Saudi Arabia has issued the first driving licenses to women in decades, even as prominent advocates for giving women the right to drive in the conservative kingdom have been arrested and labeled as “traitors” by government-backed media.
Ten women who already had valid driving licenses from other countries were allowed to trade them in for Saudi ones Monday after undergoing brief tests at the General Traffic Department in the capital, Riyadh, and other cities, the government said in a statement. But they won’t be able to use the new licenses until June 24, when all women can begin applying for them.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that does not currently permit women to drive, a policy that has long been a source of international condemnation. Although there is no law barring women from driving, no licenses have been issued to them in more than 50 years, forcing women to rely on chauffeurs and taxis or male relatives with vehicles.
The lifting of the de facto ban, announced in September, has been one of the most eagerly anticipated reforms in Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has championed sweeping changes intended to modernize the country and create job opportunities for a mostly young population. But the uproar over the recent arrests threatens to eclipse any public relations benefits from allowing women to drive.
“It’s absolutely welcomed that the authorities have begun issuing driving licenses to women,” said Samah Hadid, who directs campaigns in the Middle East for the London-based human rights group Amnesty International. “But unfortunately this comes at a price where the very women who campaigned for the right to drive are behind bars instead of behind the wheel.”
Rothna Begum, a women's rights researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, dismissed Monday’s event as a publicity stunt intended to deflect criticism.
“Now we have videos of traffic police handing over these driver’s licenses to divert the world’s attention from the fact that the women who were actually behind championing the cause … are not only in prison but have been charged and potentially face very, very long sentences,” she said.
At least 17 people were arrested on suspicion of trying to undermine the kingdom’s security and stability, a case that human rights groups said has primarily targeted individuals who advocated for women’s rights.
They include activists who were arrested before for defying the ban on women driving and also campaigned for the lifting of restrictions requiring women to obtain the permission of a male guardian before marrying, traveling abroad or getting released from prison.
Eight were temporarily released, pending the completion of a procedural review, the Saudi Public Prosecutor's Office said in a statement Sunday. Nine others — four women and five men — remain in custody and face possible trial.
The detainees were said to have admitted to serious charges, including communicating and cooperating with individuals and organizations “hostile to the kingdom,” recruiting “persons in a sensitive government entity to obtain confidential information and official documents to harm the higher interests of the kingdom” and providing financial and moral support to “hostile elements abroad.”
Activists convicted on similar charges are serving between eight and 10 years in prison, Begum said.
Saudi prosecutors did not publicly identify the suspects who remain in custody. But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said they include three women who are among the most well-known proponents for allowing everyone to drive: Loujain Hathloul, Aziza Yousef and Eman Nafjan.
State-backed media accused the detainees of betraying their country and acting as “agents of embassies.” One pro-government Twitter account posted images of some of them with the word “traitor” written in red across their faces.
Activists said their treatment shows that for all the social and economic reforms in Saudi Arabia, there is still no tolerance for criticizing the monarchy or advocating for more change.
“This is a kingdom that bans protests, that bans independent human rights organizations and trade unions,” Begum said. “This has not changed under Mohammed bin Salman. If anything, since his ascent to power, the situation has become more repressive for human rights defenders.”
Even some supporters of the crown prince suggested that the government may have erred in arresting the women.
“My understanding is that they broke the law technically in something they did, which was not really directly related to their activism,” said Ali Shihabi, founder of the Washington-based Arabia Foundation. “But I still think that this was maybe an overreaction.”
He said the 32-year-old prince has done more than any king in the last 50 years to advance women’s rights in Saudi Arabia — an effort that has required him to push back against a “very strong, conservative, reactionary part of society that has been resisting these changes for decades.”
Shihabi said officials may have wanted to show that they aren’t cracking down only on conservative clerics and their supporters, who have also faced arrest in recent years.
“The government is very nervous [about] balancing different elements of society as it’s pushing for disruptive change,” he said.
At the same time, he added, the government does not want to be seen as implementing a “Western agenda.”
“Because these women are so Western and liberal, and they are being feted in the West … they help give meat to that narrative with Saudi conservative public opinion,” Shihabi said. “In the view of the crown prince, this is in the interests of Saudi Arabia. It’s not because Uncle Sam has asked him to do this.”