Saudi Arabian officials announced Tuesday that women will be allowed to drive, relenting on the long-standing ban against women drivers in the birthplace of Islam.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud officially overturned the ban Tuesday, which was announced simultaneously in Washington, D.C., and via a state-run televised address in Saudi Arabia, according to The New York Times. Salman’s decree will not take immediate effect, as Saudi police officers will require new training to interact with women drivers. Women are also still required to be accompanied by a male chaperone at all times when outside the house, which includes when driving, according to the New York Daily News.
Critics worldwide say the ban is a sign of the Saudi government’s oppression against women. Various leaders and Muslim clerics have publicly declared support for the ban over the years, even claiming that allowing women to drive would lead to the degradation of Saudi civilization, promiscuity among women, and would harm women’s ovaries, according to NYT. (Related: Cleric Suspended For Saying Women Have Small Brains, Shouldn’t Drive)
Women have grown increasingly bold in protest of the ban, leading up to Salman’s decree, with some even getting behind the wheel in open defiance of the ban. Support for the overturn of the ban grew further with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise in power and his plan to revitalize Saudi Arabia’s economy, which includes a push for more Saudi citizens, women included, to have the opportunity to find employment. With the overturn of the ban, working women will no longer have to pay for drivers and may be able to take home more of their earnings from work.
The plan to allow women to drive is still developing, however, as Saudi Arabia does not currently have any legal methods by which women can obtain licenses or learn how to drive.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) Saudi Arabia has permitted government-appointed scholars and clerics to incite hatred and discrimination against the country’s religious minorities, including Shia Muslims.
In a 62-page report, entitled “‘They Are Not Our Brothers’: Hate Speech by Saudi Officials” and released on Tuesday, the HRW said Saudi clerics often refer to Shias as rafidha or rawafidh, which mean rejectionists, and stigmatize their beliefs with impunity.
It cited a member of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars, the kingdom’s highest religious body, as saying that Shia Muslims “are not our brothers … rather they are brothers of Satan.”
“Saudi Arabia has relentlessly promoted a reform narrative in recent years, yet it allows government-affiliated clerics and textbooks to openly demonize religious minorities such as Shia,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.
“This hate speech prolongs the systematic discrimination against the Shia minority and – at its worst – is employed by violent groups who attack them,” she added.
The rights group warned that the anti-Shia bias had extended to the judicial system in Saudi Arabia, where the Shias are often subjected to discriminatory treatment or arbitrary criminalization of their religious practices.
For example, it said, a Saudi Shia citizen was sentenced in 2015 to two months in jail and 60 lashes for hosting private Shia group prayers and a Sunni man was convicted in 2014 of “sitting with Shia.”
The HRW also warned of fatal consequences of the hate speech against minorities in Saudi Arabia, saying that terrorist groups such as Daesh and al-Qaeda use it to justify their targeting of Shia civilians.
The Saudi Education Ministry’s religion curriculum uses veiled language to stigmatize Shia religious practices, it noted.
The rights organization further urged Saudi authorities to order an immediate halt to hate speech by state-affiliated clerics and government agencies.
It also noted that the US should press the Riyadh regime to end incitement to hatred or discrimination against religious minorities.
“Despite Saudi Arabia’s poor record on religious freedom, the US has shielded Saudi Arabia from possible sanctions under US law. The US government should apply its own laws to hold its Saudi ally accountable,” Whitson said.
Saudi Shias have long complained that they suffer systematic discrimination in the kingdom, where the majority follows the Wahhabi radical ideology.
The ideology is regarded as the breeding ground for the rise of Takfiri outfits.
Since February 2011, Saudi Arabia has stepped up security measures in Shia-dominated areas, which has been rocked by anti-regime demonstrations, with protesters demanding free speech, the release of political prisoners, and an end to economic and religious discrimination.
The government has suppressed pro-democracy movements, but they have intensified since January 2016 when Saudi Arabia executed respected Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Yemen’s former Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi has said the conflict in the country will be settled militarily rather than politically.
Speaking in New York, Hadi told the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya channel that “the military solution is the more likely one for the Yemen crisis.”
Hadi said a plan to hand over control of the country’s main port of Hudaydah to a neutral party remained blocked by the Houthi Ansarullah movement and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Elsewhere in the interview, Hadi claimed that his administration “continues to extend its hand for peace because it is responsible for the Yemeni people and for lifting the suffering from it.”
Hadi also accused former US President Barack Obama of turning a blind eye to advances by Houthis across Yemen.
Hadi, however, hailed the anti-Houthi stance taken by US President Donald Trump, saying, “But the position under the current administration is better because it stands on the basis that there should be pressure on the Houthis.”
The Houthis, Hadi said, still had a chance to join the political process if they agreed to hand over weapons and formed a party to help pursue national reconciliation.
The Ansarullah movement has been running state affairs since 2014, when Hadi resigned and fled to Riyadh before returning to Aden later. The movement has also been defending the country against a campaign led by Saudi Arabia since March 2015.
The Houthis say they are willing to form a national unity government to represent the whole country.
Leading a number of its vassal states, Saudi Arabia launched the deadly campaign to eliminate Ansarullah and reinstall the Riyadh-friendly Hadi. The war, however, has failed to achieve either of the goals.
The Houthis say the Saudi-backed coalition seeks to foment “destruction” inside and outside the region.
UN-brokered talks between Yemen’s warring sides have also failed to end the conflict.
The Saudi-led campaign has claimed the lives of more than 12,000 people, most of them civilians.
The United States and Britain have been providing the bulk of the weapons used by the Saudi-led forces against Yemen. The US is also providing other assistance, including the provision of intelligence, to the invading forces.
The aggression has been accompanied by a naval and aerial blockade on Yemen.
It has also taken a heavy toll on Yemen’s infrastructure and led to a cholera epidemic in the country. Almost 2,000 people have died since the outbreak of the cholera epidemic in April, according to the latest figures provided by the World Health Organization (WHO).
An estimated 70 percent of Yemen’s 28 million population are said to be in desperate need of humanitarian aid.