Saudi Arabia: Women all geared up to get behind the wheel

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s historic decision to lift its long-standing ban on women drivers has sparked waves of euphoria and optimism among the kingdom’s womenfolk, who are eagerly waiting to get behind the steering wheel and on the road to a better future.

The change in policy, announced in September in a royal decree signed by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, will fully come into effect in June this year.

Describing it as a “landmark” move, Waad Ibrahim, a young freelance translator, said the decision had instilled new hope and created a sense of “independence and empowerment” among women who comprise nearly 45 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s population.

“As a young Saudi woman, I am very happy and excited about this change and I am sure so are all other women. It’s something that we wanted for long and had been waiting for,” she said.

“It’s as much about women being allowed to drive as it’s about liberation and freedom,” Waad told PTI on the sidelines of the first Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum which concluded here this week.

To move will reduce expenses for families and create new jobs and, therefore, help in greater economic growth, Waad said, adding that she was planning to buy a car and had already signed up for a driving licence.

“Saudi Arabia is changing. Earlier society was not ready to accept such a decision but we have adapted and are now more open to accept change,” she added.

The decision to allow women to drive is considered a part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s social and economic reform plan known as Vision 2030.

It aims at increasing women’s participation in the workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent by 2030 in a bid to wean oil-rich Saudi Arabia off its dependence on oil by stimulating growth in the private sector.

“It is a spectacular ruling and came when we had almost lost hope of driving cars. It should have come a long time ago, but as they say, better late than never. It means I can now be an independent person and have savings. I’ll go on a road trip around my country with my friends,” said Areej Alhussan, a market analyst.

She said the move will go a long way in boosting the economy as many more Saudi women will be able to go to work without having to lose half of what they earn to hiring cabs and relying heavily on foreign workers.

“The ban was not only damaging the image of the country abroad, but also affecting the lives at home. It was hindering economic growth and disabling half of the population,” said Areej, who also plans to buy a car and has signed up with a driving school.

Saudi Arabia’s driving schools have been flooded with requests from women who are eager to register themselves for licences.

The first driving school reportedly attracted more than 1,65000 applicants in the first three days after opening the online registration.

Rights groups and Saudi activists had long campaigned for the ban to be overturned. Some women have also been arrested and jailed for defying the ban.

The movement to lift the ban gained momentum with the rise in power of Crown Prince Salman who has laid out an ambitious plan to reform the kingdom’s economy and society and promised to return the conservative country to “a more moderate Islam”.