Saudi Women to Join World's Drivers

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October 1, 2017

Women in Saudi Arabia have won the right to drive.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz announced that women could begin achieving a driver's licence in June 2018. Many observers saw in the announcement the influence of his son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has pushed other modernizing efforts in the kingdom, including the economic and political plan known as Vision 2030, which targets a near abandonment of fossil fuels as a form of income by the date in the name of the plan.

The population of Saudi Arabia, as of the 2016 counting, is 32 million. Nearly half of those are women.

The Middle Eastern kingdom has long prohibited its women from driving, in keeping with the country's stated adherence to its Muslim faith and, in particular, Sharia law, which drives a large part of the kingdom's political decision-making. It was the last country in the world to have such a prohibition. 

Response to the announcement was mixed, from both genders. Some women applauded the move; others wanted more rights. Many men spoke out against the move.

Women were granted the right to vote in 2015 and to run for seats on local councils. However, women are still prohibited from doing many other things. For example, they cannot, without the consent of a male "guardian (husband, son, or father), travel outside the country, open a bank account or a business, decide whom they marry, or undergo certain medical procedures. Activists said that they intended their next target to be the laws the so-called "guardianship laws."

Women (and men) have campaigned for the prohibition to be removed at various times in the last couple of decades. Notably, Loujain Hathloul in 2014 was arrested after trying to drive herself across the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia; she was detained for 73 days. Another high-profile campaign in 2011 involved Manal al-Sharif posting to YouTube footage of herself driving a car; as punishment, she was arrested and jailed for nine days, then lost her job and custody of her 6-year-old son.

Princess Nourah University, in Riyadh, has announced plans to open a driving school for women. The public university said that it had more than 60,000 female students at its campuses.

Economic officials predicted an increase in car sales as well. Because so much of the money is still, for the most part, in the hands of the male members of families, however, many observers questioned how many new cars would indeed be sold.

The country has an expectation that the introduction of women as drivers will also dramatically reduce the cost associated with hired drivers. Because women cannot now drive themselves to go to work or to run errands, they have been relying on male friends or family members or, much more prevalently, on chauffeurs. The General Authority for Statistics estimated that up to 60 percent of the domestic workers who hailed from other countries, about 1.3 million people, were employed as private drivers for women. As well, because the drivers are not Saudi, the money that is paid to those drivers, and any tax associated with it, goes to the drivers' home country. One estimate of the total annual amount of money leaving the country in that way was $4 million. 

As the thinking goes, if the cars that take women places are driven by Saudi women, then those car trips would not involve Saudi money going out of the country; instead, the drivers would spend money on fuel and maintenance for the cars they are driving themselves. Saudi women would then have more disposable income as well.

On a more fundamental level, many women have not been able to afford to hire a private driver and so, if a male friend or family member is not available, have not been able to travel by car; some women have been unable to find work because of this. Some economists predict an increase in the number of women in the workforce and a subsequent increase in overall production and consumer spending.

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