The ban on Saudi women driving has tormented the ladies for decades. The ban on female driving has become a cliché for the Kingdom, along with oil, camels, and deserts.
The Royal Decree (link: https://nyti.ms/2yqK5k4) issued on 25th September 2017 lifted the ban on women driving. The change will however take effect June 2018, subject to availability of driving instructors for women.
It seems like a new era for women has begun. The western media has portrayed the ban on women driving as the major obstacle to women’s freedom. With the lifting of this ban, opinions are also changing.
For decades, female drivers have faced arrest and harassment. In 1990, a major protest saw 50 Saudi women driving in public in Riyadh. They were arrested and lost their jobs and were listed for travel ban. More than 20 years later, in 2011 a woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving. Although the late King Abdullah overturned the sentence, the incident was not forgotten. Ever since, Saudi women have been asking for the right to drive. And finally, it was granted.
The Impact On Economy
An estimated 800,000 drivers are employed in Saudi Arabian households. Among those, 1 million are from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sudan. Saudi drivers are also employed, but mainly in royal households.
How much will Saudi Arabia save after the expected departure of 800,000 foreign drivers?
Salaries vary but on an average, it is around $1,000 per month. With housing provided, we may be looking at a national savings of around US$ 10 billion per year.
Mostly drivers also act as the errand boy and house help. Not every Saudi family can afford a driver; so one driver is shared with parents or in-laws. Without a driver, the man of the house has to drive around. Which greatly affects his job.
This system of dependency is hard to bear because of the lack of a well-functioning public transport system. Riyadh and Makkah are getting Metros. But in other cities not having a driver will be cumbersome for a while. Services like Uber and Careem have been a relief for many. The mobility and flexible payment methods have made them a popular option across the board.
It was only in the recent years that the momentum for policy change picked up the pace. The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sal
man laid out a far-reaching plan. Suggesting an overhaul of the country’s economy. “I think our society is ready,” he said. There have been speculations about the main reason for the change. Was it mainly economic, for the public, or a genuine concern for women’s rights? It certainly seems to be a combination of all three.
The New Way To Live!
Automotive companies are now targeting women. Females are visiting car showrooms in droves. The distributors are competing for this new, unexpected market segment. This week, Nissan’s latest campaign was launched by ad agency TBWA/RAAD, themed #SheDrives. They took out a bunch of women for their first lesson behind the wheels. Nissan is also offering Saudi women a special driving lesson.
The documentary-style film by Nissan depicts the fears. Many women are hesitant about driving in public because of the prejudices against them. The fear that their male relatives will disapprove, does not help either.
Majority of the Saudi women I have interviewed were aged between 34 to 60 years. These women do not want to be among the first to drive. They would rather wait and see how the situation develops.
Once women actually get behind the wheel.
Only if you have been to Saudi Arabia, you will know what is driving there like. It is unlike anything that you are taught in driving schools. Especially young men under 25 see driving as a hair-raising form of entertainment. This is one of the reasons why Saudi women driving on the streets consider themselves unsafe.
Another major problem is the lack of driving schools. There is only one in Jeddah. Even there, one drives within the school’s perimeter. Without getting a feel for real traffic.
These issues need to be addressed urgently.