With only weeks until Saudi Arabia finally lifts its ban on women driving, the Kingdom’s new leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seems to be doing a U-turn on the region’s attempt at modernizing its gendered driving laws restricting women from taking to the road, amid new reports that officials have arrested several of the women responsible for the reform movement.
On Monday, 13 activists, most of them women, were arrested. Aside from campaigning against the ban on women driving cars in the state, the group is well-known for protesting against other draconian laws and regulations, including the guardianship rules, which dictate that all Saudi women need to seek permission from a male relative before making any life-changing decisions, such as traveling abroad or getting married. In 1990, 47 women were arrested after taking to the road in protest of the onerous laws.
After the activists were forcibly taken from their homes, they were accused of “suspicious contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country,” reported the Saudi state news agency, SPA, quoting a state security spokesman.
The move would seemly fly in the face of the country’s Vision 2030 program, the effort led by Prince Salman to bring the country into the 21st century by reforming the nation’s archaic laws and by weening itself off of oil. Salman, as you may recall, spent the better part of a month trekking across the United States in what was, essentially, one long PR junket, promoting his so-called reformist agenda, shaking hands with business leaders, and meeting with President Trump at the White House to urge him to end the Iran Deal.
One women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera she suspects the detentions occurring so near to the driving ban’s lift is no coincidence. “We know that back in September 2017, the authorities called women’s rights activists, including the ones who have recently been arrested, to tell them not speak to the media, and then hours later announced to the world that they were lifting the driving ban.” She went on to add that one of the reasons the round-up happened is so that when the ban is lifted on June 24, with the world’s eyes on the Kingdom, officials can live without the fear that the activists might take away the limelight.