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Saudi Arabia ends ban on women drivers
June 23, 2018, 2:14 pm

In what is being referred to as a tectonic social shift, Saudi Arabia is to end the ban on women driving in the Kingdom with effect from today, Sunday 24 June. In early June, authorities began issuing driving licenses to women, beginning with those who already had a foreign driving license. Since then, thousands of women have obtained licenses after passing driving courses offered at all-female university campuses.

Though women in Saudi Arabia have scaled pinnacles of academic and professional careers they still had to rely on male drivers to ferry them about. While there was no official ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia, women have been unable to obtain a driving license since 1957. After having had to sit in the passenger seat for more than 60 years, the more than 15 million women in the Kingdom will now finally be able to take the wheel.

Credit for this unprecedented social liberalization goes primarily to the country dynamic young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his Vision 2030 economic revival plan that aims to diversify the economy, wean the market away from its over reliance on hydrocarbon revenues, lower unemployment from nearly 12 percent to less than 7 percent, and increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22 to 30 percent by 2030.

However, the young prince realized early on that his ambitious plans for the country hinged on being able to pry open the heavy lid of conservatism that had dominated Saudi society for centuries. But, Prince Mohammed is also aware that he must be careful not to rapidly shakeup traditional and tribal values that are deeply entrenched in society, and hence his step-by-step approach.

Lifting of the ban on women driving is only the latest move in Prince Mohammed’s gradual move to modernization of the Kingdom. In mid-April, the first cinema theater in over 30 years opened in Riyadh and plans arewere afoot to open as many as 2,000 screens by 2030. The screening followed the raising of the curtain for other social events, including in November 2017 of a concert by the American rapper and songwriter Nelly, and the first-ever ladies-only concert performed by Yemeni-Emirati singer Balqees. Monster-truck rallies, comic-con festivals held in Saudi cities also attested to the gradual opening-up of the social scene in the kingdom.

Probably the biggest impact of lifting the ban on women drivers will be felt by the large number of expatriate drivers employed in Saudi households to transport women folk, take children to schools and carry out daily errands. According to latest official figures, there are around 1.4 million such expatriate household drivers, mainly from India and Bangladesh. While many of them will continue to be employed by households, the Saudi Economic Association estimates that cutting the number of expatriate drivers by half would save the economy as much as 20 billion riyals in salaries and work permit fees.

Meanwhile, as tens of thousands of Saudi women rejoice in taking over the wheel on Sunday they realize that they have still a long way to go before claiming anything close to gender equality in the kingdom. Though the authorities have been quick to clarify that women would not require permission from male relatives to obtain a driving license, the restrictive guardianship system — a mix of law and traditional custom — still dominates society. While women will continue to remain dependent on their male relatives, whether a father, brother, uncle or son, for most social activities, for the moment they can at least sigh in relief from behind the wheel of their own cars.




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