A week ago, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote. Just two days later, a court sentenced a Saudi woman to ten lashes for getting behind the wheel in defiance of the country’s ban on women driving. We explore why despite the pro-democracy movements erupting across the Middle East, many Saudis feel change will be slow to come to the Kingdom.


  • Sara al-Haidar Member, Saudi Women for Driving
  • Marina S. Ottaway Director, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Ali Alyami Director, Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia

Sara Al-haidar’s mother behind the wheel in protest of the Saudi ban on women driving:


  • 12:42:22

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIA week ago, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced that women would have the right to vote and stand for office. And women across Saudi Arabia celebrated the victory. The next day, a Saudi court sentenced a woman to 10 lashes for the offense of driving a car. Along with dozens of other women, she had gotten behind the wheel last June in defiance of the longstanding ban on women behind the wheel.

  • 12:42:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs protests raged across the Middle East and dictators are forced out of power, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has remained amazingly impervious. Many Saudis point out that the king considers himself a reformer, and he is enormously popular among Saudis. But for others, change seems slow or nonexistent in the kingdom. Joining us to discuss this is Sara al-Haidar.

  • 12:43:11

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and is a member of the group Saudi Women for Driving. Sara al-Haidar, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:43:19

    MS. SARA AL-HAIDARThank you for having me.

  • 12:43:20

    NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Marina Ottaway, senior associate for the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Marina Ottaway, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:43:30

    MS. MARINA OTTAWAYThank you.

  • 12:43:31

    NNAMDISara, I'll start with you. How did you feel about King Abdullah's decision to allow women to vote and stand for office?

  • 12:43:38

    AL-HAIDARIt was -- it's a good thing, but it's a very symbolic decree on the king's part because the right to vote in such councils is -- it's basically symbolic. It's not going to change our day-to-day life. And what you need to understand is that women get to vote in municipal councils, which don't have a lot of power in themselves. So it's a right step and -- it's a step in the right direction, but it won't affect our day-to-day lives.

  • 12:44:11

    NNAMDIWe've got somewhat of a mixed reaction. The Washington Post published some of the tweets that it picked up. One of them from Ahmed (sp?) said, "Big day for Saudi women any way you measure it." Another one from SWR87 says, "You're going to drive. Any day now, they'll allow it. How long have we've been hearing that, ladies, 20 years, 30?"

  • 12:44:29

    NNAMDIAnd a Lou K. says, "Politics is still an exclusive club in Saudi Arabia, but congratulations on adding women to the list of pawns, really." You know, Marina Ottaway, some criticize this decision because it does not take effect right away, so women cannot vote in the upcoming election, not until the next round of elections. When will that be?

  • 12:44:50

    OTTAWAYThat will be four years from now. The king waited until the elections had taken place. Immediately after the elections, he announced that the next time, the women would have the right to vote, which is, by the way, is something that had been announced before, just after the previous elections, that probably women would have the right to vote. So elections are being introduced with all deliberate speed.

  • 12:45:15

    NNAMDIAnd in your case, Sara al-Haidar, you feel that because this is municipal election and it doesn't happen until 2015, it won't have that much of an impact on their life. But do you see it as a step forward?

  • 12:45:27

    AL-HAIDARIt is a step forward if you think about it symbolically because, again, the municipal councils don't have a lot of power. And before this decree, women were honorary members in Shura, but, again...

  • 12:45:46

    NNAMDIWhat does that mean?

  • 12:45:48

    AL-HAIDARBasically, members of Shura are assigned by the government to discuss the issues of -- that concern the people of Saudi Arabia. And they discuss them, and then they try to come up with solutions. But these are only suggestions. They end up as suggestions. They're not -- there isn't a law that says once these people discuss a situation or a topic and come to a conclusion, it doesn't have to be a law.

  • 12:46:19

    AL-HAIDARSo before the king's decree, they were -- women were honorary members. And after the king's decree, a woman will be appointed by the king, and they will have a say in the discussions. But at the end of the day, what they come up with is not going to necessarily be what happens, so...

  • 12:46:40

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number here if you'd like to join this conversation. Do you think Saudi Arabia is affected by the protests and instability in neighboring countries? Do you believe this is what is driving some of these decisions? 800-433-8850, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to kojo@wamu.org.

  • 12:47:00

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Marina Ottaway, senior associate for the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Sara al-Haidar. She lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and is a member of the group Saudi Member for Driving. As I mentioned, Sara, you live in Saudi Arabia. Do you drive?

