There’s something of a contradiction going on in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia nowadays, most tellingly regarding women in the country. They now have the vote as of the 2015 municipal elections, and since then they’ve also been allowed to run for these local municipal council positions. In fact, a number of female candidates won for the first time ever, to the point that Saudi Arabia has been ranked higher in nations with good prospects for women political candidates than Japan. But just as this development shines as an example of progress in the highly regimented country, there’s still a barrier in place that holds Saudi women back: the right to be licensed to drive.
But that too, may soon see a slim possibility of change. According to The New York Times, women’s rights advocates in Saudi Arabia clamoring for the lifting of the female driving ban has gotten a significant voice of support from a most unexpected quarter, a Saudi royal. Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Al Saud wrote a lengthy open letter on his personal website explaining the reasons for his endorsement of this emancipatory move for Saudi women. Due to the fact that Prince Al-Waleed is a philanthropist business mogul and corporate investor, he frames his argument for allowing Saudi women to drive on primarily economic reasons.
He points out how, due to women banned from driving, a large number of Saudi families who could afford it would resort to hiring chauffeurs for them; and since they’re leery of taking on another Saudi male for such jobs owing to the socio-religious stance against women mingling with Arab men who are not their relatives or spouses, these employment opportunities tend to fall to foreign workers, who take their salaries of Saudi riyals and end up sending them out of the country to their homes. As the typical wages of a migrant chauffeur in Saudi Arabia is 3,800 riyals or $1,000 then it would amount to possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars draining away instead of circulating in the national economy.
This tidbit is somewhat important as Saudi Arabia has been taking steps to move away from oil as the driving force of their economy, and that has been the major source of migrant workers’ salaries. In addition, this ties in to certain reforms being proposed by deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, to increase the percentage of women in the workforce from 22% to 30%.
On the other hand, Prince Salman is also one of the main proponents of the women’s driving ban, saying that his reservations were due to the strong resistance to the notion from the more conservative segments of Saudi society and not necessarily due to religious consideration, as there are no official religious prohibition to women driving at all.
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