Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday, September 26 that women would be allowed to drive starting in June 2018. The decision ends a longstanding policy preventing women from driving in the Royal kingdom.
Whilst rights groups and Saudi activists have long campaigned for the ban to be overturned, leading to the arrest and detention of some women who defied the prohibition, Saudi officials and clerics have provided numerous explanations for the ban over the years.
The ban has long marred the image of Saudi Arabia, even among its closest allies.
Increasing numbers of women are working in a growing number of professions, and in 2015, women were allowed to vote and to run for seats on the kingdom’s local councils.
Saudi leaders also hope the new policy will help the economy by increasing women’s participation in the workplace. Many working Saudi women spend much of their salaries on drivers or must be driven to work by male relatives.
Ending the ban on women driving is expected to face some resistance inside the kingdom, where families are highly patriarchal and some men say they worry about their female relatives getting stranded should their cars break down.
Prince Khalid bin Salman, son of King Salman and the Saudi ambassador to the United States told journalist at a news conference at the Saudi embassy in Washington, that he did not expect the change in policy to face significant resistance. “I think our society is ready,” he said.
He stated that women would be able to obtain driver’s licenses without having to ask permission of their husbands, fathers or any male guardian.
This is in contrast to “guardianship” laws that give men power over their female relatives. The Guardianship law prevents women from traveling abroad, working or undergo some medical procedures without the consent of their male “guardian,” often a father, a husband or even a son.
The ambassador, who is a son of the king, said that women would be able to drive alone but that the Interior Ministry would decide whether they could work as professional drivers.
Beyond the effects it could have on Saudi Arabia’s image abroad, letting women drive could help the Saudi economy.
Women’s Rights groups, female professionals and young people welcomed the change.
The decree said a high-level ministerial committee was being formed to study other issues that needed to be addressed for the change to take place including the training of police to interact with women. In Saudi Arabia, men and women who are not related have little contact.
The committee has 30 days to provide its recommendations.
As part of a plan for economic and social reforms in 2030 to limit its dependence on oil, Ryad seems to ease certain measures imposed on women.
Last November, the Saudi prince and billionaire Al-Walid bin Talal, had launched a vibrant appeal for women finally to get the right to drive. Allowing women to drive is now “an urgent social demand that the economic situation justifies,” he pointed out in reference to the budgetary difficulties facing his country due to the decline in its oil revenues, following the collapse of crude oil prices. The use of foreign drivers costs billions of dollars to the Saudi economy, he said.
The international community welcomed the historic decision by Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive, whereas it was the only country in the world to impose such a ban.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres applauded an “important step in the right direction”.
“This is the realization of the courage of militants who have campaigned for years,” Amnesty International said. The organization referred to the lifting of the ban as a “small step”.