  • 12:47:17

    AL-HAIDARUnfortunately, I don't know how to drive. So my involvement with the group has basically been me filming my mom driving 'cause she knows how to drive, filming her and uploading the videos onto YouTube and doing a lot of -- just trying to give people or women, in general, a voice. That's what I'm -- I've been trying to do.

  • 12:47:40

    NNAMDIAnd if you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you will see video of the aforementioned, Sara's mom, driving that we have posted on YouTube. She's also visiting the studio today with us. How did you hear about the Saudi Women for Driving protest? And why did you decide to join?

  • 12:47:56

    AL-HAIDARIt's -- the movement started as a grassroots movement on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, and that's how I heard about it. And the fact that driving is a basic human right -- it doesn't go against anything in terms of our religion, so why not? And then with having foreign drivers in our households, it brings in so many different problems and so many complications that I feel would be eliminated if women were allowed to drive.

  • 12:48:30

    NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned that it doesn't conflict with your religion because, Marina Ottaway, Saudi Arabia may be the only country in the world that bans women from driving. But it's my understanding that it is not a written law, is it?

  • 12:48:43

    OTTAWAYNo. There is no law that says women cannot drive. What -- the reason why women are not allowed to drive is that it's assumed that, if women have the freedom to go out by themselves, that will lead to mingling, that men and women will get together more easily. And that, of course, is against -- certainly, against the customs of the country.

  • 12:49:06

    OTTAWAYWhether or not it's against the -- you know, the Islamic law is something else, but it's certainly against the customs of the country.

  • 12:49:13

    NNAMDIDoes the lack of a written legal code in the kingdom mean that both laws and enforcement can be arbitrary?

  • 12:49:22

    OTTAWAYWell, it means that the government has to find other laws under which it can stop women from driving. And very easy, one is disturbing the public order and the peace because, in fact, a woman driving does cause a commotion, given the situation in the country. So that's what they have to do.

  • 12:49:43


  • 12:49:44

    AL-HAIDARNo. The first female driver who was issued a ticket was issued the ticket based on the fact that she didn't have a driver's license. She was driving without a driver's license. She wasn't issued a ticket because she was breaking any of the laws of the road, you know? So they have to come up with smart ways to stop women from driving, but there is no written law.

  • 12:50:10

    NNAMDITell us about the protest last June.

  • 12:50:13

    AL-HAIDAROkay. So last June, on June 17, the women who were involved with Women 2 Drive and Women for Driving, both on Twitter and Facebook, decided that this date would be the date that they would break this ban. And it's not a protest that started and ended on that day. It was a movement that began on June 17 and is still going on today.

  • 12:50:37

    AL-HAIDARWomen are going out there and driving every day, and it's a time that women decided that enough is enough. And there isn't a law that prevents women from driving, so they might as well go out and drive.

  • 12:50:50

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Nace (sp?) in McLean, Va. Nace, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:50:57

    NACEYeah. Hi. I had a question for Sara. I wanted to know what did she think was, like -- what are the necessary steps in order to get women to drive? What do we have to overcome? 'Cause I know we can't just allow women to just drive right away. There has to be steps that we need to take. And I was just wondering what she thought the steps were.

  • 12:51:17

    NNAMDIWhat steps do you think need to be taken?

  • 12:51:19

    AL-HAIDARI think if you look at Qatar, that's a perfect example of how women were gradually allowed to drive in Qatar. And this is, I guess, about 15 years ago. Women who had international driver's license or foreign driver's license were allowed to drive in Qatar. And then a few years later, women over 35 -- over the age of 35 were allowed to -- were issued Qatari driver's license, and they were allowed to drive.

  • 12:51:49

    AL-HAIDARAnd then a few years after that, women who reached the age of 18 were able to apply for a driver's license. So, I think, gradually allowing women to drive would be a good way of going about things.

  • 12:52:06

    NNAMDIMarina Ottaway, last week a judge sentenced a women to 10 lashes for driving. She was a 34-year-old mother sentenced by a court in the Red Sea port of Jeddah last Tuesday for, quoting here, "persistently flouting" the driving ban. She was also a part of the June 17 protest.

  • 12:52:25

    AL-HAIDARYes, she was.

  • 12:52:26

    NNAMDIIs this a particularly harsh sentence?

  • 12:52:28

    OTTAWAYYes. It is a harsh sentence. There is no doubt, particularly since she was not doing anything that, you know, caused any harm to anybody else. I think it was an attempt to make an example of her.

  • 12:52:41

    NNAMDIWhat did you think about the sentence, Sara?

  • 12:52:43

    AL-HAIDARI was outraged. I mean, a lot of people back home were shocked that this would happen. And the fact that the lashings were cancelled tells you...

