Is Saudi Arabia ready for women to start driving?

On September 26, a long-awaited milestone was achieved in Saudi Arabia. A royal decree was issued by King Salman that stated women in Saudi Arabia have been given the right to drive.

The Kingdom, which received much backlash as the only country in the world that doesn’t allow women to drive, has finally been relieved of this image.

Saudi women will no longer need their guardians’ permission to obtain a driving license or need a male guardian present with them in the car. Technically, the driving ban was imposed on women in Saudi Arabia for cultural reasons while there was no formal law present.

After decades of struggle to uplift the ban, people took to social media to welcome the landmark step, which is part of the reforms in the conservative Kingdom. Out of excitement, some women went behind the wheel the next day although licenses won’t be issued for another nine months.

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Photo credit: AFP

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, I remember how difficult it was before the advent of Uber and Careem. I had to depend on a private driver or my father to go out anywhere. I would face the challenge of not being able to get behind the wheel myself everyday.

The only time I had the liberty of driving was within the confines of my compound, which is a gated residential community designed specifically for foreigners. The laws of wearing an abaya, women driving, and gender segregation didn’t apply within our safe haven.

I think this is why Saudis weren’t allowed to live in the compound and had to face many hurdles to even come inside. My Saudi friend had to spend a long time at the security checkpoint outside the compound.

Several calls had to be made only to explain that she was my guest. What made matters more complicated was that the military men at the checkpoint would often not understand my broken Arabic. It’s ironic how there was an actual ‘no zone’ for Saudis within their own country.  

If I wanted ice cream late at night, I couldn’t satisfy my craving by driving up to the nearest bakala (convenience store). It may sound insignificant, but even the most simple pleasures in life weren’t always easy to attain.

When I would try to make plans with my friends, our main concern was how we would get to our meeting point. It sounds menial, but to us it was the defining factor of our day. Unfortunately, most of the time our plans would get cancelled because my friend’s father was too tired after work to be on driver duty.

Since many of us didn’t have full time drivers at the time, we had to rely on part-timers. They would either be too busy to come on such short notice or tell us they would reach in five minutes, which really meant an hour.

If I had an appointment or simply wanted to go to the mall with my friends, it took several days of planning a specific day and time. Either the part-time driver wasn’t available at the time we wanted to go or our fathers were busy with work.

Public taxis weren’t even an option because there was no proper service and one would most likely be subjected to reckless driving. Generally, people didn’t feel safe with Saudi drivers.

I remember an incident when my friend was leaving the mall and had no choice but to take a taxi that day. The driver was wearing shalwar kameez, which made her more comfortable. During the ride, he revealed that he was Saudi and chose to wear this attire because he was aware of how women gave preference to Pakistanis.

This isn’t the only kind of frustration I had to face while not being allowed to drive. If I went out with a driver, it would often be an uncomfortable ride. Like a moth to a flame, Saudi men would begin to tail someone’s car if they saw unaccompanied women.

They would attempt to throw their numbers written on a small piece of paper, while some would yell out their digits instead. Others were more tech-savvy or perhaps trying to promote sustainability while showing their number on a laptop screen from their car window. Some men even had their numbers printed out and taped to their cars.

Being chased, hollered at, and seen as an object instead of a woman with a mind, heart, and soul were what was prevalent on the streets of Riyadh. Even walking across the street was an incredibly daunting task.

If I was ever dropped further away from the mall or restaurant I was going to due to traffic, I always felt uneasy. Young men would be passing by in their cars and “check out” women from head to toe.

Sometimes, they would holler out their numbers and keep driving in circles to constantly come back to where we were. There were many times they would ask us to get into the backseat of their car.

Apart from this concern, Saudis are one of the most reckless drivers in the world. They are notorious for their excessive speeding on the roads and not following the traffic laws.

Saudi Arabia is ranked as 23rd on the list of countries with the highest accident rates. There are approximately 526,000 accidents annually, resulting in 17 road deaths daily.

Although I wasn’t in the driver’s seat, I would often feel scared of encountering the ‘joy riders’ on the busy streets of Riyadh. There were countless times when I would witness a road accident right in front of my eyes.

What’s worse is that the few times I was involved in an accident with a Saudi made me realize that people didn’t follow the rules at all. They would get away with anything and not be held accountable. There were many times where my Pakistani driver would be trying to deal with the Saudi driver, but they would normally speed off as though nothing had happened.

Considering all these concerns, I can’t imagine what the roads will be like when women start driving. Although I am extremely happy for Saudi women who have finally been granted their right, I am wary that it will be difficult to adjust to this change, whether it is in the minds of people or on the streets.

There is still a long road ahead for Saudis to grasp hold of the fact that their women can be fully independent and take chances. It will take time for Saudis to accept and adjust to their wives or daughters taking the car out for a spin. However, I think that this move will increase jobs for women and eventually improve the economy as part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.

I believe that once the rollout of allowing women to drive is complete by June, the adjustment process will still continue. Although it is drastically changing with many other reforms, such as Saudi women being allowed for the first time in the National Day celebrations in the sports stadium, the mindsets are still on the road to change.

Nevertheless, congratulations to Saudi women across the world. The blood, sweat, and tears have finally paid off and now you can actually choose and drive your own car!

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