By Claude Salhani
The last country with a ban on women driving cars is giving them the green light to step on the gas.
At last, free at last. Although the plan to allow women behind the wheel was in the forecast for years, news from the Saudi royal palace announcing the move into modernity was a giant stride forward for the staunchly conservative Wahhabi country.
A royal decree was issued that will allow women in the country to drive, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said on its official Twitter account, and a committee has been formed to implement the ruling.
This is nothing short of a revolution that has been slowly creeping in on the country where the highly influential religious lobby has tried to halt any move towards modernisation and remains opposed to the introduction of Western trends.
Indeed, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz want to modernise the country, though they realise the need to proceed at a snail’s pace lest they frighten the conservative establishment. A clash between the religious powers and the House of Saud could have very serious repercussions.
Allowing women to drive is just the latest in a series of changes that have been rippling through Saudi Arabia since the rise of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed.
The young royal is spearheading an ambitious plan to reform and transform the Saudi economy by 2030 and, in line with that goal, increase the number of women in the workforce. Crown Prince Mohammed is considered a major power in the country. Many observers say they expect him to be named king before too long.
It will be interesting to see how the country copes with women now able to get around independently of their male relatives as the mixing of sexes in Saudi Arabia is banned and the religious police, known as the mutawa, are always around ready to enforce sharia.
Since coming to power, the crown prince has successfully lobbied to curtail the mutawa’s influence. More restrictions on women were lifted earlier in September, as the kingdom celebrated its 87th birthday and successes were reached on the modernisation front, when women were allowed to enter a sports stadium for the first time.
In May, King Salman decreed that government agencies should list services women can seek without permission from their husbands, fathers or other male guardians. He ordered organisations to provide transportation for female employees — a step that eased one hurdle to women’s employment, given that public transportation is virtually non-existent.
Besides the obvious implications women driving will have on the cultural level — until now they were not permitted to venture outside the house without a male relative — in commercial terms it means that Saudi Arabia will be in the market for a large number of cars with as many as 15 million women as potential buyers.
The outcome is likely to create a great boon in the car selling industry in Saudi Arabia. Women will need to obtain driving licences. There will be a need for driving schools catering to women. There will be the need for mechanics to maintain the new cars. There will be an increase in traffic, already a nightmare on Thursday nights in Riyadh and Jeddah.
There has been some easing of restrictions on women’s opportunities to work in law and education. In 2015, women were elected to municipal councils for the first time.
Members of the Saudi royal family have been signalling an easing on women’s ability to drive for months now. In May, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, a former education minister, told a privately owned television channel that he had “no doubt” women would one day be able to drive in his country.