The big news out of Saudi Arabia in September wasn’t ongoing conflict in Yemen or the transition to power of new, young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”). Rather, it was the decision of the notoriously conservative Middle Eastern nation to allow women to drive.
There are a number of interesting angles to this story — from violent backlash by male Saudis to a look at prohibitions still faced by Saudi women, almost unheard of in countries of similar economic prominence. Similarly, there are plenty of theories as to why the Saudis finally decided to allow women to get behind the wheel: part of a general opening up and liberalization by MBS, a diplomatic move to appease liberal Western allies, or an altruistic desire to ease restrictions on women.
However, more practical commentators have pointed out the fact that allowing women to drive means that women can more easily get to work and help boost the economy — a primary goal of MBS’ vision for Saudi Arabia’s future. As Zainab Fattah writes for Bloomberg, “[The] decree overturning a ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia is expected to boost Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to open up society, modernize the economy and reduce its oil dependence.” Fattah goes on to point out that this decision “will make it easier for Saudi women, many of whom are better educated than their male counterparts, to find jobs and reduce the reliance on expatriate workers.”
This move is a great example of how economic and business interests are some of the greatest equalizing and modernizing forces in the realm of diversity, inclusion and even human rights. MBS and his Saudi regime recognize that — whatever their personal feelings on women’s rights or even women in the workplace — being inclusive of a relatively well-educated segment of their population is the right thing to do from a purely self-interested economic point of view.
Of course, allowing Saudi women to drive is just one of many steps that will need to take place to give Saudi women anything close to the same rights as their male counterparts currently enjoy. It will be interesting to see what, if any, additional reforms Saudi Arabia considers as it seeks to capitalize on its female talent pool in its quest to boost its economic potential.
Inclusion, after all, is a business imperative. It appears that Saudi Arabia gets that. Be inclusive!