Shallow changes?

It is this context in which the recent decision to allow women in Saudi Arabia to apply for driving licenses from next year is a game-changer - not so much for the real empowerment of women in the country, but for the economy.

2017-09-29T02:39:44+05:00 Saadia Gardezi

The oil rich Gulf state, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is moving in a direction that the US is refusing to capitalise on. While the US led by Donald Trump scraps the Paris climate agreement, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is investing in clean energy, while it still sits on its lucrative oil fields.

Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc has started selling its luxury electric cars in Dubai. The California-based Tesla is accepting online orders from customers in the UAE; it has a pop-up store in the Dubai Mall and a Tesla service centre being built in Dubai that will open in July. This coupled with UAE’s plans to go green, is a shift in how the rich in the world are thinking about energy. In January 2017, UAE planned to invest $163 billion in alternative energy use for the next three decades.

This can all be put in the context of the further marketization of the Gulf Economies, including Saudi Arabia. A new frontier for European states like the United Kingdom, looking to the region for economic relationships after Brexit. It is this context in which the recent decision to allow women in Saudi Arabia to apply for driving licenses from next year is a game-changer - not so much for the real empowerment of women in the country, but for the economy. This is also a step toward fulfilling one of the central aims of the Vision 2030 strategy, which seeks to diversify the economy away from oil dependency and public-sector employment.

And here we have it, change led by capitalist pressures, not social ones. These oil rich states are trying to move beyond oil, especially after the shale oil boom in the US has led to falling oil prices. Saudi Arabia for one has been feeling the crunch, with a slowdown in the construction market. There are also predictions of the Dubai economy slowing down, with construction and property sectors languishing. These regional economies are trying to diversify their markets, and in haste.

The face of the new Gulf economics will be determined by outsiders. These states are trying to attract foreign investors and producers to start work in their systems, to generate jobs and stimulate local demand. One example is of Saudi Arabia teaming up with Japan’s tech giant Softbank to launch a tech fund in London. The SoftBank Vision Fund will step up investments in technology companies globally and hopes to become the biggest investor in the technology sector. Saudi Arabia has a majority share in the venture ($45 billion out of a total of a $105 billion announced in January 2016).

The Gulf is set to become a major trade partner for the UK after it exits the EU. In December 2016, British Prime Minister Theresa May joined the Gulf Arab leaders at a summit in Bahrain to talks free trade arrangements with the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Women aren’t the only ones to benefit from the need for sustained economic growth. In the UAE Minister of Cabinet Affairs Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Gergawi, is the future, vice chairman and managing director of the Dubai Future Foundation (DFF). A DFF report suggests that electricity generated from renewable sources in the UAE will be greater than the current combined demand of China, India, and Brazil - the world’s most populous countries. Additionally, 15 percent to 20 percent of households will run on solar energy by 2025. Electric, driverless cars will make up 90 percent of vehicles by 2035. A tick in the box of environmental sustainability - thanks to western market logic, desires for Tesla cars, and modernity.

The announcement of women being allowed to drive is projected to give a 0.4 percent boost to the Kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP) in the long term. This is pretty significant given that the International Monetary Fund predicted it to be 0 percent this year. Additionally, Saudi officials hope that the money women save on drivers will remain in the local economy, rather than being sent as remittances to other countries.

These are smart moves on the part of economic planners and also signal to the fact that though everything changes, nothing really does. There was enough justification to allow women to be mobile, right at home. Islamic history is rife with examples of women as leaders, business owners, scholars and activists. Elderly Saudis still remember mothers driving camels and trucks in the desert. Yet, the puritanical Wahhabi establishment who help sustains the monarchy made sure that women were relegated to the status of second-class citizens and forbidden from mixing with men.

Market logic finally broke this shackle, when nothing else could. It just highlights how weak social structures are to generate change, how strong an incentive of money is for a patriarchal state. It is a change to celebrate, yes, but because of the process by which it has come about, there is much yet to discuss and resolve about how women and the environment are seen in highly conservative societies who cannot extend rights to the subalterns, unless prodded by western pressures.

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