Moving Fast and Breaking Things, a Saudi Prince Tests His Public

 In World
The real weight of public opinion in Saudi Arabia lies among its young people, an Internet generation eager for social change. Or at least, so says one member of that cohort.

And Mohammed Bin Salman, the 32-year-old who effectively runs the country in his father’s name, just placed a big bet on his millennial peers. By ending the world’s only ban on women driving cars, the crown prince has upset plenty of people in this Islamic kingdom, founded on a pact between clerics and the royal family. He may be calculating that an even larger number of Saudis are ready to go along for the ride.

Will it work? It’s hard to gauge the mood of a country with little freedom of expression or opinion polling, though a 2014 survey found the public almost equally divided. Much depends on who wins the argument, because Prince Mohammed’s promise of a more “vibrant’’ society is just part of an all-embracing reform program. Further down the road lie economic changes that are likely to unsettle many Saudis accustomed to government largesse. Some measures have already met with resistance.

Steffen Hertog, a professor at the London School of Economics and longtime Saudi-watcher, acknowledges that there’s guesswork involved. “My best guess is that there is a silent majority in favor” of letting women drive, he said. There’s also “a vocal minority that is very unhappy about the move.”

‘It’s a Gamble’

Whatever the outcome, he sees a decisive break with the Saudi ruling family’s past. “The leadership is giving up the old, tight coalition with a super-conservative, fairly well-organized minority,” Hertog said. Instead, it’s seeking “more diffuse support in society at large, particularly among younger Saudis. It’s a gamble. But the old coalition has held up change in many regards.”

Pushback against the driving decision began the morning after its announcement — which came in a news bulletin on state media, followed by a press conference that took place outside the kingdom, at the Saudi embassy in Washington.

“The people reject women driving” was the top-trending hashtag on Twitter. One Saudi user tweeted the shift would be followed by women removing their veils, and Saudi decisions being issued by the White House. The top religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars, commended the order but expressed reservations about the need to abide by Islamic requirements.

“Like any society, people resist change,” said Basmah Omair, executive director of the Khadijah Bint Khawilid Center in Jeddah, which lobbies for women’s economic empowerment. Her group carried out the poll of about 3,000 people in 2014, which found the public evenly divided on the question of whether women should be allowed to drive. But she says more recent work shows opinion is shifting in favor. “Once change is implemented, and they see the positive effects of it, people get accustomed to it pretty fast,” she said.

‘Elements That Resist’

Opening the roads to women drivers may lift economic growth by almost 1 percentage point every year, adding about $90 billion of output by 2030, according to BI Economics.

Some potential critics had already been silenced. Saudi authorities arrested several prominent clerics and academics earlier this month who they accused of having ties with foreign powers and extremist groups.

A woman drives a car in Jeddah on Sept. 27

Photographer: Reem Baeshen/AFP via Getty Images

Yet it won’t be possible to stifle all opposition, according to Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group. Among the clerical establishment, and perhaps also the royal family, “there are going to be elements that resist this.’’

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