30 Mar 22

Four years of women drivers in Saudi, what has changed?

Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to repeal its ban on women drivers. In June 2018, women were allowed to drive again in the Kingdom following a 30-year prohibition.

The Government said it was all part of the “Vision 2030” plans, which set out to create economic strength, improve society and build a more sustainable future. Part of the plan was to increase women’s employment from 22% to 30% by 2030. Giving women the freedom to drive was expected to improve their chances of securing employment.

Other people put the change down to years of campaigning by civil rights organisations and the fact that things had to change in Saudi Arabia, since the collapse of oil prices caused a budget deficit of over $50 billion. Many women have campaigned for the driving ban to be lifted and some are still in gaol today, even though the thing they campaigned for is now legal.

Popularity for women drivers exceeding all expectations

According to a BBC article, it was initially expected that only 2,000 women would apply for a drivers licence in the Saudi Kingdom. The website for Saudi Arabia’s first driving school for women attracted over 165,000 applications within three days of the ban being lifted. Some women with foreign driving licences queued up for hours to have them changed to Saudi licences. At least seven women-only driving schools have opened in Saudi Arabia since then.

Five months before the ban lifted, the country’s first women-only car showroom opened in a shopping mall in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah. The showroom exhibited a wide selection of vehicles from various brands including Toyota and Mercedes and was solely staffed by women. It also offered financing options for women.

Up until June 2018, if women wanted to get around cities they had to rely on costly male drivers or male relatives to get to work or school or run errands and visit friends. In many cases, they also had to have male chaperones.

Car manufacturers’ response

Toyota is already planning to dedicate areas of its showrooms to all-female staff and has set up call centres run by women to handle inquiries and financing details.

General Motors, which sells the Chevrolet and GMC brands in the country, has promoted a Saudi-born female advertising executive to be the region’s chief copywriter, to help the group craft adverts and campaigns that are sensitive to the local culture and avoid offending potential customers.

Since the restriction was lifted, more than 174,000 driving licences have been issued to women, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported last year. The right to drive has not only changed lives by giving women more freedom. For some, it has become a source of income.

A Bloomberg Economics report indicated that the decision could add up to $90 billion to the kingdom’s economy by 2030.

In 2019, Reema Juffali became the first Saudi Formula E racer and the first Saudi woman to participate in international racing series, the Jaguar I-PACE eTrophy – the world’s first electric vehicle championship, which promotes zero-emission motoring in Saudi Arabia.

Women-only ride-hailing services

When she's not working full time at a healthcare call centre, 54-year-old Fahda Fahd picks up fares in the capital Riyadh from a ride-hailing app exclusively for women.

Fahd says her salary of 4,000 Saudi riyals ($1,066) a month from her regular job is not enough -- but driving brings in another 2,500 riyals.

She usually hits the road before her shift starts at 2 pm, sometimes accepting passengers on her way home at 10 pm, and says she appreciates the flexible hours.

Women made up more than a third of the workforce in 2021 for the first time, government figures showed. They are among the Saudis now commonly seen serving customers in restaurants, cafes and shoe stores, filling jobs formerly done by foreigners as the government pursues its "Saudisation" plan for the economy.

The Kingdom has met its target of getting 30 percent female labor force participation almost 10 years ahead of schedule, according to a study released by Uber.

Image: Shutterstock

Authored by: Alison Pittaway