Mashael Al Qahtani

Mashael Al Qahtani

Journalist

Sixty days until Saudi women get behind the wheel

The countdown for the most anticipated, and possibly the biggest, reform push by Saudi authorities on women’s rights and empowerment has begun; only 60 days remain until Saudi women can officially start obtaining driver’s licenses on June 23, 2018.

Since the historic royal decree lifted the enduring ban on Saudi women drivers, authorities have proactively undertaken a number of measures and processes in setting up a smooth transition framework. For all the potential the decree held for changing on-the-ground realities for Saudi women, these developments did not go unnoticed, and were closely followed by both local and international media.

They raised, equally, a number of questions and concerns by Saudi women when it came to pricing and processes for driving lessons and licensing, and, more critically, the difference in the legal framework governing female drivers and male drivers. With many Saudi women already holding driving licenses from abroad countries, questions were also raised around equivalency options and processes.

Steadfast progress

Preparatory works and processes for the milestone move are almost finalized, according to press statements by Dr. Abdulhameed Al Mojil, president of Salamh (the Saudi Traffic Safety Society), who said that training rounds for the country’s drivers have already opened to wide volumes of participation.

Hundreds of trainees across the Kingdom have so far undergone training courses entailing virtual and simulative experiences, as well as knowledge sessions around road safety, Al Mojil said, adding that a number of initiatives promoting and spreading awareness around safe driving have been launched in tandem.

Immediately after the announcement of the royal decree allowing the issuance of driver’s licenses for women, a committee was formed within the Saudi Ministry of Internal Affairs, bringing together several stakeholders and parties, including the General Department of Traffic. Upon its formation, the committee immediately began with systemic, infrastructural, administrative and human resource processes and investments in preparatory works for the licensing of female drivers.

To this end, a number of agreements on-boarded third and concerned parties for joint efforts to open driving schools for women, and to design and develop bespoke awareness programs for the country’s future female driver base.

Pricing pains

A key pain point that sparked some debate and controversy among Saudi women was the rising fees for female driving schools – a compulsory, rather than optional step for any woman wishing to obtain a driver’s license in the Kingdom.

Al Mojil estimates these fees to stand somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 Saudi Riyals per female student, compared with a mere 450 Riyals for men – nearly six times the cost for female students compared with that for male students, if Al Mojil’s estimates hold true.

He justifies these pricing differences with women’s driving schools “exemplary models”, compared with those for men, as they are designed against top-notch curriculums, and rigid educational, training and application, e-learning, and track safety standards. Still, many women were alarmed by, and raised their concerns around the pricing discrepancies.

A number of Saudi women took to social media to call for lowering driving school fees – or at least, for equating them with those imposed on men – as pricing can pose great barriers for women wishing to obtain driver’s licenses.

International licenses

Saudi women residing in GCC countries outside of Saudi Arabia also engaged in social media discussions and queries around the equivalency of their driver’s licenses in the Kingdom once the decree comes into effect.

The provisions of the Saudi Traffic Law stipulate the replacement of valid driving licenses issued by the GCC Traffic Department with an equivalent Saudi license. The same laws will be applicable to Saudi female drivers outside of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, these laws entail the exemption from driving tests for anyone holding an international or foreign driver’s license that is officially recognized by the Kingdom, on the condition that it is valid.

Women visiting the Kingdom will also have access to a recognized international and foreign driving license for one year from the date of their entry into the Kingdom, or until the expiry date of their license –  whichever is earlier, also according to traffic regulations.

Training track

The Saudi General Traffic Department also revealed that the training program for women drivers in Saudi Arabia – eventually laddering into their driver’s license issuance – is designed around 10 crucial steps; the first of which entails paperwork and documents pertaining to blood and eye tests, and a file registration as a preliminary step to enroll in the training program.

Starting with theory classes extending over 8 hours in total, the program also includes a preliminary vision test and a two-hour simulation training session; after which students attend a minimum of six hours of practical training in the first stage, before undergoing  an on-site driving and parallel parking test. Should they fail this test, students are required to repeat the first stage of the practical training for a minimum of one hour.

Once they’ve passed the test, students begin with the second, 14-hour stage of their practical training before taking the road driving test. The latter assesses 16 critical driving skills and areas and, once passed, allows female students to obtain their driver’s license.

As was the case with driving school fees, these processes also stirred controversy, with many women deeming them extremely lengthy and bureaucratic compared with those put in place for male drivers. Many others, however, viewed the exhaustive and training-intensive process as necessary for Saudi women who would be, for the first time, experiencing driving on Saudi territory – and therefore, requiring a solid and strict framework for their and others’ road safety.

Equals in law

Pricing and process discrepancies fueled many more concerns and questions around how the law would treat and govern female versus male drivers in the Kingdom. In response,  Saudi General Department of Traffic officials have repeatedly come out in the media to affirm that the royal decree stipulated the application of the same traffic laws and regulations on all drivers in the Kingdom, indiscriminately of the gender.

As such, women would be entitled to driving trucks and motorbikes once the decree comes into effect, provided they meet the conditions and requirements for driving either as stipulated by the Saudi traffic laws. They will be allowed to drive outside of their cities of residence, and their license plates will not be distinguished from those of male drivers – and will be administered by the same license plate system under the traffic law’s Article 7.

Similarly, the legal age to obtain a driver’s license is the same for both men and women – 18 years of age for a license for private cars and for motorbikes, and 20 years of age for a license for public transport and commercial vehicles, with the exception of those aged 17 years old and who were granted a temporary, one-year license.

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