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Saudi Arabia arrests activists before lifting ban on women driving cars

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY) –┬áSaudi authorities have arrested at least five people, most of them women, who have previously demanded the right to drive and end the guardianship system for men in the kingdom, human rights activists said on Friday.

A decision last year to end a decades-long ban on women driving cars comes into force next month as a sign of the new progressive approach in the kingdom under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But the decision appeared to be accompanied by a crackdown on dissidents, including critics of the clergy, as well as activists who have been calling for years to lift the ban.

One of the activists, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said the recent arrests were linked to defending the right of women to drive. “They arrested them because they do not want them to say publicly that they have succeeded in their endeavors,” she said.

Government spokespersons have yet to respond to requests for comment.
Women will be allowed to drive as of June 24. The authorities opened command-training schools in preparation for the order, established new regulations and appointed female officers in the traffic police.

But activists and analysts say the government is keen not to reward the work of banned activists in the kingdom and is determined not to resist religious sensitivity to conservatives opposed to modernization.

Women who had previously been involved in anti-ban protests told Reuters last year about 24 activists had received calls to order them not to comment on the decree lifting the ban.

Some of those arrested this week spoke publicly about the ban after the decision was issued, but it was not clear what specifically led to their arrest or whether they had been charged.

Authorities arrested dozens of clerics whom the government considered to be in politics in September in a move that appeared to pave the way for lifting the ban on women driving cars.

The end of the embargo is part of a 2030 Vision reform program in the Kingdom aimed at diversifying the economy away from oil and opening up the country’s lifestyle.

Prince Mohammed, 32, is leading the reform. Many young Saudis see his recent rise to power as proof that their generation is central to managing the country’s decades-old tradition of concentrating power in the hands of adults and preventing the advancement of women.