A female Saudi telephone operator works at the International Medical Center in Jeddah, June 4, 2007. More Saudi women are breaking with tradition to take their place in the workplace.
Susan Baaghil / Courtesy Reuters

“I changed my baby brother’s Pampers, and now? I’m a 42-year-old mother, and I need him to sign off when I travel abroad?” My divorced Saudi friend and I were sharing tea in Riyadh’s Al Faisaliah Hotel, and she could not hide her disgust. A striking beauty of regal bearing, she has a high-powered international job and limited patience for her culture’s suffocating “protections” for women.

Yet even this worldly skeptic could see signs of progress for the kingdom’s women. “It’s changing,” she insisted. “We are in a correctional phase.” On a recent trip to Riyadh and Jeddah, that is an opinion I encountered time and again from Saudis and westerners alike. “The country is on a trajectory of modernization, if not too fast,” recently departed U.S. Ambassador James Smith told me. Together with his wife, Janet, a former professor at the National War College, Smith has spent nearly five years steeped in kingdom culture. “There is an imbalance politically that ever so slightly favors the modernizers” and, he continued, “an emerging critical mass of daughters -- on campuses and in jobs -- who will make a difference.” 

You are not likely to hear this view in the United States or Europe. Saudi Arabia remains the only country on earth to prevent women from driving, an activity that westerners in particular equate with deeply held notions of freedom, mobility, and independence. They pity the woman who cannot drive herself to the mall, to the doctor’s office, even to her own job -- who must instead don a burqa in the backseat. The very fact that women who drive the country’s roads are considered protesters makes Saudi Arabia seem stuck in a distant century. 

The reality, however, is more complex than what most westerners believe. Saudi women have made dramatic progress in just the past five years. More women than ever before are graduating from college, pursuing careers, and speaking freely, especially on social media platforms. Last year, King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, a 130-member advisory body that proposes laws to the monarch. The new members include human rights activists, public health officials, and two princesses. And, as Smith says, they're “not shrinking violets.” In the face of Saudi clerics who have denounced them as prostitutes, these lawmakers are working to alter kingdom policies on health care, underage marriage, male guardianship, and -- yes -- driving. The king has already signed a new law, drafted by three of the new Shura members, that permits women to apply for real estate loans regardless of marital status. And next year, women will have the right to run in local elections, four years after the king granted them the right to vote in them.

Women are also playing a new role in the country’s courts. Last October, four Saudi women became the country’s first licensed female lawyers. In the past, women with law degrees could work as consultants but were banned from appearing in court or operating their own firms. Now, they can do both, which will not only help ambitious young lawyers but also their clients. In a male-controlled court system that is widely considered unfriendly to women, especially in the realm of family law, these new entrants will be positioned to “take note of and publicize inconsistencies in the application of the law,” says Smith, who adds that although the change is “groundbreaking,” it will take time to see the results.

It is not just elite professional women who are seeing their roles change, either. In fact, the ongoing process of “Saudization” -- a government policy aimed at replacing the country’s heavily foreign workforce with Saudi nationals -- is inadvertently reshaping the landscape for all women who want to work, as well as for husbands who appreciate additional family income. My teatime friend, for one, labeled Adel bin Muhammad Fakeih, Saudi Arabia’s labor minister, an unsung hero for allowing women to count toward a company’s quota of Saudi workers. According to the Ministry of Labor, 454,000 Saudi women are now employed, compared with 50,000 in 2009. The ministry recently announced that, in three years, all women’s clothing and accessory shops will have to hire only female workers.

And there will be plenty of trained workers to take these and more highly skilled jobs. Women now make up the majority of Saudi college graduates and of advanced-degree holders. When King Abdullah recently announced plans to send 100,000 young Saudis to universities abroad on government scholarships, he earmarked roughly a third of them for women. Even conservative fathers can be supportive of their daughters’ career ambitions. “Saudi men are as proud of their daughters as their sons,” Smith says. “I don’t think [the monarchy] has thought through the unintended consequences of that faith in education.”

There has also been a cultural shift. Smith has kept a close eye on the monarchy during his tenure. In 2010, he was surprised to see a newspaper photo of the king honoring a female cancer researcher who did not have anything covering her face. Smith’s wife, Janet, would later pose for press photos with female doctors receiving similar honors. In a society in which images of women have almost never appeared in newspapers, this new development suggests an important shift. “As late as 2005 or 2006, you never even saw women's names in the newspapers,” Smith explains.

