Will Automated Vehicles Accelerate Women’s Rights In Saudi Arabia?

It seems as if the country will allow cars to drive themselves before women can do so

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Jun 30, 2016 at 6:14 PM ET

As authorities in Saudi Arabia move forward on the construction of the kingdom’s newest economic megacity, a focus on the not-so-distant future is shaping the still unfinished metropolis. But while the masterplan is being reconfigured to account for forward-thinking technology such as self-driving cars, its blueprints will ultimately come to life in a land with decidedly archaic and backward automotive laws that prevent women from pressing the ignition and freely driving.

Raj Achan, the Middle East and India business development director at the architecture practice Goettsch Partners, told The National, an English-language publication based in Abu Dhabi, about the advantages such vehicles could offer the King Abdullah Economic City, a $100 billion city on the Red Sea planned to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil and toward technology. He envisions self-valeting cars that drop patrons off at destinations and then park themselves in tight rows or stacks, maximizing their spacial efficiency. “This would mean much more profit-generating retail, commercial or residential spaces in developments such as KAEC,” he said.

The adoption of automated vehicles may provide an economic boost for some of Saudi Arabia’s future cities, yet the issue raises questions for the country’s roughly 14 million inhabitants who are not allowed behind the wheel: its women.

Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are dictated by Sharia law as interpreted through Wahhabism, a strict form of the Sunni branch of the faith born in the sands of the desert kingdom. Under a system of enshrined male patronage, in addition to not being able to drive, women cannot obtain a passport, marry, travel, or pursue higher education without the permission of a male guardian. Furthermore, with the exception of a medical emergency, women are not allowed to expose certain parts of their body or even see a male doctor without a male guardian present.

More Saudi Arabia Spends A Fortune Keeping Women Off The Road

The country spends billions keeping women off the road by ensuring the need for a steady stream of foreign drivers to transport women around. Right now, Saudi women are only allowed to get behind the wheel of the country’s bumper cars, lest they be lashed or jailed for violating a religious fatwa, or Islamic legal opinion. “The grand mufti claimed that allowing women to drive would result in public ‘mixing’ of women, put women into dangerous situations because they could be alone in cars, and therefore result in social chaos,” the Washington Post reported a cable as saying in 2011.

Manal al-Sharif, a notable female activist who led a highly public “right to drive” campaign in 2011, was detained twice for her actions: she organized an online campaign to try to persuade women in the country to drive, and recorded a video of her driving in Riyadh. However, al-Sharif eventually stopped her activism after being detained for the second time.

Given the hardships women face on the road and in society at large, would automated vehicles represent a form of technological liberation for the country’s women, or further tighten the patriarchal shackles already firmly in place?

While restrictions mean that women cannot drive themselves, it is permitted for them to ride in taxis and use ride sharing and car booking apps, though they’re still technically dependent on men for their lifts. Major investments by the country and its royal family in Uber and Lyft,  may provide even more independent mobility for women later down the line—or simply more profit for transportation companies, as all Uber rides go through existing firms rather than contracted independent drivers. After all, 80 percent of Uber’s customers in Saudi Arabia are women.

Still, while automated vehicles may seem like a logical nextstep in transportation technology, they do not necessarily represent a way for women to sidestep the driving ban or a step forward for women’s rights. Madawi Al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics’ Middle East Center, said a conversation surrounding female liberation and self-driving cars hasn’t even sprung up in the kingdom. “There is no debate linking the introduction of those cars with women driving. It will absurd if women got in these cars and got themselves transported,” she told Vocativ in an email. “The issue is not about driving a machine but about women’s freedom of movement, which the car with or without driver, may allow. So the automated cars are not going to have an impact on women’s freedom of mobility, which is a human right.”

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, also told Vocativ that he believed such vehicles would do little to immediately impact women’s freedom of movement. “I don’t think it would change much. Women would still need to be accompanied by a male guardian,” he said in an email. “They are not supposed to travel alone. So it may no longer require a male driver but still require a man in charge.”

Al-Rasheed, meanwhile, acknowledged that there may be some women in the country that “will argue that automated cars are better because women will not be with a male driver,” though, she says, many individuals in the country don’t want to see the ban on driving end for cultural reasons. “It is about controlling women’s freedom and driving is incidental,” she said.