The country has lifted its ban on female drivers, but this is a rebrand, not a revolution. Yet many governments and media outlets are being taken in
If I see one more article about Saudi women being able to drive I am going to throw myself under a car. Dont get me wrong, I am glad Saudi Arabia has lifted the worlds only ban on women driving. But I am also worried. Rather than being a meaningful step towards progress, as much of the coverage suggests, the reversal of the driving ban is quite the opposite. Allowing women behind the wheel is a PR move by Saudi Arabia, designed not to modernise the kingdom, but to render a repressive regime more palatable. Yet many western media outlets seem to be falling for this strategic women-washing, as you might call it, hook, line and blinker.
Last month, Saudi Arabia locked up a number of womens rights campaigners. At midnight on Sunday, when some Saudi women took to the roads for the first time, six high-profile activists who spent years campaigning for that right sat in Saudi Arabian jails, accused according to declarations in state media reported by Amnesty International of contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the countrys stability and social fabric.
The irony of Saudi Arabia jailing womens rights activists at the same time as it lifted its driving ban did not go unacknowledged by the media. However, the jailed activists were the secondary story. Most headlines have played into the narrative of reform that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been pushing. This weeks cover of the Economist, for example, read The Saudi revolution begins, alongside a cute visual of a niqab with car wheels representing a womans eyes. But there is no revolution happening in Saudi Arabia. What is happening is a rebrand.
It was reported last year that Saudi Arabia was setting up global public relations hubs to improve its international image amid its bombing of Yemen and its embargo of Qatar. Well, the Saudi PR machine has been very busy indeed. When Prince Mohammed visited the UK in March, he was accompanied by a massive advertising campaign. Messages such as He is empowering Saudi Arabian women covered billboards and taxis. They even appeared in the Guardian.
Saudi Arabias messaging points have been regurgitated by the media, too. In November, Thomas Friedman wrote what was essentially a puff piece about Prince Mohammed in the New York Times, titled Saudi Arabias Arab Spring, at Last. Then, in March, Prince Mohammed appeared on CBSs 60 Minutes, his first interview with an American television network. He is emancipating women, introducing music and cinema and cracking down on corruption, in a land with 15,000 princes, announced the introduction to an extremely softball interview. In the 30-minute segment, only a couple were devoted to Yemen, and these were glossed over quickly. After all, who wants to talk about war crimes and dead Yemenis when you can talk about cinemas and women driving? Particularly when the US and the UK are complicit in Saudi Arabias disastrous war in Yemen.
That is the salient point here. Ultimately, the celebratory coverage around Saudi Arabia lifting its driving ban is a reflection of the fact that it is in the wests best interest for the kingdom to be painted in a good light. It is terribly inconvenient, after all, to acknowledge that your lucrative trading partner, whose war efforts you are backing, is an abusive, authoritarian regime. Far better to focus on lovely photos of women in cars.