Saudi prince questions need for ban on women driving

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal says 750,000 foreign drivers could be sent home if women could drive
Prince Alwaleed
By Reuters
Wed 09 Mar 2011 09:37 PM

A senior Saudi prince questioned

the need for a ban on women driving on Wednesday and said

lifting it would be a quick first step to reduce the Islamic

kingdom's dependence on millions of foreign workers.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of King Abdullah and

advocate of his reforms, said the kingdom could send some

750,000 foreign drivers home if women could drive.

"A lot of Saudi women want to drive their car in line with

strict regulations and wearing a headscarf. But now they need a

driver ... This is an additional burden on households," he said.

"The Saudi society wants fewer foreign labourers ... so why

the hesitation, why this hesitation (with women driving cars)? I

want answers," he said.

The Gulf Arab state is a monarchy ruled by the al-Saud

family in alliance with clerics from the strict Wahhabi school

of Islam. Women must be covered from head to toe in public and

are not allowed to drive.

But the ruling family has been facing calls from activists

and liberals, empowered by protests across North Africa and the

Middle East, to allow some political reforms in the absolute

monarchy that has no parliament.

Using social media, activists have called on King Abdullah

to allow women to participate for the first time in municipal

elections expected later this year.

A ban could only be lifted by the government in consultation

with the country's top Islamic scholars.

Saudi women are subject to a male "guardianship" system

which requires they show permission from their guardian -

father, brother or husband - to travel or, sometimes, work.

Religious police patrol the streets regularly to ensure

gender segregation and that women are dressed modestly.

The rulers of the world's top oil exporter have wrestled

with the issue of moderating the country's strict adherence to

an austere version of Sunni Islam.

King Abdullah, a reformist, has replaced hardline clerics

with moderate ones but must balance their needs with those of

the religious elite who helped found the kingdom in 1932.

He unveiled handouts worth $37 billion last month in a bid

to insulate the kingdom from Arab protests reaching the

kingdom's borders in Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan, but has given no

hint whether the ruling family will allow political reforms.

Saudi Arabia's huge oil wealth has provided a high standard

of living compared to many neighbours, and it was widely thought

to be immune from spreading unrest, but the rumblings of

discontent from the Shi'ite minority have alarmed Riyadh.

More than 17,000 people have backed a call on Facebook to

hold two demonstrations this month, the first on March 11 but

activists say it is impossible to say how many will defy a ban

on protests.

Protests by a disgruntled Shi'ite minority in Bahrain are

being closely watched in Saudi Arabia, where Shi'ites make up

about 15 percent of the population.

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