This is a perfect example of how Western influence aims to reshape the Muslim world in its image.
Putting aside other criticisms of the House of Saud, Saudi Arabia is a relatively new state. It has had to translate the tribal-structure institutions that were at the core of its society less than two generations ago into the overall structure of the state. This translation process could not be perfect of course and there has been Islamic-ethical implications, especially given that it is an open question, I believe, whether any nation-state structure can truly be considered “Islamic” in its implementation of law and order (as discussed by Wael Hallaq and others). But that’s a larger theoretical discussion.
As far as guardianship is concerned, this is part of Islam (and was part of other religions as well including Judaism and Christianity). Even outside the religious context, guardianship of women was understood as a central tenet of chivalry itself. But all these traditions have been destroyed by a modern world where all must be beholden to state (and by extension, corporate) power.
There are limitations in seeing everything as an interplay of power, but for the sake of argument, who serves to benefit when people depend less on each other and their family members for their needs? Well, in the absence of family, who provides for one’s needs: food, shelter, etc.? Either an employer or the state (e.g., through welfare programs). The point of ending guardianship and specifically male guardianship is to cut people off from their familial ties and transform people into wards of the state and/or corporate powers. This is the situation in Western nations, where “individualism” reigns supreme, where people have increasingly less family to rely on, where the majority of people’s financial needs are met either through income from a corporate job or from bank loans.
If it were possible, Western capitalist and socialist states alike would end guardianship of children. Why should children rely on their parents? Shouldn’t children have a universal right to grow up without the influence of parents who may be incompetent or otherwise deranged and unsuitable as guardians? That is why, we are told, it is so important to have robust public education, as is emphasized by the UN and in countries around the world. Of course, it goes without saying who benefits most when the education and hence the minds of children are controlled by state bureaucracies. Every intrusion of state power can be justified when it is put in the language of “universal rights and freedoms.”
Certainly women don’t benefit from ending male guardianship (though again, that doesn’t mean there is no room to improve the existing system without totally dismantling it). If anything, men stand to benefit in the sense of not having the responsibility and liability of guardianship. Saudi women might think that they are gaining their “freedom,” when in reality, all that is happening is that instead of having male family members to rely on for support and representation, they will have themselves and state authorities to contend with, just like the men. And as women the world over have experienced despite themselves: Being “equal” is not everything it’s cracked up to be.