Is GCC split behind the spate of Arabian initiatives?

Women will be in the driving seat in Saudi Arabia from next June

We’ll believe it when we see it, but King Salman’s order today that women will be able to get driving licences from next June means it won’t just be men behind the steering wheel in Saudi Arabia for much longer.

Saudi Arabia is the only country on earth that bans women from driving, an anomaly in the Islamic world that reflects the intense attachment within the kingdom to a patriarchal order that is largely dead elsewhere in the Middle East.

As every educated Saudi Arabian says when asked, there is no scriptural support for the proscription. The government’s wanted to end it for decades.

The ban imposed a real cost on the Saudi Arabia economy, which was obliged to import thousands of foreign drivers for taxis women had to use.

The end of the ban is surprising, but long overdue.

But it could also be a sign that the kingdom’s intensifying its efforts this autumn to win over hearts and minds in its campaigns against the Islamic republic of Iran and Qatar, the most unlikely of Arabian rivals.

The principal target of Saudi Arabia’s new look is, as ever, the US in general and Washington’s power brokers.

The kingdom’s hiring leading PR consultants to improve its international image as it seeks to assert itself in regional affairs and plans an enormous privatisation programme.

Its centrepiece is the plan to float up to 5 per cent of the shares of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil-producing company. The kingdom hopes to list Saudi Aramco on the New York Stock Exchange and probably wants to ensure American financial institutions get the largest portion of the shares placed with foreign investors.

Ending the world’s most blatant form of gender discrimination will help the kingdom overcome objections some will have to investing in Saudi Arabia.

The move will also help temper the kingdom’s poor reputation in North America and Europe, which is at least partly due to its unmatched use of capital punishment and lack of religious tolerance.

The kingdom is no doubt also being advised that these need to change too.

Saudi Arabia’s illiberal character has been used with great effect by Qatar since it was the subject of an embargo co-ordinated by Riyadh in June.

Rather than bending to pressure from its much more powerful neighbour, Qatar has gone on a propaganda counteroffensive that has contrasted Doha’s declared attachment to the freedom of expression and conscience with the kingdom’s restrictions.

Ending the ban on women drivers may be the first of initiatives designed to improve the kingdom’s international image. It will do a lot for the government’s domestic profile at a time when gasoline and utility prices are being increased.

Saudi Arabia nevertheless continues to rely most on its spending power to make friends and influence people. The Saudi Aramco share offering is the most eye-catching of several initiatives that are exciting business people across the globe.

It plans to launch a far-reaching PPP programme that will encompass infrastructure and services. A relaxation on restrictions on the amount of equity foreign investors can hold in Saudi companies has been announced.

A further enormous prize is in more than $600bn of assets held by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), a government financial institution that is being transformed into a sovereign wealth fund. It will be recipient of the proceeds of the Saudi Aramco IPO which could be as much as $100bn. PIF plans to build an investment portfolio of up to $2trn in due course.

Banks and other financial institutions with the keen support of the governments that regulate them are developing investment opportunities to pitch to the PIF this autumn.

On top of that, the kingdom’s signalling it’s about to place massive new orders for projects and equipment.

In May, Saudi Arabia announced it planned to place contracts worth $110bn with US companies.

Foreign suppliers are now eyeing big orders associated with the Riyadh metro, which is under construction, and the proposed Jeddah metro, which could cost $15bn.

Qatar in turn is spending money with foreign suppliers. Qatar Airways is about to announce orders for the Airbus A350-1000 extra wide-bodied jet. Earlier this month, it announced the UK had won an initial order for Typhoon fighters.

The GCC split was initially treated as a dispiriting blow to hopes that Arabian austerity caused by the oil price slump was coming to a close.

Perversely, it is the split that may now be providing the impetus for Saudi Arabia and Qatar to increase spending with foreign suppliers and, as the women drivers measure shows, address deficiencies that were previously considered to be beyond early reform.