The arrest and continuing imprisonment of Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi woman who was filmed at the wheel of a car, has been attracting a lot of media attention outside the kingdom – and rightly so. From an international perspective it is ludicrous that women's driving should still be a contentious matter, and of course this is just one aspect of a much bigger debate about gender equality in Saudi Arabia (or the lack of it).
But beyond that there is an even more fundamental question about the difficulty – and, in some cases, the near-impossibility – of implementing change at a pace that can satisfy the needs of the moment. The lesson from recent events in the region is that Arab governments will have to reform drastically, and quickly, if they want to avoid the fate of those in Tunisia and Egypt.
The Saudi establishment, of course, is not totally oblivious to this but it still seems unwilling or unable to grasp the nettle. Though King Abdullah leans mildly towards reform, he is wary of making any decision that might be considered socially divisive – and especially any that would inflame conservative religious scholars, since his throne's legitimacy rests on religious credentials.
The issue of female drivers looks like becoming a major test of the king's commitment to reform. It has been brought to a head by the threat of direct action by a group known in English asWomen2Drive. They have said that from June 17 their female supporters will take to the roads using international driving licences (since they can't obtain Saudi licences even though there is no specific law forbidding women from driving).
This, in effect, is forcing the Saudi authorities into a choice they would rather not make: either to suppress the right-to-drive campaign, casting serious doubts on the prospects for more generalised reform, or to embrace it and risk a backlash from traditionalists.
Faced with a dilemma such as this, the usual government response is to stall and procrastinate. In an article last week, Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, said there is "nothing fundamentally wrong with women driving" but the issue should be dealt with "calmly" and not politicised. "However," he continued, "we must also take into account an important point, namely that the issue of women driving is not something that can be resolved immediately".
Alhomayed therefore proposed setting up a committee to look into it – the classic way of kicking an issue into the long grass.
Among the ideas the committee might consider, he said, was a pilot scheme "allowing Saudi Arabian women, of a certain age, to drive in certain cities".
"Later the age limit can be reduced, and the experiment extended to other Saudi cities," he added. "This is in order to observe the logistical conditions, from the traffic department and other issues, as well as ensuring decency with regards to appearances."
But even a pilot scheme might be too much for the system to take without other safeguards. "Before all of this," Alhomayed wrote, "there must be a strict and firm law in place to ensure that women drivers are not subject to any forms of sexual harassment or insult."
That in itself is a mind-boggling proposal: that women should be protected from sexual harassment, but only when driving.
The fundamental problem, though, is that in the current climate Alhomayed's overall approach – which is typical of the Saudi establishment – is both patronising and complacent: reform, yes, but all in good time and please don't make a fuss.
Saying that the issue must not be politicised and reducing it to a series of questions about practicalities is simply a way of avoiding any clear-cut decision.
It has been a similar story regarding women's right to vote. When Saudi Arabia held municipal elections in 2005, women were not excluded by law but by supposed administrative difficulties. It ws claimed that there had not been enough time to organise separate voting facilities for women as would be required by Saudi custom. Nevertheless, there were strong hints that this would be resolved in time for women to take part in the next elections, four years later.
No elections were held in 2009 but they have been rescheduled for later this year and, once again, women are being barred from registering to vote. And so it goes on, with more hints about letting them vote next time.
Treating these things as administrative rather than political issues is never going to bring substantial reform – at least, not in the time frame required. Besides that, though, Saudi Arabia lacks most of the usual mechanisms for resolving them politically. The only insitutionalised mechanism for seeking reform is to send an obseqious petition to the king, and even then there is a risk of arrestif he doesn't like the idea.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 May 2011.