!”.
Fast-forward to 2018, and Saudi Arabia has arrested a number of female activists only a few weeks before the ban was set to be lifted. After international outcry, some have been released. It’s not clear why the activists were detained, but what is clear is that MBS is not undertaking these reforms in the spirit of feminism.
It’s not a coincidence that Saudi women are being allowed to drive at the same time as the government is undertaking a campaign to deport millions of migrant workers. Saudi Arabia has one of the largest migrant worker populations in the world, with approximately 9 million living in the kingdom.
The workers come from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sudan, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and many more countries. Flush with oil money in the early 80s, Saudi Arabia recruited workers to build the country’s infrastructure, to work in factories and retail outlets, in Saudi homes as maids and drivers, and in a whole host of other low-wage and skilled jobs.
For decades, migrant workers formed the backbone of the Saudi economy. The state created an intricate system to tightly control them. They must be sponsored and tracked by Saudi citizens; they cannot apply for Saudi citizenship; their funds can be seized at any time; and human rights abuses are common.
Migrant workers were useful for a number of reasons – there was a lack of local skilled labour, low-skilled workers could be paid much less, and Saudis generally wouldn’t do the type of jobs that migrants would. In addition, the Saudi state actively excluded female Saudi citizens – half the population – from the workforce.
Fast-forward to almost a half-century later, and Saudi Arabia has decided that migrant workers must leave.
This is because the state is interested in transitioning from an economy that is reliant on oil and migrant labour, to a service and technology-oriented economy. In fact, MBS is competing with Iran by undercutting their oil prices – a decision which has left the Crown Prince struggling to find funds to carry out his vision of Saudi 2030 and maintain a strong economy.
Saudi Arabia can no longer afford the labour that was once the foundation of its modernization, and now millions of workers are being deported under the state’s official policy of “Saudization”.
The policy requires corporations to hire Saudis and cut back on employing migrant workers. Now, Saudi Arabia has to look for alternative sources of labour – and that is where Saudi women come into the picture. As part of Saudi Vision 2030, MBS explicitly said he will aim to increase the number of Saudi women working in the private sector (and continue the state’s displacement policies).
In the 1950s, women in the U.S. went through a similar transformation. As men left for war, the country needed workers for the empty factories they left behind, and this is precisely when women entered the workforce, due to their usefulness in maintaining an economy at war.
This isn’t the only way in which Saudi Arabia is mimicking the first-wave feminism of the U.S. The right to vote was extended to white women in the U.S. in 1920, but it took another 45 years for it to apply to Black women. While many suffragettes continued to campaign for civil rights for Black people, there were many who were willing to look the other way or actively participate as the disenfranchisement of Black women continued for four decades.
Similarly, Saudi feminist activists actively campaigned for the right to drive at significant risk to themselves, all the while choosing to remain silent on the rights of millions of female migrant workers or actively participate in their exploitation.
Instead, the campaign for the right to drive is designed to specifically benefit middle-to-upper class women who have Saudi citizenship, steady sources of income, and the freedom to buy cars and move around in the country. Non-Saudi, migrant, and working-class women do not count in this movement.
Saudi women and western media rejoice at the gains of elite Saudi women – ones who can afford to muse about how they will buy a mustang and finally drive it. These are the privileged problems of a slice of women living in Saudi Arabia. And it isn’t just that. It’s that Saudi women being granted the right to drive is part of broader economic policies that are inherently xenophobic and exploitative, and that are actively being used to buttress a policy of deportations.
Women being to able to drive and be mobile is an important and significant achievement, but one would hope that any such rights be granted for the right reasons, and not at the cost of disempowering others. I wish my Saudi sisters nothing but freedom of movement – but right now, the right for Saudi women to drive is, by design, fueling a vision of a purer Saudi state that is increasingly free of migrant labourers – ones who built and serviced the country that Saudi women will be gleefully driving across.