On Sept. 26, news of the Saudi Arabian female driving ban’s reversal fell on the welcome ears of women worldwide. For the first time in over twenty years, Saudi Arabian women will be able to share the roads with their male counterparts.
Forgive me if I’m not cracking open bottles of champagne.
Don’t get me wrong; lifting the ban is a great step towards reaching an acceptable Saudi Arabian standard for women’s rights. Yet, I find myself questioning why I should be celebrating a half-baked reconciliation attempt with the West while female court testimonies still only count for half that of a man’s in Saudi Arabia. The country, whose move is being deemed progressive, does not even allow women to marry without the permission of their male guardian, who is typically their father but can even be their son.
Instead of being jubilant about the reversal of the oft-cited epitome of Saudi Arabian sexism, we should be cautiously optimistic. After all, excessive sanguinity without continued criticism can lead to indifference and complacency towards ongoing women’s rights crises. Saudi Arabia is considered to be one of the worst countries in the world for women’s rights, and while their achievement should be recognized, I hesitate to call it anything but what it truly is: a farce.
While some say the move was an act of political reform, others say it was a calculated political announcement delivered at a dire time. Just before the policy reversal was announced, Saudi Arabia led a crackdown on more than 15 individuals alleged to be political dissenters, a common tactic for the regime. Moreover, anti-Saudi Arabian sentiment has been growing around the world due to their gross human rights , ranging from judicial lashings to mass executions. At the same time, Britain and the United States are considering ending arms sales with Saudi Arabia, while Canada is reviewing their arms deal after equipment purchased from Canada was used to fight a Shiite village. Needless to say, Saudi Arabia could use an olive branch to offer the West. However, their olive branch is sadly nothing more than a tangential bandage that avoids the core issue of guardianship in Saudi Arabian society.
If it took until 2017 for Saudi Arabia to dispose of one of the most egregious women’s rights offenses in the world, what does it say about America that the Saudis have been our ally for decades? Primarily, it means, as a society, that we can tolerate atrocities so long as they are not close to home. There is an obscure element of distance that determines American morality. If Mexico was committing the same offenses towards women, it is unlikely Americans would exhibit the same inexplicably dampened attitude towards the abuses.
It is also worth noting that as Americans we should not hastily project our morals onto other parts of the world. Standing up against injustice can sometimes be blurred into interventionist situations or the notion of “The White Man’s Burden.” For example, when America entered the Vietnam War, we entered under the auspice of preserving freedom. However, our enemy, the Viet Cong, wasn’t fighting against freedom; rather, they were fighting for freedom from foreign influence. America rushed to assert its values on a group of people who didn’t want them, and the results were catastrophic. Yet, Saudi Arabia is different. Our allies should have to meet an acceptable moral standard. Britain, France, Germany, Israel, Canada, and the rest of our allies all share somewhat similar values like freedom, justice, and equality, but Saudi Arabia doesn’t come close.
From the American perspective, Saudi Arabia is pardoned scot-free because of their oil reserves. But, oil is not a good enough reason—America needs a solid dose of introspection if it thinks petroleum is a legitimate explanation to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, like the country’s notorious suppression of women’s rights.
Obviously, geopolitical realities complicate the American-Saudi Arabian relationship. America needs Saudi Arabia as a partner in the effort to stabilize the Middle East as well as a partner in the oil trading industry, but there are steps the United States can take to reduce our dependence on Saudi Arabia. In particular, the U.S. can continue to develop energy independence by relying instead on clean energy or by continuing shale oil advances.
If we are free from the influence of and desire for Saudi Arabian oil, then we can truly distance ourselves from the abusive regime. Better yet, America could help encourage the Saudis to increase the quality of life for women.
No party stands to lose more from the weakening of the American-Saudi relationship than the Saudis themselves. Thus, the more energy-independent America grows, the more strategic leverage it can employ. As the United States is the biggest purchaser of Saudi Arabian oil, an energy-independent America poses a significant threat to the economic health of the Saudis. It follows that the United States’ should harness its economic influence and use it to pressure our ally into improving. There’s nothing wrong with helping a friend change; there is, however, a problem with condoning, implicitly or explicitly, human rights abuses for the sake of oil.
The reversal of the driving ban for Saudi Arabian women is objectively a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, it should also serve as a painful reminder that America is fettered by its lamentable propensity to look the other way for economic purposes when faced with immorality by American standards. Until America recognizes Saudi Arabia for the brutal theocracy it is, Americans will continue to applaud empty achievements while the underlying struggle against male guardianship endures for Saudi women.