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In allowing women to drive, Saudi Arabia looks to cover its war tracks

It’s hard to go negative on such a positive and long overdue reform, but that seems to be precisely the point, as Saudi Arabia times its lifting of ban on women driving to drown a critical UN vote and ongoing financial and diplomatic woes in flood of glowing media coverage.

by Whitney Webb

On Tuesday, international corporate media outlets were abuzz with the news that the hyper-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia had finally lifted its ban on women drivers. A royal decree credited to King Salman was responsible for the sudden change in policy, which Prince Khaled bin Salman, the king’s son and the country’s ambassador to the U.S., called a “huge step forward.” Prior to Tuesday’s decree, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to have such a ban, which was often cited by critics of the regime’s human rights record.

Much of the coverage regarding the decision spoke positively of the kingdom’s human rights trajectory, asserting that “women’s rights have steadily and slowly gained ground over the years” in the kingdom and that the move was “a significant expansion of women’s rights.” The U.S. State Department and White House also spoke of the policy change in glowing terms and commended Saudi leaders for their decision. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert declined to comment on whether the Saudi kingdom needed to do more to ensure full rights for women.

In their glowing coverage, many media outlets failed to highlight that the policy change would not take immediate effect. While these outlets implied that the change would be immediate, the Saudi decree actually called for the formation of a committee that would offer recommendations within the next 30 days regarding how to potentially implement the offering of drivers licenses to women. Although the schedule may vary depending upon the recommendations of the committee, women are not expected to be able to obtain licenses until June of 2018. As policy analyst Yousef Munayyer noted, this is “far from letting women drive.”

It also remains to be seen what hurdles may be added to the granting of drivers licenses to women. For example, the committee could decide that women cannot drive alone — as women in Saudi Arabia must often be accompanied by a male relative in public, in keeping with the country’s “guardianship laws.” It could also choose to restrict licenses to women of certain socio-economic status, or restrict the licenses’ use to specific purposes. In other words, until the committee makes public its recommendations, it will be hard to know if Saudi Arabia actually lifted its blanket ban on women drivers.

Prince Salman told reporters that such limitations would not come to pass. However, his assurances were not included in the decree and his words lack the authority that has been wholly delegated to the committee.

Why suddenly “the right time”?

When Khaled bin Salman told reporters on Tuesday, regarding the recent decree, “this is the right time to do the right thing,” he certainly wasn’t kidding. Indeed, the timing of the decree could not have been more convenient for the Saudi kingdom, though the Saudi royal family made no mention of why it really was the “right time” to end its ban on women drivers.

Between now and this Friday, when the United Nation’s Human Rights Council concludes its ongoing session, the international body will vote on a resolution to decide whether or not to establish an independent, international probe into war crimes committed in Yemen.

The United Nations rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has consistently pushed the Human Rights Council to create an independent investigation into the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, which began in March 2015. Since then, over ten thousand civilians have been killed and the Saudi’s blockade of Yemeni ports and its bombing of civilian infrastructure have led to 17 million Yemenis lacking access to clean water and food, as well as to the worst cholera epidemic in history.

The Saudi regime is clearly uncomfortable with the resolution. They have vowed to “not accept” the findings of the probe, were the resolution to pass, and have also threatened any nation that votes in favor of the probe with economic and political retaliation. Yet, now, with the international media fawning over the Saudi government’s human rights “progress,” international pressure against the kingdom may be reduced as its role in the destruction of Yemen again fades into the background.

Reform as misdirection: MBS puts on his makeup

However, the upcoming UN vote was not the only factor in prompting the headline-grabbing policy reversal. International media outlets, though they stated that the decree was signed by King Salman, consistently noted that the reform was the work of the newly-minted Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, often referred to by the acronym MBS.

The coverage of MBS’ role in bringing about the reform – as well as his role in Saudi politics – was overwhelmingly positive. For instance, CNN stated that the lifting of the driving ban was “just the latest in a series of changes that have been rippling through Saudi Arabia since the rise of [the] 32-year-old crown prince.”

Other outlets, such as Forbes, also credited MBS with the decree as part of his “ambitious” plan to overhaul the Saudi economy by 2030, noting that the decree would ostensibly allow more women to join the workforce. The Associated Press further credited MBS for having “opened the country to more entertainment and fun.”

None of these outlets mentioned the rise of domestic dissent in Saudi Arabia, its ethnic cleansing of minorities within its borders, or its major economic woes – all of which have also occurred alongside MBS’ rise to power.

Given King Salman’s ailing health and all but confirmed senility, MBS has been calling the shots in the Saudi kingdom since he ousted the former crown prince in what some spectators likened to an internal coup. He is expected to replace his father any month now, as the corporate media has noted, meaning that he is eager to improve how he is perceived abroad and cultivate his image as a “reformer.”

However, MBS is hardly the reformer he purports to be. In fact, his past actions show him to be a dangerous warhawk prone to impulsivity and rash judgements. Prior to becoming crown prince, he was the nation’s defense minister and was largely responsible for the Saudi war in Yemen, which has drained the country’s finances, as well as for the collapse in diplomatic relations with neighboring Qatar.

He has also pushed for war with Iran. MBS has argued, for example, that diplomatic dialogue with Iran was “impossible” and even hinted at a Saudi pre-emptive strike against Iran, stating that “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran.” Furthermore, according to other members of the Saudi royal family, MBS was allowed to ascend to the position of crown prince after accepting conditions that included “absolute obedience to the U.S. and Israel and carrying out whatever they ask him to do.”

Thus, the sudden lifting of the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia is likely part of a larger public relations campaign, a “dramatic” but fundamentally cosmetic gesture meant to hide the more displeasing facets of MBS’ political record as he prepares to become king. Annually, the Saudis spend millions on public relations efforts, particularly in the West, as their greatest allies are the United States and the United Kingdom.

Clearly, Prince bin Salman would much rather be viewed by the international community as the Saudi leader who championed women’s rights as opposed to the Saudi leader who started – and continues – the country’s genocidal and disastrous war against its southern neighbor, Yemen.

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