In line with the government’s “Vision 2030” plan for social and economic reform, as the kingdom prepares for a post-oil era, women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are now allowed to drive. An historic moment for a society where gender roles are carefully delineated and strictly enforced.
The Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, says that the move will lead to greater female participation in the workforce and a breakdown of gender roles that limit social interaction between men and women outside immediate family environments. The new policy will help the economy and enhance the kingdom’s reputation and image on the world stage. The “Vision 2030” plan aims to increase female participation in the workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent over the next 15 years, while also reducing total unemployment from 12.7 per cent to 7 per cent by 2030.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is a moderniser in a kingdom where more than half the population is aged under 25. The driving ban, he explained, created a paid chauffeur class made up of thousands of (largely foreign-born) drivers taking up funds, estimated at some $6.7 billion last year, that might otherwise be channelled into the Saudi economy. There is a serious monetary benefit inherent in allowing women to drive.
The rollout will take place in June 2018, after government ministries have had a chance to work out the details of implementation. Manufacturers from Ford to Volkswagen are now actively promoting their wares to this new market of millions of Saudi women drivers.
Independence for all
This has significant implications for the role of women in Saudi society, the only country were female citizens were legally forbidden to drive. Sheikh Khaled al Mosleh, a professor of religion, tweeted that “allowing women to drive answered the needs of a big portion of the population”, and added a lengthy justification for the move under Islamic law.
There have been suggestions that driving in Saudi Arabia will get worse as women are allowed on the roads but Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef says that lifting the ban will cut the number of car crashes.
Apart from civil rights and freedom of choice, this means that women can now dispense with hiring drivers or relying on relatives, which makes both family and business life easier to manage. The kingdom is actively promoting initiatives to improve gender diversity and get women into the labour market.
In real terms, the driving ban was, in effect, economically prohibitive for some working women. Public transport in the kingdom is limited and it makes little economic sense to work outside the home if it means having to pay for a driver. Lifting the ban will create new economic opportunities for Saudis. Women driving instructors and perhaps traffic cops will be needed, while the departure of foreign chauffeurs may open opportunities for Saudi drivers – men and women – with ride-sharing companies such as Careem and Uber.
A growing number of Saudi women are now working, in sectors such as retail, but are mostly concentrated in public education and healthcare sectors, as civil servants, teachers and doctors. They are well-educated and financially independent and, of course, with the driving ban lifted they will be more of a visible presence.
Transformation at work
The kingdom is home to the largest women’s university in the world, with approximately 40,000 students are registered. The state spends money on educating women, and many Saudi women study abroad, when they return they want to work, to build careers, take on leadership roles and start their own businesses.
Young people in Saudi Arabia and educated and connected, social-media savvy and ambitious, women are benefitting from modernisation and social reform. The “Vision 2030” transformation plan aims to diversify the Saudi economy by promoting sustainable changes that will optimise the potential of women at work and empower them to pursue their career goals.
Emirati women have seen a shift in cultural norms and more women than men complete secondary education and move on to university and post-graduate education, and women own 50 percent of small and medium enterprises in the UAE. In 2016, the UAE Cabinet included eight women (27 percent of the total cabinet members); nine women hold seats on the Federal National Council, almost 25 percent of the FNC’s membership. This is a good record by global standards and a great example of what women can achieve in a conservative society.
In Saudi Arabia, the promise of economic prosperity and societal transformation towards equity and equality is not yet fully realised but the lifting of the driving ban is a big step forward, the first of many it may seem. Women throughout the Middle East can drive forward positive change in the region.