By Shoshana Kedem
Hanadi Zakaria Al Hind said the decree to lift driving ban "changes everything"
The first female pilot to get her piloting licence in Saudi Arabia said the decision to allow women to drive opens the floodgates for greater women’s empowerment in the kingdom.
“It truly is a new era for Saudi Arabia in all aspects of life that we could see a difference,” Hanadi Zakaria Al Hind told Arabian Business from Makkah.
She said the world can no longer criticise Saudi Arabia for certain restrictions it places on women.
“You will see Saudi Arabia in a different way in the next few years,” she said. “Every country has many issues and women driving cars is one of the issues in [our] country.”
“All the world kept mentioning this, kept talking about women driving cars in Saudi Arabia, so we wanted to close this file."
Al Hind said monumental changes are being ushered in by the Crown Prince who is eager to dispel any bad press generated abroad by Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving.
“Our government wanted to close this file forever. This is the only reason I think,” she said.
“The Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has the vision of 2030, but we’re still 2017 and we can see a difference already. So we’re expecting a lot by 2030."
With all eyes on Saudi Arabia since it unveiled its ambitious Vision 2030 economic diversification strategy, Al Hind said the decision will open up every facet of professional life in the kingdom to women, and encourage a pioneering spirit some claim has in the past been frustrated in ambitious women.
“Saudi Arabia is different than it’s ever been in previous years,” she said.
“If you do something as a pioneer you don’t have to be afraid that you won’t be accepted in the country. It’s changing a lot. We will see how it goes. The whole world is looking at Saudi Arabia right now.
“We are so optimistic. We are working so hard in changing because we have the push; we have the power, we have the support, we have the encouragement from our government.”
Since getting her pilot’s licence in 2013, Al Hindi was awarded a 10-year-contract to fly Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s private jet. She also instructs a new generation of male aviators in a flying academy in Jeddah.
She hopes driving licences for women will be a stepping stone for her to become the first Saudi female to get a commercial pilots' licence in the kingdom, so she can fulfil her lifelong dream of working with state airline Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia).
“I’ve been in tears since yesterday - I can see all my dreams that for the last 13 years I’ve been fighting for.
“We know now that the government’s on our side.”
She said her ultimate goal would be to see, “Saudi women everywhere, in all work fields, without having all the obstacles we had before."
Elana DeLozier, assistant director at Abu Dhabi-based think tank the Delma Institute said that during a trip to the kingdom in May she could sense that change was afoot.
“This women's driving restriction lift follows a trend of restrictions being eased - many others just tend to be less reported in the West,” said DeLozier.
“In summary, Saudi women's legal and regulatory dependence on men is declining.”
At the time of her trip, she said, women were talking about how some of the guardianship restrictions had eased. For example, they were all delighted that they may soon be able to travel without their male guardian's permission, following an indication from the government.
She said the timing of the driving decree was due to the recent maturity of three facets of life: society, economy, and government. “In other words, society has matured, the economy is maturing [away from oil], and the government has matured in ways that allow this policy shift to happen.”
In a new age of technology-driven transport, the Ubers and Careems, outlawing the “mixing of sexes” is outdated, she claimed.
“Every Uber driver I had there in May was Saudi. The mixing of the sexes is already happening. So the societal barriers to this policy change are lower than a decade ago.”
The decision also promises a sizeable financial boost as the country steers its economy away from oil dependence, she said.
“The economics is likely a major reason behind this new policy change. I've heard numbers from $17 billion to $25 billion cited as the amount the country will make and save from this new policy,” said DeLozier citing the $17 billion figure from a recent Oxford Strategic Consulting report.
"The lifting of the ban will also boost female employment and help families save money on drivers, she added. “The government under [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman is prepared to make this change. He wants to increase female employment and boost the economy. This policy may do both.”
The announcement comes following a fleet of plans to diversify the economy, such as luring tourists with a $5 billion luxury resort along a cluster of Red Sea islands, and easing visa restrictions.
Otto Goessnitzer, who worked with the Saudi Commission for Tourism for nine years and today heads up a Saudi infrastructure firm, also said the decision was a sign society is evolving.
“The issue was unofficially long discussed and most of the middle-aged Saudi men appreciate the fact that women should be allowed to drive, simply because they do not want their wives to depend on a driver.
“We may see a gradual implementation of Saudi women driving - firstly married and working women will be granted a driving licence; later maybe all adult females.”