... for openness and credibility....


On the mid-night of 24 June, streets in Saudi Arabia witnessed a celebration of sorts, not revolution, when women were given the freedom to drive by the regime. Surely it is a major gain or concession—depending on the perspective one looks at—which will facilitate the processes set in by the Vision 2030. Besides bestowing legitimacy to the regime, this will certainly help in cutting cost, in terms of time and energy, for working women, enhance their efficiency quotient and make a strong case for them in the job market. On the face of it, this could also be described as the beginning of freedom and empowerment of the Saudi women, but there are some lingering questions. The reported arrest of women activists who have been championing the women cause, including driving, calls for serious scrutiny. The merit of the case can be better appreciated if it is not evaluated in isolation but within a wider frame.

The Arab uprising might not have led to the processes it unleashed to their logical conclusions, but it has certainly forced the ruling regimes to realize that the rent based social contract is neither sustainable nor acceptable to the millennial generation. It is not sustainable because the regimes are no more solvent enough to trigger the pace of economy to underwrite the increasing demands of the people. Structurally too the oil-based economy is reaching to its limits to engage the growing working population gainfully and with dignity. Growing unemployment is its manifestation and hence diversification is not a matter of choice but a compulsion.

At a fundamental level, the issue is not merely of number; that is, more than 70 per cent of the population is of less than thirty years old but more seriously the aspiration quotient of this population. The Saudi youth does not face the burden of poverty though the means are not sufficient to meet its aspirations and imagination of life. Located in the wider frame of global cyber space, externality plays a vital role in defining its preferences and choices ranging from culinary to even persona. Trained and educated in the western education system, the youth aspires to be part of start-up culture, to be the incubator of ideas and innovator. It is millennial generation looking for space to redefine its identity. Interestingly, the millennial youth seems to be politically conservative and hence, it is the right constituency to cultivate.

The vision agenda of Saudi Arabia aims to create an ecosystem with a social contract to meet the millennial aspiration. The new city on the Red Sea, promoting entertainment industry including cinema and sports and advocacy for a moderate Islam are pointers to the reform agenda of the regime. However, the dynamics of the social contract needs to be understood by juxtaposing the two contrary decisions, namely,–accrued freedom to women to drive and denial of ‘right to demand’. Apparently like the rentier regime, it is the discretion of the regime, not the right what would decide the freedom space. The apprehension could be that any symbolic yielding of rights could spill over to the political frontiers. The regime would not like to escalate the aspiration to that threshold. Hence the message in the arrest of activist women is against activism. The social contract thus is being redefined not around the parameter of taxation and representation despite the framing of tax regime and cut in subsidies. In the global context where liberal democracies are seemingly failing and being subverted by the success of the Chinese model, it could well be argued by the Saudi regime that the opening of political space could not be the new normal of the emerging social contract.


As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats, to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy