King Abdullah's surprise announcement late last month that Riyadh would grant Saudi women a handful of the same political rights as men was a prime example of how his government intends to respond to the clamors for political reform pulsing through the Arab world: promise potentially historic moves that will occur at some point in the distant future, but avoid immediate, tangible change.

In his announcement, Abdullah said that he intends to appoint women to the 150-member Majlis al-Shura, an unelected advisory body, beginning with its next term, 18 months from now. He also promised that women would be able to run as candidates and to vote in elections for municipal councils, starting when those elections are next held, in 2015. Together, the two moves, at least in theory, give women the same political opportunities as men -- limited though they may be. The Majlis has no legislative or budgetary powers. The municipal councils also have very little power, and only half of their members are elected; the rest are appointed by the government. This feebleness may be why turnout was low in many areas during the most recent elections, which were held last week.

Abdullah's response is calibrated to achieve two goals. First, it placates the small but growing slice of the population calling on the ruling royal family to share power and to end the second-class treatment of women. The ban on women driving has become a flashpoint in Saudi society. Second, the King's move seeks to avoid a backlash from religious conservatives, who, because of their influence among the kingdom's population of 21 million, can agitate against the government and pose bureaucratic roadblocks to royal decrees bringing changes. The long lag before both reforms are enacted seems to be intended to give opponents time to get used to them. To be sure, whether Abdullah's decrees are remembered as landmarks will depend on how they are implemented when the time comes. His announcement left unclear whether women would be appointed to the Majlis in equal numbers as men, and even whether they would be seated in the same room, in defiance of the country's strict custom of gender segregation. Also up for discussion is whether women will be allowed to serve as committee chairs, and whom the government will favor in its appointments -- conservatives or progressives, activists, women from the upper class, or those with ties to the royal family.
For their part, religious conservatives will lobby hard to minimize the impact of female participation. Some conservatives have suggested that women should be allowed to speak to the all-male chamber only through closed circuit television. The kingdom's most senior religious official, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Aal Al Sheikh, gave lukewarm praise to the step, saying that it has "a lot of benefit," but it was hard to believe he had reached that conclusion without significant persuasion from the monarch. Just five years ago, Aal Al Sheikh had denounced the idea of women in the Majlis as one of the "plots of the enemies" of Islam. The pushback to the king's announcement, however, started almost immediately: two days after he spoke, a judge in Jeddah sentenced a woman who had been caught driving to ten lashings. Because of the timing and the heavy influence of religious conservatives in the judiciary, the sentence was widely interpreted as a sign of disapproval of Abdullah's initiative. For his part, the king voided the sentence a day later, in order to diffuse international outrage and assert some power over the conservatives.

Abdullah's decision was certainly influenced by this spring's events in the Arab world. As uprisings shook Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, thousands of Saudis signed petitions for political reform, which in some cases included calls for a constitutional monarchy. Perhaps the biggest impact of the Arab spring in Saudi Arabia was on women, who were moved to use social media to voice their anger and dissent at the many restrictions on their personal autonomy. "We were surprised that [Egyptians and Tunisians] spoke out," the Riyadh blogger Eman Al Nafjan said in a recent interview. "But it's made us realize that we can do it too." One group focused on an initiative called Baladi, which aimed to win women the right to vote. The liberal organizers claimed success after the king's September 25 decrees. "Women in Saudi Arabia are leading the Saudi spring," Hatoon al-Fassi, one of the Baladi organizers, told Bloomberg News.

Meanwhile, a larger circle of young Saudi women launched a more aggressive campaign, Women2Drive, which aimed to have the ban on female drivers lifted. In June, some 60 women defied the ban and drove themselves on errands. Many posted videos of their civil disobedience on Facebook and tweeted about what they had done. The campaign, which is widely supported in the kingdom -- even women from traditional families have voiced their support to end the ban -- and drew international attention, undoubtedly pushed the king toward making his recent announcement.

Yet it is telling that Abdullah did not lift the driving ban outright. Such a move would have been the kind of immediate, tangible change that, while attractive to many young Saudis, would likely trigger major protest from the conservatives who view female driving as a Rubicon leading to social disorder.

Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world in which the population is generally more conservative than the government. Its conservative majority means that protests from the far right are more dangerous to the regime than those from the sizeable (but still minority) left. For now, half steps, such as granting women the right to vote, will probably appease most Saudi women, who appear willing to accept gradual emancipation.

Riyadh is aware that the driving ban makes the kingdom look foolish in the eyes of the rest of the world, so knows it has to end it at some point. And it has already started preparing the public. First, most of the women caught driving as part of the anti-ban campaign were treated with leniency, often let off with a verbal reprimand. The lashing sentence was unusual -- more a protest against Abdullah's speech than women driving. Second, government-employed clerics have increasingly issued religious opinions saying that the ban is based on tradition and custom, not on Islam. Just last week, the chairman of the Majlis al-Shura's human rights committee told the Saudi Gazette that the matter of women driving would be discussed by the Majlis.

Actual women's empowerment -- including the right to drive -- will come to Saudi Arabia. Even gradual change is change, and young women are increasingly becoming more vocal about their plight. But when all this might happen is unclear. In the meantime, Saudi women are left with what the blogger Eman Al Nafjan described in The Guardian as "another illogical milestone in Saudi history." That illogical milestone is perhaps best summed up by a cartoon making its way around the Internet. Entitled "Saudi Arabia: 2015," it shows two Saudi women, their faces fully veiled, talking to each other.

"Did you vote?" one asks.

"No -- my husband wouldn't drive me," her friend replies.

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  • CARYLE MURPHY is a journalist and the author of Passion for Islam. She is a public policy fellow at the Wilson International Center for Scholars and was the 1994–1995 Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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