Mashael Al Qahtani

Mashael Al Qahtani

Journalist

Saudi Arabia kept its word to female drivers, and the world is watching

Saudi Arabia has officially lifted its enduring ban on female drivers, and it’s got the world’s attention to show for it. In the lead-up to the ban lift, which officially came into effect this morning, global and local media outlets were aflush with speculative reports and headlines on how it would eventually play out.

For months, media onlookers had kept a close eye on this development– and the Kingdom under a microscope, at that – canvassing Saudi men and women around the ban lift and its societal implications. Naturally, the media frenzy escalated closer to June 24, and in the best of ways.

On the ground, many Saudi women had been prepping to take on the driver’s seat, many of whom had already replaced their previously obtained foreign driver’s licenses with their national equivalent – and had, in the process, undergone a series of assessment tests designed by the Saudi General Directorate of Traffic.

Revolutionary times

British media powerhouse The Economist sees the Kingdom’s reformative push as nothing short of a revolution, mobilized by winds of change that were, consciously, directed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In a recent report with claiming  “The Crown Prince’s boldness could transform the Arab world for the better”, The Economist said that the enactment of the decree allowing Saudi women to drive is among the most paramount and recent examples of the revolutionary social phenomena started by the young prince.

These radical changes answered a direct call and decision by the Crown Prince, The Economist noted, the leading actor in re-opening Saudi Arabia’s sociocultural scene – from the re-launch of cinema licenses to the public comeback of arts, theater and music; a strategic move under a much larger drive to diversify the Saudi economy away from the hydrocarbon sector.

In a trouble-laden region, the British outlet adds, the changes undertaken and undergone by the Kingdom will tip the balance toward more stability across the Arab world and, in tandem, boost the Saudi economy and its wider ecosystem.

A dream come true

In the hours leading up to the ban, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Riyadh correspondent reported live from the ground a sense of anticipation, excitement and pride among Saudi women as they geared up to take on Saudi roads.

One of these women, who was taking driving lessons in preparation to obtain her license, told the BBC reporter that she was overwhelmed with what was “a dream come true”.

Most men in the Kingdom were supportive of Saudi women’s right to drive, the BBC correspondent affirmed, speaking to a Saudi father of three daughters, who said that women driving in the Kingdom was a “long awaited” decision.

The leadership’s decision to lift the ban on female drivers is one of many taken by the Crown Prince in recent times, under the provisions of the Kingdom's Vision 2030. The vision was built and designed to elevate Saudi society in all aspects of public life, open up the Kingdom to different cultures, and diversify the local economy away from the hydrocarbon sector.

The world at their fingertips

British outlet The Guardian also reported on the Kingdom’s historic moment. “As the clock ticked past midnight, a group of women who had been granted licenses started their engines – some with fathers or brothers alongside, and others in new cars bought for the occasion,” wrote The Guardian; a new open world for Saudi women as their mobility sheds all constraints and restrictions.

One of the Saudi women to have obtained her driver’s license told The Guardian that she had not anticipated the ban lift to happen in her lifetime, claiming that many in the Saudi female diaspora had come back to the country to witness and live this historic moment for themselves.

The Guardian believes Saudi women’s unrestricted mobility to be at the crux of the Kingdom’s national economic reform program, boldly transforming every aspect of Saudi public life, and radically changing long treasured norms and traditions. At that, it would end years of stagnancy and complacency, particularly when it came to women’s static state of affairs throughout Saudi history.

Moreover, The Guardian noted, many are looking at Saudi’s kept promise on the ban lift as a palpable start to a new era in the Kingdom – from once controversial accounts of Saudi female drivers under attack, to today’s celebratory posts and photos of women obtaining their driving licenses.

One step forward

“The ultraconservative Islamic kingdom has championed the new law, which follows a spate of recent reforms, as a step forward for Saudi women’s rights and the opening of its society,” wrote The New York Times on the development.

“During the last few years, I discovered that I have rights that have been usurped for a very long time. I have learned about my liberty, and I am now more assertive about it,” one Saudi woman told The New York Times. She is incredibly optimistic about the next era for Saudi women under the leadership of the Crown Prince, as legislative reforms are pouring in their favor and pushing their independence and mobility by the day.

The legal fine print

In the midst of the frenzy, many legislative experts have warned potential harassers on the legal implications of causing distress to female drivers – be it by following, photographing or tailgating them – affirming that they would be subject to punitive action that was designed precisely to stop these behaviors.

Meanwhile, Saudi online newspaper Ajel (Breaking News), quoted attorney and legal counselor Khaled Abou Rached to say that any such acts against female drivers will have severe legal implications; people who take photos of women driving and post them on social media without their consent will be penalized under the Saudi information act, which could lead to fines and imprisonment.

In the event that harassers engage in car chasing and tailgating action against female drivers, these actions would also be penalized under the Kingdom’s abuse and anti-harassment laws – the first of which stipulates fines and imprisonment, and the second, jail time and flogging.

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