Saudi women have a long road ahead

Rijadh traffic on the King Fahd Road

Saudi Arabia's historic decision to allow women to drive won plaudits internationally and inside the kingdom on Wednesday, as euphoria mixed with disbelief among activists who long fought the ban.

King Salman on Tuesday paved the way for Saudi women to receive driving licenses after increasing demands from women and criticism from human rights groups over the prohibition.

Saudi Arabia will use the "preparatory period" until June to expand licensing facilities and develop the infrastructure to accommodate millions of new motorists, state media said.

Indeed, after years of fervent internal activism, Saudi women can finally obtain a vehicular license - all without the permission of a legal guardian or parent and without a male guardian in the vehicle with them.

The arrival of women drivers could lift Saudi auto sales by 15-20 percent annually, leading forecaster LMC Automotive predicts, as the kingdom's "car density" of 220 vehicles per 1,000 adults rises to about 300 in 2025, closing the gap with the neighboring United Arab Emirates.

In the years since, female activists have kept at it, more recently uploading videos of themselves driving to YouTube to gain global attention, and suffering insults, jail time and even the threat of punishment by lashing.

"The move to allow women to drive is set to benefit the entire market", LMC analyst David Oakley said.

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has vowed to transform Saudi Arabia's economy, but it won't work unless he can also drag the country's medieval society into the modern era. But the rule change adds nearly 9 million potential drivers, including 2.7 million resident non-Saudi women, Merrill Lynch has calculated. The biggest issue may be winning the approval of Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi clerics, the most conservative of the Islamic faith. The male guardianship system requires women to have a male relative's approval for decisions on education, employment, marriage, travel plans and even medical treatment.

One Saudi woman tweeted a picture of three women in a convertible going shopping, with the message: "Us soon".

"My auto is still there, the one I drove". Women already dominate men in numbers at universities.

Given the driving ban, women have recently begun to rely on ride-hailing apps like Uber, which have facilitated their entry into the workforce, and decreased their dependency on men to chauffeur them.

Some men expressed outrage at the about-face by prominent clerics, who in the past have sometimes justified the driving ban by saying women's brains are too small or that driving endangered their ovaries. The scholars see no reason not to allow women to drive as long as there are legal and regulatory guarantees to avoid the pretexts (that those against women driving had in mind), even if they are unlikely to happen.

In a royal decree, the monarch directed minister of interior to constitute a high-level ministerial committee to carry out studies about the necessary arrangements to implement the royal decree.

Sept 28: Saudi appointed its first spokeswoman, Fatimah Baeshen, at its embassy in Washington.

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