The world’s media is buzzing with excitement following the news that women in Saudi Arabia have been granted the right to drive; a move likely to have also been warmly received at home, writes Pat Lancaster.
Print media and television channels from across the globe have been eager to relate how King Salman ordered the reform in a royal decree, requesting that drivers’ licences be issued to women who wanted them. The kingdom is the only country in the world that prevents women from driving on its roads and highways.
Lifting the driving ban is the most significant change yet to a rigidly conservative social order in Saudi Arabia that has strictly demarcated gender roles, and severely limits the role of women in public life.
The move had been widely anticipated amid a transformation of many aspects of Saudi society that has been branded by one senior minister as “cultural revolution disguised as economic reform”. Recent months have seen live concert performances in Riyadh – albeit to male-only audiences – while the powers of the once-omnipresent religious police have been curtailed.
The most recent campaign to allow female drivers started in Saudi Arabia about 10 years ago, and reached a peak in 2013, when several women who had sat behind the steering wheel on the country’s roads were briefly arrested by police. A committee formed by senior officials will now have 30 days to study how to implement the move.
Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is known to regard allowing women to drive as a key plank of reforms, insisting that the move would lead to higher female participation in the workforce and a breakdown of long outmoded gender roles
The lifting of the driving ban on women has given rise to high hopes that the strict guardianship laws, which curtail women’s freedoms of both expression and movement, may now also be reviewed.
Change, though slow, has been on the cards for some time. In 2013, the then ruling monarch, King Abdullah, appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, his highest advisory body, and two years later women were allowed to both vote in and run for office in municipal council elections, for the first time in the country’s history. In May his successor, King Salman, ordered that government agencies publish lists of services that women can access, without a male guardian present, and ordered that employers provide women with transport.
According to the Saudi Ministry of Education, women in Saudi Arabia attend college at higher rates than men. Yet it is still difficult for women to succeed, in part because of barriers placed by the Saudi system – something the driving ban ruling hopes to address.
While the media focus has been chiefly on the driving ban decision being a step towards further reform in the kingdom, some outlets, including the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and Reuters news agency have pointed out that ending the driving ban for women is likely to save families billions of dollars, as well as boosting a range of industries from car sales to insurance.
But hundreds of thousands of male chauffeurs, most from south Asia and the Philippines, who for years have driven Saudi women around, risk losing their jobs. That means they will no longer send money back to their families, strengthening Saudi Arabia’s balance of payments.
About 10 million women over the age of 20, including foreigners, live in Saudi Arabia; nearly 1.4 million foreigners work as household drivers, earning roughly $500 a month in addition to being provided with accommodation and food.
The ban may not be lifted until next June, and because of conservative traditions, it may take years rather than months for women to become a major presence on the roads in some areas. However, families’ disposable incomes are likely to rise as they lay off their chauffeurs. The Saudi economic news service Maaal estimated these drivers currently collectively earn about $8.8 billion annually.
“The removal of the need for a family driver – even when women don’t work – will help boost real income for mid- and lower-income families,” said Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank.
The drivers have been sending much of their pay back to their home countries, and their departure will reduce this outflow, leaving more foreign reserves available to defend the Saudi currency from the pressure caused by low oil prices. Saudi Arabia posted a current account gap of $27.6 billion last year.
However, energy consultancy FGE estimated a 10% increase in Saudi driving activity due to women would add 60,000 barrels per day to domestic gasoline demand. Although it is the world’s biggest crude oil exporter, Saudi Arabia is a net gasoline importer.
Malik said there could be a short, one-off boost to Saudi car sales in coming months, as women buy vehicles before a scheduled imposition of value-added tax in January 2018. In many cases, however, women would not need to buy as they could use vehicles relinquished by departed chauffeurs.
The share prices of companies selling auto insurance in the kingdom has already risen, while car servicing company Saudi Automotive gained 1.6% and car rental and leasing company United International Transportation, which operates under the name Budget Saudi Arabia, jumped by 4%.
The reform looks certain to boost job opportunities from Saudi women, who could not previously afford to employ a driver to ferry them to and from the workplace and in this way will make the country’s economy more productive.
There are any number of reasons why this decision has been taken now, after years of fruitless petitioning by various women’s groups but many strongly believe that the hand of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has played a vitally important part.
Reforms launched by the Crown Prince last year aim to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%. And hopes are high that freeing women to drive could eventually raise pressure to remove other obstacles to their employment, such as a male guardianship system.
Khalid Alkhudair, chief executive of Glowork, an employment agency serving women, said there were about 400,000 to 450,000 job opportunities open for women in the retail industry, but many could not afford to hire drivers to take them to work.
“This law will assist in the mobility of hundreds of thousands of women. The main obstacle we face is transportation, so this is a fantastic move.”
Public transport is undeveloped in many areas of Saudi Arabia and while the government has been seeking to change this, building metro rail systems in major cities such as Riyadh, many women are reluctant to travel alone in public.
One of the biggest benefits of the announcement may be to strengthen the confidence of foreign and local investors that Prince Mohammed is willing and able to push through far-reaching reforms of the economy.
In recent months, the weakness of the economy has prompted the government to delay or even reverse some reforms – a fresh round of fuel price rises has been put on hold, for example. But Riyadh’s decision to override social conservatives by lifting the driving ban suggests reform momentum remains strong.
“The determination to reform is clear, as a new Saudi Arabia is being constructed right in front of our eyes,” said John Sfakianakis, director of Riyadh-based Gulf Research Centre.
For younger Saudis frustrated by the kingdom’s traditionalism and inflexible religious laws, 31 year old Prince Mohammed is seen as a reform-minded new broom who could sweep the country to a better, brighter future. The decision to side step the aged old clerics, who are largely out of touch with modern day beliefs and requirements and bring the Saudi Arabia into the 21st century is to be applauded and, let us hope, heralds the beginning of a new dawn for the kingdom and its people.