New era of social mobility


Saudi Gazette

— Women in Saudi Arabia took to the roads early on Sunday for the first time in decades as the Kingdom overturned the ban on female motorists, a historic reform expected to usher in a new era of social mobility.

Women in Riyadh and other cities began zipping around streets bathed in amber light soon after the ban was lifted at midnight.

At King Fahd Causeway Saudi women waited at Saudi borders till the clock ticked to midnight and then they took the wheel to enter their homeland. Officials at the causeway presented flowers to each woman driver and wished them safe driving.

“I feel free like a bird,” said talk-show host and writer Samar Almogren as she cruised across the capital.

Television presenter Sabika Al-Dosari called it “a historic moment for every Saudi woman” before driving a sedan across the border to Bahrain.

“It’s a beautiful day,” said businesswoman Samah Al-Qusaibi as she cruised the eastern city of Al-Khobar just after midnight. “Today we are here,” she said from the driver’s seat. “Yesterday we sat there,” she added, pointing to the back.

Euphoria was mixed with disbelief as women across the Kingdom flooded social media with videos of their maiden car rides, with a heavy presence of policemen, some of whom distributed flowers to the first-time drivers.

“This is a great achievement,” Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal said as his daughter Reem drove a family SUV, with his granddaughters applauding from the back seat.

“Saudi Arabia has just entered the 21st century,” he said to his granddaughters in the back seat in the video. “Thanks to King Salman for this achievement.”

Many Saudi women ebulliently declared plans online to drive for coffee or ice cream.

On Sunday morning, however, fewer vehicles driven by women were seen on the streets, mainly because it was a working day and not too many women possess driving license.

A traffic department official admitted that women drivers will not be initially visible on the streets as fewer licenses have been issued. However, he said that in coming days more and more women will get license.

Samia Al-Edrisi, a prominent Saudi businesswoman, drove to Asharqiya Chamber on Sunday morning for some business errand. “It was a wonderful experience,” she said.

Leila Habbal, a writer, journalist and owner of restaurants, said, “This is a proud and historic moment. Progress is inevitable. This momentous change was bound to happen since it is a necessity for women to drive. I am overjoyed and filled with gratitude that King Salman made this decision to change the path of history for women. I am looking forward to a brighter future filled with hope. Everyone should be celebrating. I personally cannot stop smiling and am so excited to be part of this.”

Noora Al-Nayeemi said, “A new chapter has opened in the Kingdom.”

Shamsa Al-Hadi had only one sentence to express: “We are free now.”

Saudi men also welcomed the decision. Saleh Al-Humaidan congratulated the King and the Crown Prince for the wise decision calling it a “historical moment in Saudi history.”

Saudi stocks rose more than one percent on Sunday and insurance firms made solid gains, as demand from women is expected to boost the automotive sector.

The move is expected to boost women’s employment, and according to a Bloomberg estimate, add $90 billion to economic output by 2030.

For now, the women taking to the roads appear mainly to be those who have swapped foreign licenses for Saudi ones after undergoing a practical test.

Some three million women in Saudi Arabia could receive licenses and actively begin driving by 2020, according to consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The Interior Ministry plans to hire women traffic police for the first time.

A handful of female driving schools have cropped up in several cities, training women to drive cars as well as Harley Davidson motorbikes.

The change should also save families billions of dollars on chauffeurs while encouraging more women into the workforce and raising productivity.

The government has preemptively addressed concerns of abuse by outlawing sexual harassment, and authorities have sternly warned against stalking women drivers.

“To all men I say, be gentle toward women” drivers, popular Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu said in an online video. — With agencies