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Saudi women at the Dammam railway station in Saudi Arabia on August 21, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

This is a good time to be a Saudi woman.

Ask anyone of them whether it is so, and most will reply with a resounding ‘Yes’! The few that may hesitate to answer may not be aware of the many changes in the laws of the country pertaining to their rights.

Yes indeed, Saudi Arabia is moving full speed ahead in its goals to strip away our society with the many shackles that had held it in bounds for decades. A trip down memory lane is fraught with events that bordered on the preposterous as almost every aspect of Saudi society was governed by strict and extreme views of powerful clerics who issued ruling edicts on just about everything.

Those of us old enough to have experienced those repressive years today wonder why so much energy that went into debates in the past had not been put to productive use which would have seen the kingdom move at a much faster pace than it did. Energy wasted indeed, and all it did was to delay the clock of progress.

The biggest and sturdiest of curtains that the prince brought down was the ban on women driving in the kingdom, a ban that set it apart from all nations in the world.

- Tariq A. Al Maeena, Saudi commentator

Look around, and the countries bordering Saudi Arabia took off and ran with everything they got and soon stamped their mark globally. Who on earth, for example, has not heard of the wonders of Dubai, a city that not more than 20 years ago was unheard of among the ranks of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore? Today these cities are a vibrant centre of economy and tourism, opening up their borders to welcome one and all.

The Saudis of yesteryear, on the other hand, had made it very difficult for visitors except for religious and business purposes, and tourism and foreign tourists were something unheard of. Monikers such as ‘the closed kingdom’ propped up when foreign writers had anything to say about this country and it remained so for decades.

Change inevitable

But change was inevitable and indeed it started to manifest itself through the energy and drive of a youthful crown prince who had bitterly and publicly decried the effect of extreme religious practices on the country. Vowing to change all that and with the support of his father the king, the crown prince set into motion a series of changes to existing laws and practices that have been undeniably and overwhelmingly accepted by an appreciative public long held hostage by stifling rules of conduct.

When he defined his plans for Vision 2020 and Vision 2030, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman was astute enough to recognise that for those visions to materialise, he would have to act on the pervading influence of religious dogma on Saudi society and he began clipping the powers of the previously powerful Commission for the Promotion of Good and the Prevention of Evil (the feared religious police) who had taken control of every aspect of Saudi society.

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Suddenly, the iron curtain began to waver as a young public eagerly welcomed the initiatives set forth by the Crown Prince. Much of what was previously unthinkable soon became a reality as 2018 saw major shifts in Saudi culture and traditions.

The government announced that men and women could attend many of the entertainment fixtures being introduced. The laws governing gender mixing were eased gradually. This was followed by an announcement that female residents of the country could attend sporting events such as soccer games along with males in key stadiums across the metropolitan cities. Cinemas, previously seen as taboos and the ‘workplace of the devil’ were introduced across major cities.

But perhaps the biggest and sturdiest of curtains that the prince brought down was the ban on women driving in the kingdom, a ban that set it apart from all nations in the world. Today, hundreds of thousands of Saudi and foreign women enjoy that right that was denied to them for so long.

And it doesn’t stop there. This past week, Saudi women went to the passport offices and after completing required formalities, received their passports without the need to have a male ‘guardian’ present or approving of their actions.

Not only that, many of the women immediately took off to foreign lands to exercise their right to travel freely and enjoy a bit of vacation as well. They no longer needed the permission of a male. According to Saudi passport authorities, more than a thousand Saudi women have availed of the opportunity this past week alone. Yes indeed. It is a good time to be a Saudi woman or a man for that matter.

— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena