Flick Drummond is the former Conservative MP for Portsmouth South.
“Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop” was how Manal al Sharif, responded to the news that women will be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia from next year.
Manal is just one of the brave Saudi women who has over the last thirty years campaigned on this issue, risking imprisonment. For many years, Saudi officials have told western politicians that society would not accept women driving. They argued that the voices of conservativism were too strong and the religious authorities would not allow it.
For Manal and women across Saudi Arabia it is a start towards female emancipation – but there needs to be a deluge not a drop when you compare the progress and impact of women in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates.
I lived in the UAE as a child in the early 1970s. Dubai was at the time sparsely populated desert. It was rare for Emirati women who were the contemporaries of my mother to have received any formal education. Literacy in Abu Dhabi amongst women was zero per cent in 1960.
Today, women constitute 70 per cent of college graduates across the Emirates. By anyone’s standards this is significant progress in just one or two generations.
Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE is blessed with natural resources, but its population is small. Emiratis count for a little under 1.5 million people. It would simply not have been possible for the country to fulfil its ambitious goals – and build a flourishing economy – with only half its population. So, from the early 1970s young women were encouraged to go to school and to attend university.
This came with challenges. Some conservative fathers were uneasy seeing the lives their daughters were leading, but it soon became the norm, and women now account for two thirds of public sector jobs.
On a recent visit to the country I met some of the brilliant young female cabinet ministers who now sit at the very heart of the Emirati Government. There are eight in total, which is similar to our current Cabinet. They are responsible for a range of ministerial briefs including foreign affairs, religious tolerance, community development and youth affairs.
No one who has met these women can say they are token appointments. They earned their positions because they were the best people for the job and are impressive politicians. Amal Qubaisi, the UAE’s first female speaker who visited Parliament earlier this year, was elected by her colleagues because she was the outstanding candidate in a field dominated by men.
That is what happens when women are educated with Masters degrees and doctorates. You cannot encourage them to learn and then expect them to stay at home when they finish studying. They simply will not accept this – they have too much to contribute, and have developed their own ideas. They want to be politicians, engineers, business women… or fighter pilots, like Mariam al Mansoori, the Emirati who flew an F16 in airstrikes against Daesh over Syria.
This is a problem that Mohammed Bin Salman, the young Crown Prince who is credited with pushing through the economic and social reformsm, recognises Saudi Arabia has had to contend with.
For many years, young Saudi girls have been encouraged to study in the West at some of the best universities in the world. It is entirely understandable that they might have little enthusiasm for returning home, and instead opt to live in more liberal Middle Eastern societies, such as the UAE. If Mohammed Bin Salman’s ‘Vision 2030’ is to be implemented, Saudi cannot afford to lose its best and its brightest.
For that reason, Tuesday’s announcement is a significant sign of irreversible change in Saudi society, even if the pace may be slower than we may wish. Saudi already has female Shura Council members, but one day in the not too distant future I hope to be able to meet female Saudi Cabinet Ministers.
That is why Manal al Sharif said, “the rain begins with a single drop” and why the voices of conservatism in Saudi Arabia are so strong. They both understand that you cannot put the genie back in the bottle, and the glass ceiling cannot be repaired once it has been smashed.