It’s good news that women will soon be able to drive in Saudi Arabia. But as a milestone, it isn’t primarily a marker of sex equality, which remains a distant objective in the kingdom. Rather, it’s an important indication that the monarchy now thinks it doesn’t have to defer to the country’s religious establishment.
That’s a remarkable development that may allow some modernization — but also heralds a move away from the separation of powers and toward consolidation of absolute authority in a totalitarian king.
Although it’s little understood in the West, the Saudi dynasty was built on a foundational partnership between kingly and religious authority. On the worldly side was the royal House of Saud, going back to the 18th century founder Muhammad bin Saud. On the spiritual side was what is called the House of the Sheikh. That name refers to the Arabian sheikh par excellence: Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th century founder of Wahhabism.
The partnership’s modern form was established during the career of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founding monarch of the current Saudi state, who died in 1953. The basic constitutional idea is that the religious scholars, associated with the House of the Sheikh, provide the formal legal justification for the monarch’s rule.
In theory, the scholars get to determine what rules are consistent with Islamic law. The monarch then carries out those rulings. His authority to govern legitimately is ultimately supposed to rest on his compliance with the Shariah as interpreted by the scholars.
In practice, like all separation of powers, however rudimentary, there is negotiation and compromise. Oil wealth has given the monarchy far more influence and therefore room for maneuver than it would otherwise have. Scholars can be co-opted or at least influenced through lucrative government posts.
But the religious scholars have never forgotten that their institutional power can only be preserved if they continue to say no to certain reforms sought by the monarchy. The scholars’ background threat is that they might withdraw their support for the monarch. They couldn’t bring down a king on their own, but they could lend their moral support to a coup. That has been all the leverage they traditionally needed.
The ban on women driving has long been a highly visible, symbolic instance of the religious scholars’ exercise of a veto power over the…