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Women Should Take the Wheel in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Prince Calls for End to the Ban on Women Driving

Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has publicly called for an end to Saudi Arabia’s decades-old ban on women driving. Although the prince, a business magnate and investor, does not hold an official government position, he is the most high-profile Saudi royal to unequivocally state that the driving ban is discriminatory and should end.

Alwaleed’s call appears to align with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 development plan. The plan declares that the government will “continue to develop [women’s] talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.”

Female driver Azza Al Shmasani sits in her car after driving in defiance of the ban in Riyadh on June 22, 2011. © 2011 Reuters

But Prince Mohammed’s declared views on women driving contradict the announced vision and tell a different story. When asked during an April 2016 press conference about the issue, the Prince declared that the “[Saudi] community is not convinced about women driving,” essentially blaming the driving ban on Saudi social norms rather than state-enforced policy. And Saudi Arabia’s Shura council, a consultative body without legislative powers, has just voted down a recommendation to formally review the ban.

Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. When in November 1990, 47 women drove in a convoy in Riyadh in protest against the ban becoming official policy, traffic police stopped them, took them into custody, and released them only after their male guardians signed statements that the women would not attempt to drive again.

In 2011 and 2013, Saudi women activists again openly defied the ban via coordinated campaigns in which they filmed themselves driving on Saudi streets across the country. Again, many were arrested and forced to officially declare they would refrain from driving in future. Others even faced trial.

Alwaleed has qualified his call for an end to the driving ban somewhat by insisting that women should not be permitted to drive “outside city limits” and that men cannot be forced to allow female relatives to drive, but his view is important because it recognizes the ban for what it is: a state policy that is “far more restrictive than what is lawfully allowed by the precepts of religion.” Rather, he argues, the ban impedes women’s ability to actively participate in society and the country’s economy.

If Mohammed bin Salman is serious about economic development and strengthening women’s future, he should take his fellow prince’s advice, stop shirking responsibility, and work to bring an end to all forms of discrimination against women. Allowing women to take the wheel themselves would be a start. 

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