  • 12:52:55

    NNAMDIKing Abdullah spared the woman the lashing.

  • 12:52:57

    AL-HAIDARIt tells you a lot about how things are going on.

  • 12:53:00

    NNAMDIDo you think that he spared the lashing? Because some have speculated that he's trying to head off the kinds of protests that are taking place elsewhere in the Middle East. Do you...

  • 12:53:08

    AL-HAIDARI think -- that could be the reason. But I think things back home are not as organized as we think they are. Someone sentenced a woman to lashing, and then someone hears about it. And it's not as organized as you would think, so...

  • 12:53:27

    NNAMDIA lot of these things, it is my understanding, Marina Ottaway, has to do with what part of the country they take place in.

  • 12:53:33

    OTTAWAYWell, Jeddah is the most liberal -- has the reputation as being the most liberal city in Saudi Arabia. So the fact that it happened in Jeddah is particularly interesting from that point of view. But in terms of, is the king trying to head off protest? I think -- although there has been no sign of large-scale protest in Saudi Arabia, I don't think there is any government in the Middle East now that is -- does not know that things could change very rapidly, even in that country.

  • 12:54:05

    NNAMDISara, I know that you've been traveling here in the United States during the course of the past few weeks. But have you been able to follow the reaction in Saudi Arabia to the sentence and to King Abdullah's action afterwards?

  • 12:54:16

    AL-HAIDARSomewhat, yes, I have been able to follow it. As I said, many were shocked and outraged. And things happen back home in a way that I find hard to understand. An example of that would be one of the women who drove, Najla al-Hariri, has been called to court, and no one knows why. No one knows what the charges are.

  • 12:54:42

    AL-HAIDARSo this alone, that -- the fact that she has been called to court -- she's supposed -- she's scheduled to be in court, I think, a few days from now or a few weeks. But the thing is that she's been called to court based on the fact that she drove a car. That's the only thing. So what they're going to charge her with is a mystery, and I think that is -- that's -- things are not as organized as we think they are.

  • 12:55:08

    AL-HAIDARAnd with the lashings, I think it has a lot to do with the judge who she was appointed to.

  • 12:55:17

    NNAMDIKing Abdullah does consider himself a reformer. But what kinds of pressures does he face, Marina Ottaway?

  • 12:55:24

    OTTAWAYWell, he's a reformer, but, like many reformers in Saudi Arabia, he's a reformer who thinks of the past and not of the situation now. In other words, he thinks of where the country is coming from. And considering where the country is coming from, he's a reformer. Considering where other countries are at this point, of course, Saudi Arabia is still very much behind.

  • 12:55:50

    OTTAWAYAnd the danger is that, at some point, people, younger people who think that Saudi Arabia should be a country like all others are going to put a lot of pressure on the government.

  • 12:56:00

    NNAMDIHere's Ami (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Ami, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:56:05

    AMIYes. Hi. I wasn't -- I just got on our -- I didn't hear the discussion about -- before I came in. But I just want to say something regarding the king's recent announcements. First of all, these are decrees. Decrees are not laws, and they could be abolished by him or by his successor, who probably will be Prince Nayef, who has already come out not in favor of what the king said recently.

  • 12:56:40

    AMIHe said that -- he was asked a question, and his response was the king love his people. And that's why...

  • 12:56:47

    NNAMDIAmi, it's my understanding that you're with the Center for Human Rights and Democracy for Saudi Arabia. And we're running out of time very quickly, so I'd like to ask both Sara and Marina the question you implied. And that is if a successor can easily erase the decree, what is the concern in Saudi Arabia about who succeeds King Abdullah?

  • 12:57:06

    AL-HAIDARWho succeeds King Abdullah is a great concern for Saudis 'cause we don't know because every -- the possible candidates are his own age, and that's not very optimistic. So I have -- I don't know.

  • 12:57:22

    NNAMDIAnd there is a younger generation behind the possible candidates, it is my understanding, that may be more conservative.

  • 12:57:29

    OTTAWAYThe fact that there is a -- that there are younger people does not mean that they are going to be more liberal. I think it would be very difficult for the new king to reverse the decision, though I think that could lead to a strong reaction.

  • 12:57:47

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Marina Ottaway is a senior associate for the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:57:55

    OTTAWAYYou're welcome.

  • 12:57:56

    NNAMDIAnd Sara al-Haidar lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and is a member of the group Saudi Women for Driving. Sara, thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.

  • 12:58:05

    AL-HAIDARThank you for having me.

  • 12:58:06

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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