Lifting the ban on women driving: Why now?


Women driving, a new future city to be built, and now a robot granted Saudi citizenship. It’s been a month full of surprises in Saudi Arabia!

Since it was announced that women would be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, the question I’ve been asked the most by foreigners and international media is: Why now?

Although it was a surprise that was greeted by many Saudis with a sigh of relief, the reason for the timing of this sudden announcement was not clear at first. With no introduction, it was announced on state TV and news agencies and made headlines worldwide.

In a rare public appearance, Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh gave a clearer answer to many who wonder about the changes happening in Saudi Arabia.

In his announcement of NEOM, an ambitious $500 billion mega project to be built in the northwest of Saudi Arabia that will mark a new generation of cities, Crown Prince Muhammad asserted that Saudi Arabia’s direction in the post-oil era meant getting rid of the barriers that have been holding it back since the 1980s.

Those barriers are essentially extremism, which departs from the true moderate Islam that innately grants men and women equality. “We are returning to what we were before  - a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world,” he said. “We will end extremism very soon.”

Certain rules in Saudi Arabia are not religious, but are urged by conservatives bound by tradition. Despite that, there has been progress in women’s empowerment over the years and it is inspiring to see more women appointed to leadership positions. Nonetheless, the ban on driving contributed to women being considered to be second-class citizens.

It is important that the decree allowing women to drive has occurred top-down by the government, because for decades extremist factions have had their voice prevail over the rest of society.

As law always prevails over cultural traditions, the perception that men are superior to women will gradually diminish.

I personally consider the declining price of oil a blessing in disguise. Diversifying the economy requires all members of the population, both men and women, to be productive. As according to the General Authority for Statistics, unemployment among women has increased to 33 percent, transportation is a more pressing issue than ever. For the first time in Saudi history, the new economic model will liberate women from cultural barriers.

Today, Saudi society is different than in the past. Two-thirds of the Saudi population is under the age of 25. Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince is younger than his predecessors by at least two generations and is working on revamping the country in today’s digital age, a fast-paced era where change is quicker, efficient  and necessary.

Layan Damanhouri,

Saudi Gazette

The author can be reached at: Follow her on Twitter: @layanzd