Hunched over platters of dates and Arabic coffee, Saudi women raring to drive once a government ban ends next June signed up for another revolution - to be the kingdom’s first female cab drivers.
King Salman last month decreed that women will be allowed driving permits, a historic reform that could put not just millions of women behind the wheel but potentially many more into the workforce.
Sensing a lucrative opportunity, the Dubai-based ride-hailing company Careem says it plans to hire up to 100,000 female chauffeurs to lure new clients in the kingdom.
This week, the company held its first recruitment session in the coastal city of Khobar, which attracted a diverse crowd - from housewives to working women - who already have foreign driving licenses.
“For years I felt helpless. My car would be parked outside and I could not drive,” said Nawal Al Jabbar, a 50-year-old mother of three, sipping coffee from a thimble-sized cup.
Chorus of approval
A chorus of hoots and claps erupted in the auditorium as the women, who learned about the recruitment by word-of-mouth, watched news footage on a projector screen of last month’s royal decree.
“It felt like we had woken up in a new Saudi Arabia,” Ms Al Jabbar said.
An instructor stood next to the screen, holding up a smartphone to show the inner workings of the app.
The firm plans to add a new “Captinah” button to the app next June that would allow customers to choose women chauffeurs. The option will only be available to other women and families, said the Careem spokesman Murtadha Alalawi.
Around 30 women registered for the event in Khobar.
Rite of passage
“This is a rite of passage for women,” said Sara Al Gouweiz, the director of the women chauffeurs programme at Careem, referring to the reform.
“For women to drive their own cars signals autonomy, mobility and financial independence.”
“Society portrays women to be strong when it’s convenient and weak when it’s convenient,” said Ms Al Jabbar.
“I say if you can depend on a female doctor to deliver a baby, then you can depend on a woman to drive a car.”
Becoming a chauffeur would mean “extra income”, said Banain Al Mustafa, a 24-year-old medical lab technician who obtained her license while she was studying in West Virginia in 2015.
“I drove for two and a half years,” she said, including once on her own in a nine-hour road trip from New York to West Virginia.
“If I can drive there, why not in my own country?”
The reform is in line with the kingdom’s Vision 2030 program that seeks to elevate women to nearly one-third of the workforce, up from about 22 per cent now.
Authorities have highlighted the economic benefits of the reform as the kingdom deals with a protracted oil slump; Saudi families would no longer need foreign chauffeurs, often a major source of domestic financial strain.
Riyadh is moving to bring female driving instructors from abroad, local media reported, and Princess Nourah University said it will inaugurate a women-only driving school.
Murtadha Al Alawe, the head of public relations at Careem, said the firm would wait for government regulations to be formally announced before putting female recruits behind the wheel.
Its rival Uber is reportedly planning a similar initiative to recruit female drivers.
The new Careem recruits in Khobar were seemingly unperturbed by pockets of resistance from men or sexist comments on social media over women driving.
“Look at how women’s abayas have evolved - different styles and colors - despite strong resistance,” Ms Al Jabbar said.
“After a while, even women drivers will become a new normal.”