It sounds ridiculously anachronistic here in America, but in many Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, women aren't allowed to drive. Today, a Saudi prince, Alwaleed bin Talal, spoke out on the matter, saying the ban should be lifted.
Bin Talal's reasoning isn't rooted in human rights or equality of the sexes, however, but in econmics: allowing women to drive would increase the pool of available drivers in Saudi Arabia, potentially making it possible to send home 750,000 foreign drivers that currently chauffeur the country's women.
Whatever the reason, Saudi women, many of whom have been fighting for the right to drive for years, will be pleased with the statement--particularly if the Kingdom acts on it. And there are a few reasons it might--beyond the economic impact.
The Middle East political instability that has been a driving force behind much of the fuel prices rises over the last few months has seen governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya under siege or toppled, with further protests and civil unrest in Bahrain, Jordan, and Yemen. Saudi Arabia isn't immune to the popular activism that sparked these crises. Prince bin Talal's speech could be seen as a pre-emptive step to diffuse some of the political tension in the country by picking an issue central to one of its most oppressed (by Western standards) and yet influential populations--women.
Relaxing or removing the ban on women behind the wheel could also be seen as a step toward a more moderate interpretation of Islam from the ruling monarchy, something King Abdullah has done in small increments since ascending to the throne in 2005.
Abdullah isn't ignorant of the turmoil surrounding his nation, either: last month Abdullah handed out $37 billion in royal funds to power social benefits programs, aimed at ameliorating inflation and unemployment.
But what, you ask, does any of this have to do with us here in America? Aside from our stated social interest in seeing democracy and human rights spread throughout the world, there's the matter of all the oil Saudi Arabia sits on--over one fifth of the world's reserves. Should the country fall into the same sort of strife and civil protest that's enveloping many of its neighbors, already rising fuel prices could shoot through the roof.
Those hopeful of impending repeal on the female driving ban should temper their optimism with some history, however: in 2008, popular pressure had risen to a point where a royal decree allowing women to drive was thought to be imminent. It didn't happen.