The Saudi “women driving” trial

Today’s Newsletter

Fascinating article by Oliver Miles
Summary: Saudi Arabia shoots itself in the foot, bringing 10 women to trial for promoting lifting the ban on women driving.
The trial of ten women which began yesterday in Riyadh is a remarkable example of Saudi Arabia’s ability to commit self-harm (not an ability confined to Saudi Arabia).
The case arises from the issue of women driving, which in a different way had been another example, that one lasting over 50 years. The ban, unique to Saudi Arabia, was never convincingly justified on any grounds, Islamic law, tradition, security, even Saudi law. Arabian women have ridden and driven camels since time immemorial, and since the introduction of the motorcar herding livestock, largely women’s work, has mainly been done by car (Charles Doughty writes that “herding maidens may go alone with the flocks far out of seeing of the menzil [camp] in the empty wilderness.”) The ban was not only a crippling restriction on women but a tiresome obligation on men, since husbands and other male relatives had to spend their time driving women around. During the last 10 or even 20 years, with the Saudi government committed in theory at least to improving the position of women, criticism of the ban was heard increasingly often including (as we have noted in earlier postings) in the Saudi press. The decision to scrap the ban was almost universally welcomed, and could have been a symbol of the reforming spirit of the new regime and MBS personally.
Instead a number of activists, some of them women whose names and faces had become familiar in the media as campaigners for lifting the ban, were arrested in the weeks before the ban was actually lifted last June. Many reports say that they were ill treated or tortured (the newly released US State Department report on human rights in 2018 lists torture of prisoners as an issue in Saudi Arabia). They were not charged and reportedly had no access to lawyers, but the public prosecutor said they were suspected of harming Saudi interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad. Some Saudi media called them traitors. The case was to be heard in the Specialised Criminal Court which deals with terrorism and political offences, but was apparently transferred at the last minute to the Criminal Court. Reporters and diplomats were not admitted.
According to a report in the Saudi newspaperOkaz investigations were concluded 12 days ago. At the court hearing the accused were informed of the charges, and given time before a second hearing to consult lawyers and prepare their defence. According to a Saudi rights group in London they have been charged under a cybercrime law and could face prison sentences of 1 to 10 years.
The reports in Okaz and other Saudi newspapers are short on information such as the names of the accused, but the Saudi-based Arab News gives a bit more detail, adding that when local media said the accused were traitors and “agents of embassies”, Arab News criticized such reporting as unfair and unprofessional, and argued that the accused should be treated as innocent unless proved guilty.
Last week at least 36 countries including all 28 members of the EU (but not the US, although Mike Pompeo like Jeremy Hunt has reportedly raised this case during recent visits to Riyadh) included a call to release the activists in a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council. Three of the U.S. congresswomen mentioned in yesterday’s digest, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Tulsi Gabbard have on various occasions called for a boycott of Saudi Arabia, criticised human rights violations, and opposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The Arab News report adds that “The accused women generated a high level of publicity when they were arrested, and the opening of the trial also attracted considerable attention from international media and human right organizations.” That perhaps underestimates the importance of the case for Saudi Arabia’s image, tarnished as it currently is. At a time when women’s affairs and women’s rights are everywhere in the media, the damage this case will do goes beyond cases which are perhaps objectively more important, such as executions.

Lujain al-Hadhlul
The media naturally love the fact that some at least of the accused are photogenic.