Where activism fails, economics doesn’t
Saudi Arabia made a historic announcement on Tuesday, September 26, that it would now allow women, both indigenes and those living in the country, to get behind the wheel and drive. While this may seem trite given that we are in the 21st century and Saudi is about the only country where such law still exists, it is a great leap forward for a country described as “ultraconservative” and women still require permission from a male guardian, sometimes son, to travel or take up jobs.
For Saudi women, this victory has been for a long time coming. It took years of activism and big movements of defiance that sometimes resulted in jail terms. While the activists can, rightly, take credit for the victory as their moves increased the pressure on the government, it wasn’t their activism or continuous shaming of the government in western media that tipped the scale in their favor. Rather, it was simply because the government could no longer afford to have the repressive law in place; economics.
The country’s status as the world’s destination of the second-largest oil reserves and consequential oil-dependent economy, like Nigeria, made the sharp decline of oil in the international market a great blow that affected everything, from the serious to the mundane. In a bust or bail move that propelled Prince Mohammed bin Salman to greater prominence, the country decided to pull the plug on several government expenditures, especially those that are unproductive in the face of falling revenue.
Part of this unproductive expenditure includes posh government job for Saudis. It has been cut down severely, with the government encouraging citizens to join the private sector and help, in the real sense, to grow and diversify its economy.
And because women account for the most numbers of Saudis out of jobs, relying on the government for upkeep, they were targeted them in a desperate bid to grow the private sector and save funds from citizen’ subsidies; a move that gave the women an opportunity to drive home their message, literally.
It makes no sense for them (the women) to work when more than half of their pay would go to hiring male drivers to drive them to and fro work when they can just stay at home and receive fairly decent pay from the government. So the government was presented with two choices: increase/complement pay from the private jobs (subsidies) or eliminate the rather unnecessary avenue for the extra cost.
Given the problems that came with low oil price, the decision to make was clear.
It is not the first time economics is forcing the government to abandon what it hitherto considered “non-negotiable” or cultural.
Late last year, Saudi Arabia, a country considered the birth place of Islam, abandoned the lunar Hijri calendar otherwise known as the ‘Islamic Calendar’ for the western solar Gregorian calendar. This was because while the structure of the former is arbitrary and reliant on sighting of the moon, the latter is well-defined. With the switch, the government cut down on payment days for its employees, putting them on the same pedestal with those in the private sector; all in a bid to save cost and survive the economic downturn occasioned by low oil prices.
The lesson from this is not only that economics will always win, but also that nothing really is ‘non-negotiable’. It is only so when the question of survival is yet to be asked. If you are thinking this is a subliminal message to the Nigerian government and its stance on the unity of Nigeria, it is. And while I am not predicting doom unless the country is divided with a fork, I encourage the government not to approach the matter with closure but with an open-mind which gives room for healthy debates and workable solutions like genuine restructuring. Or, like Saudi, we can otherwise wait for the non-negotiable to become negotiable in the fullness of time.