The Saudi Form of Democracy: How Women Got to Drive
To what extent are state-led social interventions for women authoritarian? Western literature on the Middle East, and in particular on Saudi Arabia, suggests decision-making is centralized and a result of enlightened despots such Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). But this approach misses upward dialogue initiated by citizenry to communicate desired rights for women to leaderships. MBS’s progressive steps for women is not merely an isolated choice, but rather a response to activism and citizenry demands within the monarchic system. In other words, Saudis carved their own form of democracy. This article uses the case study of Saudi women’s right to drive to argue that under new leadership, Saudi Arabia has exhibited a sign of democratic mechanisms for social interventions on behalf of women.
History of the Right to Drive
The first major protest took place on November 6th 1990, when 47 Saudi women drove through the capital city of Riyadh. These women were imprisoned, stripped of passports and some lost their jobs. In 2007, Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Uyyouni submitted a 1,100-signature petition to King Abdullah asking for women to be allowed to drive. On International Women’s Day 2008, al-Huwaider filmed herself driving, for which she received international media attention after the video was posted on YouTube. 2011 to 2014, Mana al-Sharif and other activities started a social media campaign through a Facebook called “Women2Drive.” Countless women throughout these years drove in defiance of the law, sharing their drives virtually on social media–and sometimes getting arrested for it as well. 
But if protests have been ongoing since the 1990s, then what has changed to allow Saudi women the right to drive in 2018? New leadership aiming for popular support and modernisation is key. King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who came into power in 2015 and still reigns today, implemented progressive reforms, which seemed to imply the changing role of women in Saudi society as the state’s interpretation of its Wahhabi roots also shifted.
He immediately appointed women to the high-ranking political bodies and restricted the political committees from harassing women. Women were given the right to vote and run in municipal elections in 2015. In 2017, the guardianship system was relaxed in order to allow women to work, travel and seek healthcare without male approval (Al-Rasheed 2019). Activists such as Lujain al-Huthlul led the Campaign2Drive and called on all women to drive. King Salman finally issued a decree in 2017 allowing women to drive. The decree took effect in 2018.
Analysis: Saudi as Democratic?
Responsiveness to citizenry is a form of democracy. Listening to protests and to the demands of protestors is a form of dialogue in which citizenry voices are heard. MBS’s response to protests through legalization of female driving was backed by a desire to appease societal frustrations demonstrated in protests in order to be a popular figure. Al-Jazeera called it a “PR stunt” because of the popularity and notoriety gained from lifting the ban on women driving.
Utilizing central power to satisfy protestor demands is just a different form of democracy from what western academia typically calls democratic decision-making. It is Saudi Arabia’s version. Evidence presented directly contradicts western academics’ criticism of Saudi Arabia as a monolith autocratic nation where women’s right to drive was decided by one leader’s whim, rather than as a part of a larger political process. The win was painted as a personality feature of MBS. Evidence presented shows that protests pressurized executive decision-making, forcing and incentivizing the heavy hand of MBS to act liberally in favor of women’s rights. Protestors changed the political calculus and made it politically and financially sensible for MBS to promote equality in the right to drive.
The right to drive is created as a case study of democratic decision-making because of clear evidence available linking MBS’s 2018 decree to previous activism. Yet, MBS has also led other efforts to liberalize the environment for women that are notable to understanding the “openness” of Saudi Arabia. Greater societal efforts by MBS to mobilize women in the workplace and political office suggests MBS listening to advisors and societal frustrations at large. Women, especially younger women I have worked with in Saudi, often feel frustrated by the lack of upward mobility available and the restricted ability to express their identity. This stifles the ability for women to make meaningful contributions to the economy and other areas of society. The financial and political consultants advice MBS: free women to free the economy’s potential.
Some may argue that since MBS continues to jail female activists and retains those jailed for driving prior to 2018, Saudi Arabia cannot be democratic. To this, I answer that democratic processes can exist outside of a democracy. While it is true that Saudi Arabia does not operate institutionally as a democracy, it does not mean that Saudi cannot have democratic elements at all. Listening to a demand by women, a marginalized group in the country, is a democratic piece of a larger monarchic system. The most important thing is that Saudi is in a different place today and MBS is ultimately moving the needle in the right direction for women.
This article raises the question: who else are we misunderstanding? Kuwait is the clearest democracy to western academia, but what about the U.A.E.? Qatar? These Gulf nations have undergone serious reforms and strategic planning to re-envision their futures with women’s rights as a priority, but we still see them as monolith autocratic nations. In reality, these countries also practice their own forms of democratic decision-making with progressive reforms made by autocratic leaders. For example, the U.A.E. give constituents a chance to speak with senior leaders and make social grievances heard–similar to a U.S. city’s town hall. This paper raises questions on how Middle Eastern countries’ political processes for social causes are understood by academia and invites further research to clarify.
 “The Women to Drive Movement.” The Women To Drive Movement. Accessed December 26, 2022.
 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “2008 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia,” U.S. Department of State, February 25, 2009.
 Ibid Al-Rasheed 2019; Ibid “The Women to Drive Movement.”
 Hana Al-Khamri, “Why Did Saudi Arabia Lift the Driving Ban on Women Only Now?” Al Jazeera, June 24, 2018.
Al-Khamri, Hana. “Why Did Saudi Arabia Lift the Driving Ban on Women Only Now?” Al Jazeera, June 24, 2018.
Al-Rasheed, Madawi. “Saudi Women: Between Family, Religion and State.” Gender,
Governance and Islam, edited by Deniz Kandiyoti et al., (2019, JSTOR, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh): pp. 62–79. www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctvrs9192.7. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020.
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “2008 Human Rights Report: Saudi Arabia,” U.S. Department of State. February 25, 2009.
“The Women to Drive Movement.” The Women To Drive Movement. Accessed December 26, 2022.
“Saudi Arabia Driving Ban on Women to Be Lifted.” BBC News, September 27, 2017.
Editor: Samriddhi Vij
Artwork credit : Malika Favre