RIYADH – Saudi Arabian women celebrated being able to drive for the first time in decades Sunday, as the kingdom overturned the world’s only ban on female motorists, a historic reform expected to usher in a new era of social mobility.
The move is part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s wide-ranging drive to modernize the conservative state — but it has coincided with a sweeping crackdown on female activists who long opposed the driving ban.
Women in Riyadh and other cities began zipping around streets bathed in amber light soon after the ban was lifted at midnight, with some blasting music from behind the wheel.
The lifting of the ban, a glaring symbol of repression, is expected to be transformative for many women, freeing them from dependence on private chauffeurs or male relatives.
Euphoria was mixed with disbelief as women across the kingdom flooded social media with photos and videos of their maiden car rides, with a heavy police presence in major cities.
However, in a nation torn between modernity and tradition, many are also cautiously bracing for a backlash from conservatives who spent decades preaching that allowing female motorists would promote promiscuity and sin.
The decision to lift the ban was catalyzed in large measure by what experts characterize as economic pain in the kingdom owing to a protracted oil slump.
The move is expected to boost women’s employment, and according to an estimate, add $90 billion to economic output by 2030.
Many women fear they are still easy prey for conservatives in a nation where male “guardians” — their fathers, husbands or other relatives — can exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on their behalf.
The government has pre-emptively addressed concerns of abuse by outlawing sexual harassment, and authorities have sternly warned against stalking female drivers.
Salman, appointed heir to the most powerful throne in the Middle East a year ago this month, has also lifted a ban on movie theaters and mixed-gender concerts, following his public vow to return the kingdom to moderate Islam.
But much of the initial optimism over his reforms appears to have been dented by a major crackdown on female driving activists.
Authorities have said nine of 17 arrested people remain behind bars, accused of undermining security and aiding enemies of the state.
The detainees include 28-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul — also held in 2014 for more than 70 days for attempting to drive from neighboring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia — and Aziza al-Yousef, a retired professor at Riyadh’s King Saud University.
Human Rights Watch last week said the kingdom has arrested two more female activists and many others have been barred from traveling outside the kingdom, in what it denounced as an “unrelenting crackdown.”
The crackdown has been seen as a calculated move both to placate clerics incensed by his modernization drive and also to send a clear signal to activists that the prince alone is the arbiter of change.
“If the authorities give credit to the women who championed lifting the driving ban, it means conceding that reforms can be won through activism, and then the Saudis may demand more,” said HRW researcher Rothna Begum.
Allowing women to drive is just one of the major social and economic reforms Saudi Arabia is undertaking.
Even before he was named heir to the throne, Salman initiated a major reform plan to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil. Vision 2030, approved in April 2016, includes privatizing part of oil giant Aramco and creating a $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund.
It will also elevate the role of women in the workforce and massively invest in the underdeveloped entertainment sector to boost domestic spending.
In August 2017, Saudi Arabia announced a major tourism project to turn 50 islands and a string of sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.
It plans to issue tourist visas in 2018, another first for the desert kingdom, though no firm date has been announced.
Women were allowed to enter a soccer stadium to watch a match for the first time in January 2018, an easing of rules separating the sexes.
In February, Riyadh announced women will be allowed to open their own businesses without the consent of a male relative.
The same month, a scholar on the kingdom’s highest religious body said on television that women should not have to wear the full-length black abaya. It was the first such comment from a senior religious figure.
In May, Riyadh adopted a law outlawing sexual harassment.
Restrictions remain though, including that women need permission from a male relative to study and travel.
Saudi society has been dominated by Wahhabism, a harsh strain of conservative Islam, since the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by around 400 extremists. They were angered at what they saw as society’s plunge into immorality, with Muslims embracing “Western” entertainment.
After the men were dislodged in a bloody military assault, their influence remained. Religious leaders took measures such as banning cinemas and imposing restrictions on women, requiring them to be covered in an abaya in public and limiting their role.
In February 2018 the kingdom announced it will invest $64 billion in boosting its lagging entertainment sector, including for new venues and flying in Western acts.
The first concerts were held in December, followed by the country’s first-ever jazz festival in February and an opera that drew crowds at Riyadh University.
In April, Riyadh hosted its first Fashion Week, although the event was women-only.
It also held its first public film screening in more than 35 years, with what theater owners said was a sold-out showing of the Hollywood blockbuster “Black Panther.”