Saudi Women Take the Wheel
Since 1990, women in Saudi Arabia have been protesting the law that prohibits them from operating a vehicle. The conservative kingdom is the last country to have a ban on women driving but, the new 2030 Vision program has reversed that, allowing Saudi women to take the wheel. The reform plan is relaxing many tight restrictions on women, as the country prepares for a post-oil economy, recognizing women’s importance in the kingdom. The real incentive of the reversal is not women’s rights, it is the substantial effects it will produce on Saudi Arabia’s economy.
While women earn over half of the college and university degrees in Saudi Arabia, they only make up 20% of the workforce. As seen in the graph below, women are typically educated, but contribute very little to the economy. This leaves much of Saudi Arabia’s economic potential unachieved. That’s where the 2030 Vision plan comes in, looking for an economic transformation as the country moves away from an oil-based economy due to oil prices dropping substantially. Saudi Arabia hopes to push new workers and former government employees into private sector employment, helping that market to grow. All of this is to be mainly fueled by increased women’s participation in the workforce.
Graph detailing women’s participation in four sectors of Saudi Arabia.
(Global Gender Gap Reports, World Economic Forum)
For the women that do work, they must rely heavily on private drivers or male relatives to provide transportation to their job. Most families turn to hiring private drivers to drive women to work, school, and on any other errands throughout the day. These drivers come at a high price though, amounting to an estimated national total of 19.14 billion Riyals, about 5.1 billion US dollars. This price eats up much of women’s small pay, diminishing the incentive to work in the first place. Saudi Arabia is also hoping that by allowing women to drive, the overall number of private drivers will drop. Currently nearly 800,000 men, mostly South Asian, are working as drivers for Saudi women. Saudi Arabia not only wants the demand for these services to go down, but also hopes the remaining jobs will go to Saudi Arabians, all of which the driving ban is in the way of right now.
With this economic reform, also comes a social reform in the kingdom where men and women don’t typically interact unless they’re relatives. Most men are concerned about women in the driver’s seats, from it being a cause of distraction to other drivers, or that the act of driving could harm women’s bodies. In addition, Saudi Arabia must take many considerations before the reversal takes full effect in 2018. This include the retraining of police officers to learn how to interact with women on a daily basis, something most men aren’t accustomed to. Saudi Arabia says it is still up for debate whether or not women will be allowed to be police officers or professional drivers, but that it is a possibility for the future.
The government has instructed authorities to allow the issue of licenses to females, and women drivers will no longer be driving in protest of a restrictive law. Saudi women are obtaining their freedom of movement, taking strides in their economic participation, and boosting Saudi Arabia’s new “modern” economy.
Hubbard, Ben. “Saudi Arabia Agrees to Let Women Drive.” The New York Times, 26 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-women-drive.html.
“Saudi Arabia to Allow Women to Drive.” Saudi Arabia News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 27 Sept. 2017, www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/saudi-arabia-women-drive-170926190857109.html.
“Saudi Royal Decree Will Help Families Save Money Currently Spent on Private Drivers.” Arab News, 27 Sept. 2017, www.arabnews.com/node/1168406/saudi-arabia.Vogelstein, Rachel. “Women Can Drive Now in Saudi Arabia.” Fortune, 28 Sept. 2017, fortune.com/2017/09/28/saudi-arabia-women-driving-economic-effect/.