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

Prince Alwaleed

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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Posted by: ZXC

Very sensible. Wants and needs of people which include women should be listened. Women are people and human. If they want to drive, work etc, it is their right by any standards or religious codes - if these codes consider them and grant them equality. If they are not allowed these rights, then they can not be considered as equals. Need I say more.

Posted by: Red Snappa

That is a bright idea as well as a step forward toward reform bearing in mind that in other countries women have formed a large contingent of the social change protesters.

Saudi Arabia simply has to make some changes and applying money to the situation will not always work, this is one change that would go far, that an a blanket sanction for women to be able to work not just in specific environments like ladies banking.

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