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
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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