One year on, Saudi women say driving has steered their lives for the better

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“I felt very independent, it was empowering- I felt free.” This is how 30 year-old Riyadh resident Maha Althuwaini described her first time taking the driver’s seat in Saudi Arabia exactly a year ago.

At the stroke of midnight on June 24, 2018, celebrations filled the streets across Saudi cities as the world watched the Kingdom’s women drive themselves for the first time in 30 years.

A historic royal decree issued by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz in September 2017 granted women the right to obtain drivers’ licenses.

The unexpected decision came into effect on that night, which saw women either taking a simple drive around their neighborhood, or a celebratory drive with family members, or even driving to do some grocery shopping.

“When the decree was announced, I didn’t even want to wait to have the driving classes and wait 2-3 months to get the driving license, I got mine from the UK just to change it right away in Saudi,” Saja Alhoshan, a 27-year-old senior policy adviser for G20, said.

“I wanted to drive exactly at 12AM when they announced it. Oh my God, I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life. They announced it’s going to be June 24, so at 12AM I turned on my car, I was driving around the streets – all the police were literally around the streets giving flowers, congratulating us. Everyone was celebrating this event so it was a very memorable day,” Alhoshan added.

Although the apparent joy was accompanied by some fears, most Saudi women agreed on one thing: They felt free.

“To me personally, it’s not only a dream come true but a right being granted. This past year gave a new meaning to ‘female independence’ in the Kingdom,” Aseel Shawli, a 26-year-old Jeddah resident, told Al Arabiya English.

Althuwaini, who works at a software solutions company, said she shared the same relief of many Saudi women when the decision was first announced: Finally getting rid of the driver.

“The nature of my job is very ad hoc. So depending on someone, whether it be your husband or your driver – you can imagine the pain we had to go through,” she said.

“One family would have one driver so if your mom wants to take the driver, it would cause a lot of stress just to go out on a nice evening or outing. It also does not feel good going out for lunch or hanging out and having a driver wait for you – that’s uncomfortable,” Althuwaini added.

For Alhoshan, having a driver meant her life “is linked to someone else’s life.”

“As a consultant, if I stay long hours, till 12-1am, I literally had to let him stay up waiting for me. That was the struggle… The smallest things were very difficult. People always said ‘oh having a driver would be amazing’ – it’s actually the opposite, having the freedom to turn on your car and just go, you can’t put a price on that,” Alhoshan said.

But for 25-year-old Omnia Abdulqadir, the difficulties she faced pre-driving were a tad bit different.

“Let’s say you’re craving ice cream or McDonald’s… in the past I’d have to wait for my brother or someone to take me and they’re not always available, now you have the car, you go, you get whatever you want.”

According to an April 2019 report by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development of Saudi Arabia, the number of non-Saudi household drivers dropped from 1.4 million to 1.3 million by the end of 2018. This includes around 181 non-Saudi female drivers.

Abdulqadir said that it took a lot more effort from her to get to work on time as well. Her office is in a gated community in Riyadh, where security would stop the usually tinted Uber cars and force her to walk or order another taxi to reach her office on time.

“The very first day I got my license, I went to rent a car and started driving right away – to start experimenting the streets, the people… Now it’s so much easier to go out and do things – even if my mother or brothers need something I can help out,” Abdulqadir added.

The total number of female drivers in Saudi Arabia is projected to reach three million in 2020. In comparison, male drivers are set to increase from nine million in 2017 to 9.5 million in 2020, Price Waterhouse and Coopers said in a report.

The volume of new driving licenses issued is expected to increase significantly by 2020 as women began to apply for driving licenses in 2018. This will be the primary, direct enabler for all the resulting demand for car-related services, the report added.

The report also said that car sales are expected to grow by nine percent per annum until 2025 boosted by the new women customer segment, compared to a three percent annual growth in the past four years.

But it’s not the positive numbers and statistics alone that have upped the spirits of women and the Kingdom as a whole since the royal decree was put into effect.

Women- whom the decision is centered around and who are one of the primary focuses of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030- have expressed that the decision has empowered them in many ways.

“It feels like my position in society has been upgraded, now we [women] are enabled to be more productive in society,” Shawli said.

In June 2018, more than 120,000 women applied for licenses and the demand was very high, Ministry of Interior spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki said at a joint press conference with Director General of the Traffic Department Maj. Gen. Muhammad Al-Bassami. Almost 50,000 licenses have been issued to date for women in the Kingdom.

According to Alhoshan, when the decree was first put into effect, only two of her female colleagues were driving.

“Everyone was scared of driving when it first happened – people were saying the streets were crazy, people thought there will be a lot of accidents – but it was the opposite, it was very calm, like any other regular day,” she said.

“It was really empowering to actually be able to drive, and even my previous employer- whenever a lady got a driving license he would actually celebrate and get a cake, everyone around the office would celebrate,” Alhoshan added.

One year on, one thing is apparent: The first anniversary of women driving in Saudi Arabia is no less of a milestone.

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