Allowing women to drive is expected to boost Saudi Arabia’s economy
So began a public list naming 47 Saudi women who, almost 27 years ago, circled around the Saudi capital Riyadh in their cars. It was an act of defiance against a ban on female drivers that was no less absolute for being unofficial.
In the days that followed, the women were vilified by thousands of “Mutawaeen,” the Saudi religious police tasked with applying the country’s harsh interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. Many lost their friends, jobs and even their passports. For years later, their detainment and harassment by authorities became a matter of routine.
But earlier this week, a surprise announcement by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz decreed that both men and women would be issued driving licenses starting in June. It was the end of an unwritten injunction that had long become a black mark on the kingdom’s image.
That it was a victory for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is a given. But it was also another step in the plan, named “Vision 2030” by its architects, to lessen the country’s dependence on oil, keep more of its money within its borders and galvanize its people into joining the workforce.
“Women in Saudi Arabia have been advocating for the lifting of the ban in the 1990s and again in 2011 and 2013,” said Hala Dosari, a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. “The timing had less to do with social pressure and more to do with the government recognizing that in order to accomplish its ambitious economic vision they had to make gradual adjustments.”
The ban had long been a financial and logistical obstacle to women becoming a part of the country’s economic life. With public transportation out of the question, many were forced to employ chauffeurs to go to work or run errands, said Mohamad Alyahya, a Saudi expert at the Atlantic Council, a think tank, in a phone interview on Thursday.
A 2017 labor survey released by the Saudi General Authority for Statistics said there were approximately 1.3 million foreigners hired as drivers, comprising roughly 60% of foreign domestic workers in the country. But much of that money would never stay in Saudi Arabia.
“The remittances from drivers alone reach almost $4 billion. That’s a significant recurrent toll that’s leaving the Saudi economy on a yearly basis as a result of a government regulation barring women from driving,” said Alyahya.
Dima Jardaneh, head of Middle East and North Africa research at Standard Chartered in Dubai, said the figure could even be as high as $10 billion.
“This will boost disposable income of households, particularly for women, if they were covering the cost of transport themselves,” she said in a phone interview on Thursday. She added that even if the money were used for purchasing or maintaining vehicles, it would nevertheless increase “household consumption” in the country.
The ban was also one of many factors affecting women’s ability to join the workforce (experts estimate roughly 17-22% female labor participation in the Saudi economy). That number is especially low compared to the high percentage of women graduating from college in the country.
“Women had been pushed to enter the private sector as lawyers and engineers, but the biggest problem has been a logistical one, among both high-earning and low-income households,” said Alyahya.
But allowing women to drive, said Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics, “will not only save money but also simplify the lives of working Saudi women who must rely on either their male relatives or private hires transportation to get them to and from work.”
“It is a win-win policy for Saudi society and economy.”