At the same time, social media sites are providing a new vehicle for women to push the country forward. The Social Clinic, a Saudi-based Internet consultancy, says that the kingdom has the highest proportion of Internet users who actively use Twitter, with roughly one-third of the connected population actively tweeting each month. In 2013 alone, the number of Saudis who used Facebook on a mobile device increased by 150 percent. Although conservative clerics still have the largest followings online, female university students told me that social media sites have provided a forum to legitimize progressive views that previously went unspoken. For its part, the U.S. embassy discovered the power of social media during the 2009 Jeddah flood, when it served as an outlet for angry citizen complaints. U.S. officials found that Facebook and Twitter were far more reliable gauges of what was really going on than did print media or television news. “We tracked the top 30 hashtags to start and found an entirely different conversation,” Smith recalls.

But unlike in other countries, social media in Saudi Arabia acts more as a funnel for dissent than as an organizing tool for street protests. In 2012, for example, the monarchy barred men from selling lingerie after a Facebook campaign called “Enough Embarrassment” pointed out the absurdity of Saudi women having to buy their bras and panties from men. Last year, Twitter outrage over news of a 90-year-old man marrying a 15-year-old girl in exchange for a $17,500 dowry brought attention to the kingdom’s weak underage marriage laws.

For a society nervous about street protests in the wake of the Arab Spring, then, social media provides a comparatively safe outlet for dissent. Even when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s driving ban, organized protests have thus far fallen short of expectations. Several Saudi women told me that they had decided not to participate because the monarchy had clearly signaled that protests would only set back their cause by provoking a backlash from the religious right. Going from Riyadh to the more liberal Jeddah, I was struck by how even some of the most progressive women and men condemned rallies as a means of bringing about change. As Prince Alwaleed bin Talal told me, “Saudis want [a] quiet, eager evolution, not [a] nasty revolution.”

Although I found only lukewarm support in person for the 60 women who took part in a recent driving protest shortly before I landed in Riyadh, a YouTube video shot by a pair of Saudi male comics last year proved that women are pushing their cause far more aggressively online. The video, which mocked conservative clerics for fretting that women behind the wheel would harm their ovaries, drew seven million hits in the first 24 hours. Set to the Bob Marley tune “No Woman No Cry” (the comics replaced “cry” with “drive”), the video offered reformers a less threatening form of dissent -- humor. Meanwhile, pro-driving activists are honing their arguments as a family issue, rather than as a matter of women’s rights. Employing a driver -- often a foreign, unrelated male -- can eat up as much as a quarter of a middle-class family’s salary. 

The politics of driving, however, remain deeply entangled with issues of status and culture. Most elite women, who have a disproportionate influence on public opinion, would rather keep their drivers than take on the hassle of dealing with traffic and parking themselves. Moreover, driving in Saudi Arabia can be downright dangerous. According to the World Health Organization, the country has one of the highest rates of motor vehicle–related deaths in the world. Just look up Saudi road skating on YouTube or the video “Drifting in Saudi Arabia,” which features young male drivers popping off rifles and careening across highways, and you can get an idea of what underlies the fears that some Saudi men have about sending their mothers and wives on the road alone. This may seem like another flimsy justification for old-fashioned paternalism, but it is a reality that plays into the thinking of a king who has privately signaled support for female drivers but has also counseled patience.

Smith likes to say that the king issues decrees only when he can count on the agreement of two-thirds of the population. And with more women heading to college and then into the workforce, public opinion is leaning toward the modernizers. But if westerners expect to see protests about abstract notions of women’s rights any time soon, they are likely to be disappointed. So far, Saudi women have benefited from more prosaic goals -- the desire for Saudis to hold more of the country’s jobs, for example, and the material wants of a consumption-hungry middle class who will, like Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, come to value the incomes of women. Meanwhile, Smith says, it is in the monarchy’s self-interest internationally for its women to progress further. “The role of women will be a key strategic issue over the next generation. You can’t become a great country if half of your intellectual capacity is sidelined.”

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • NINA EASTON is Fortune’s Washington columnist and co-chair of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. Follow her on Twitter @NinaEaston.
  • More By Nina Easton