Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday it will remove a ban on women driving, ending its status as the only country in the world to impose such restrictions on half the population.
Women will be entitled to driving licences starting in June next year, the official Saudi Press Agency reported, citing a royal decree. Committees from various ministries have been set up to examine implementation, and they’ll report within 30 days, the SPA said.
It’s the most dramatic move so far in the government’s effort to liberalize Saudi society, a counterpart to an ambitious program of economic modernization that’s intended to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil.
Saudi Arabia adheres to an austere version of Islam, and its curbs on women - as well as religious minorities - are a regular target for human rights activists. As well as being barred from the roads, Saudi women need the permission of a male guardian to marry or travel abroad.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s predominant leader and architect of the plan, risks pushback from the powerful Saudi religious establishment. In the past week, authorities relaxed the rules to allow women to attend celebrations for the anniversary of the kingdom’s founding, and men and women danced together at a street party in Riyadh. But within days, there were calls on social media for the religious police to restore moral order.
In an interview in April last year, Prince Mohammed said that women deserved wider freedoms. “We believe women have rights in Islam that they’ve yet to obtain,” he said. “Changes could happen in the future, and we always hope they will be positive changes.”
The US welcomed the move by Saudi Arabia, a longstanding ally in the Middle East. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called it a “great step in the right direction.”
Women activists in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly defied the ban, launching campaigns in which they’d be filmed driving cars illegally. Aziza Alyousef, who took part in two of them, said by phone that she was grateful to the king, “and also I’d like to thank every woman from the 1990s until now who participated in campaigns and continued to ask for their rights.”
She said she’ll apply for a licenses as soon as she can: “I wish my license number would be 0001.”
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.