Last June it was made legal for Saudi women to drive for the first time and a lot of people were happy to see a significant shift towards a more liberal society within Saudi Arabia. The change was part of the Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman’s ‘Vision 2030’ plans, which, although ambitious, have led to other changes, like the removal of the Mutawa (religious police) from the streets of Riyadh.
It suggested letting women drive was not just a token, but that the Saudi administration was actually committed to the path of creating a more equal and free society.
Unfortunately, things took a sharp turn in early October with the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. The prominent Saudi journalist had been writing a monthly column for the Washington Post for around a year, in which he was highly critical of the Crown Prince’s policies. The assassination of Khashoggi suggests freedom of speech is still too far beyond the pail for the Saudi Arabian government.
Whilst many Western leaders have been pleased with the recent attempts at liberalising the Saudi Arabian society, this throws the ugly shadow of a still highly autocratic system of government into sharp relief, and raises the question of how the international community will respond.
Fortunately for the Saudis, in the past they have been able to gloss over violations of international law; some UK officials received gifts of up to £2,000 in price since Saudi interventions began in Yemen. The Saudis also rely on the West’s desire to maintain good relationships to keep a foot in the Middle East.
Who knows whether the international community will listen to Saudi Arabia’s explanations, or offer them a slap on the wrist to get them back on track towards that more liberal society we all want to see.