• U.S.

Saudi Arabia Life in the Slow Lane

5 minute read
William Dowell/Riyadh

It may be axiomatic to say that Saudi Arabia is deeply influenced by religious conservatives, but the specifics are often surprising. When the Sunday Times of London recently published excerpts of Ronald Reagan’s memoirs, for example, Saudi censors gathered all the copies that reached the kingdom and methodically blacked out a half-page photograph. The offending scene: Reagan bussing his wife on the lips.

With hundreds of thousands of American troops stationed in the country, both U.S. and Saudi officials have been nervously watching for signs of a culture clash. So far, the tensions have been minimal. But the growing Western presence has emboldened a clutch of Saudi women to test the mood for change. At first authorities downplayed the challenge, but last week Riyadh switched signals and made clear that even mild protests would not be tolerated.

The controversy centers on a seemingly minor issue: Should Saudi women be allowed to drive their own cars? Two weeks ago, 47 women, most of whom had obtained a driver’s license while living abroad, gathered in a supermarket parking lot, dismissed their chauffeurs and then drove themselves in an orderly procession through downtown Riyadh.

When the police arrived to arrest the women, they first had to step in to protect them from furious members of the mutawain, the country’s religious police, who demanded that the women be jailed immediately. King Fahd deftly defused the dispute by declaring that a committee of religious scholars should investigate before any action was taken. The governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz, assembled a commission that rapidly decided that the women hadn’t actually committed a crime. The committee found there was no specific prohibition in the Koran on driving. In fact, during the time of the Prophet, women regularly led camels across the desert. Even now, Bedouin women have regularly been permitted to drive cars and trucks in isolated parts of the kingdom. The committee nevertheless gently advised against repeating the experiment.

The favorable ruling provided only momentary respite. Six of the women found themselves suspended from their jobs as professors at King Saud University in Riyadh after organized bands of students staged angry protests. “Not one of my students understood what I was trying to accomplish,” said a stunned victim. Leaflets passed out at mosques during Friday prayers accused the women of undermining Saudi morality and, worst of all, showing signs of “American secularism.” The women’s names, phone numbers and addresses were printed and distributed. Menacing telephone calls followed. Says a friend of one of the women: “They are afraid that they are going to end up like Salman Rushdie.”

As the fury increased, the government reversed itself. The Ministry of Interior issued a statement last week declaring that “driving by women contradicts the Islamic traditions followed by Saudi citizens.” The careful wording took into account the fact that Saudi Arabia is the only country to hold that Islam bars women from sitting behind the steering wheel.

The religious protests were led by Sheik Abdul Aziz ibn Baz, chief of the Presidency of Islamic Research, Ruling, Call and Guidance, an organization that rules on questions of dogma. Ibn Baz earned a certain notoriety in the 1960s by insisting that the sun revolved around the earth. He subsequently modified that view after a Saudi astronaut flew in a space shuttle and broadcast back TV images providing evidence to the contrary.

Although the pronouncements of Ibn Baz may be relatively unknown in the West, they are taken seriously in Saudi Arabia, and his denunciation of women drivers amounted to a declaration of war. “There is a growing concern by religious conservatives that modern, foreign-educated technocrats will try to use the gulf crisis to push ahead with social reforms,” says a Western diplomat in Riyadh. “They see the issue of women’s driving as the first step in that direction.”

The tensions between Western-educated Saudis and religious conservatives are certain to increase. An estimated 60,000 Saudis, for example, have attended U.S. universities. “On the one hand, they represent a sizable block that is just beginning to come into power,” explains the diplomat. “But on the other hand, they still account for only 1% of the population.” At the same time, Western analysts warn that many people in their 20s and early 30s who have been educated at Saudi universities are more religiously conservative than their Western-schooled elders.

This rise in conservatism among the new generation reflects in part the recent campaign to educate more Saudi youth at home, where they would be taught by Arab teachers, rather than sending them to school in the U.S. and Europe. Saudi officials were so concerned by the surge in conservatism that Saudi universities were finally excluded from the campaign. Students are still sent abroad for postgraduate work in order to ensure that educated Saudis get at least some exposure outside the country.

Some of the women who tried to break the ban on driving had petitioned Riyadh’s governor, Prince Salman, in advance. The women were advised to cancel the idea or at least wait a few months. “I agree with what they tried to do,” says a highly placed Saudi, “but their timing was terrible.” Now it appears that the timing for any major social changes may not be right for years.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com