Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 July 2019

A year on the road: how life has changed for Saudi women since taking the wheel

June 24 marks exactly 12 months since the ban on women driving was lifted in Saudi Arabia. We catch up with those who are behind the wheel and find out how it has affected their lives

Ammal Farahat with her Volkswagen Passat, which she has only just registered under her own name. Courtesy Volkswagen.
Ammal Farahat with her Volkswagen Passat, which she has only just registered under her own name. Courtesy Volkswagen.

Ammal Farahat has been driving in Saudi Arabia for a year. To celebrate, she’s finally registering her car under her own name. She bought her VW Passat five years ago, but had relinquished control of it to her drivers – until now.

“I just finished all of the payments last week so I got the insurance and all the paperwork put under my name. It’s such a good way to celebrate!” she says.

A year on from the historic decision to lift the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, thousands of women across the kingdom have spent 12 months leading a freer existence.

The move came as part of a series of reforms implemented by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since he assumed the role of heir apparent last year.

It comes as part of a larger plan to mobilise the kingdom’s female population: women were once often asked if they had a driver during job interviews before the ban was lifted, as companies feared a lack of punctuality from those who did not have reliable transportation.

Being able to drive has transformed Farahat’s career: she is Saudi’s first female ­Careem captain and is also the creator of one of the kingdom’s first women’s car clubs. In the space of a year, she has completed 100 Careem rides, and organised plenty of car-­related catch-ups.

'Women are interacting with men, they’re not as apprehensive as before'

She says her supplementary Careem income has not only helped in the running of her ride, but that her ability to drive the streets has also combated lingering stereotypes in the region. “I’ve noticed this change of the position of women in society. They’re interacting with men, they’re not as apprehensive as before. There’s an open communication,” she tells The National.

Members of Saudi Arabia's Volkswagen Women’s Car Club, including Ammal Farahat. Courtesy Volkswagen
Members of Saudi Arabia's Volkswagen Women’s Car Club, including Ammal Farahat. Courtesy Volkswagen

“This morning, I was driving and some guy was watching and gave me a wave and a thumbs-up.” When we first call Farahat to take stock of her year on the road, she’s, well, driving. She’s driving when we call back later, too. And when the game of phone tag finally ends after a few hours, the irony isn’t lost on her. She laughs down the line as she agrees it’s typical that today of all days she’s had to run so many errands. But those errands wouldn’t have been so easy to do a year ago. Back then, Farahat, her mother and sister relied on a shared driver to get them to their destinations, or they used Careem or Uber.

Farahat was quick off the mark to get her licence, gaining it two weeks before the ban was lifted on June 24, 2018. It couldn’t have come sooner; two days before women were given the right to drive, her son had a bad accident and she’d felt “helpless” at not being able to drive him to the hospital.

Driving for Careem had been ­another long-held dream, she says. “I remembered watching this film about a female taxi driver when I was a teenager. When I saw it, I was thinking that I want to do that, but I’m never going to be able to do it in Saudi.”

Along with her sister, she applied and was accepted as a Careem ­captain, becoming the first female driver – another woman had applied ahead of her but didn’t get her licence on time.

“The first time I got behind the wheel alone, I had my Careem [app] up and I was just waiting to give someone a ride. The first time was a guy from the UK who needed picking up from his hotel to go to the airport. He saw me driving up, and he just started jumping up and down. He was so excited,” she says.

Driving has transformed the lives of whole families, not just women

Driving, as well as Careem, has changed Farahat’s life over the past year. Although she’d managed to juggle being a captain around her full-time job as director of customer care at an insurance company for a while, she is currently on a two-week hiatus as life got too busy. But her weekends are usually filled with ­driving, regardless.

“We go take the kids and we go out once a month, we call it ‘a little adventure’. We pack everything into the car and prepare for whatever and go out with Google Maps open and we just go out of the city. Once, we were driving along and saw some camels on the side of the road and the kids said ‘Oh camels!’, so we just went off the road and we parked the car and spent the day chasing camels.”

Ammal Farahat, her two children and her niece, during a weekend driving trip. It was the first time the children had seen a camel in the wild. Courtesy of Ammal Farahat.
Ammal Farahat, her two children and her niece, during a weekend driving trip. It was the first time the children had seen a camel in the wild. Courtesy of Ammal Farahat.

Farahat’s Volkswagen Women’s Car Club has connected women across the country. It’s growing, she says, with the intent to host more events “that will bring more of us together”.

For Rozana Al Banawi, a Saudi leadership coach, adviser and educator, the freedom to drive has meant she can finally be in control of her active lifestyle and job. But as a mother of three, it has also meant extra duties.

This morning, I was driving and some guy was watching and gave me a wave and a thumbs-up.

Ammal Farahat

“It’s an added responsibility that I think I realised after driving for a year. Managing the car, the ­maintenance, the driving, there was a lot of learning happening. It’s a new experience, but one that I am happy to be living,” she explains.

Al ­Banawi says the move to allow women to drive also reflects the realities of Saudi Arabia as it looks to change to better reflect the aspirations and lifestyles of its people.

“There is a sense of liberty there, I can be wherever I want. Before, it was as if the driver had an idea of wherever I went. I am a mother, and a wife but everyone wants his or her privacy. Earlier, all they had to do was call the driver to get hold of me. Now, I have agency, now they have to call me,” she says.

Women driving would also have a transformative effect on society, Al Banawi explains, allowing families to save time that could otherwise have been wasted on organising transport.

Saudi's motoring industry is undergoing rapid transformation

Basmah Alhusseini, partner in the Academy of Basketball for Girls in Jeddah, says: “It’s a luxury for me, unlike others, because we had two drivers, but I still insist it’s my right, it’s my freedom – I want my right to be able to go out when I want, without being afraid.”

She says she is blessed to have come from a family capable of providing her with the means of transportation: because, for millions of Saudi women who did not have the luxury of employing a driver, the ban meant isolation as well as immobility.

More widely across Saudi, roads and car facilities are being upgraded to handle the increase in vehicles and new petrol stations are already being built to cater to the three million women drivers the kingdom forecasts will be on the roads by next year. Automotive manufacturers, insurance companies and service providers are already drafting up plans to provide for the Arab world’s biggest car market.

Ammal Farahat driving as a Careem captain in Saudi Arabia. AP Photo. 
Ammal Farahat driving as a Careem captain in Saudi Arabia. AP

Salman Sultan, a spokesman for Jaguar Land Rover Mena, says the company’s first compact SUV, the Jaguar E-Pace, has been a bestseller among female drivers in Saudi. In the past year, 61 per cent of all E-Pace models were purchased by women, closely followed by the Range Rover Evoque, with 58 per cent of the cars sold to women.

He says the company had made sure to cater to female customers, by introducing designated entrances for women and areas for them to test drive cars in private.

"I believe we must also look to grow the network of driving schools in the market, to encourage new female drivers to register and enjoy the great roads the kingdom has to offer."

And erhaps another benefactor of the change, according to Saudi women we interviewed over the last year, were Saudi men – the brothers, sons, and husbands who had to drive their female family members around, and were often responsible for employing one or more drivers.

For Laura Alho, who was believed to be the first western woman to get her licence, the past 12 months has been “like living in a new country”. She bought a Toyota Prado because it’s a car that’s suitable for desert trips, but also safe to transport children. “My frustration levels are much lower and life is less complicated,” she says.

Updated: June 23, 2019 06:11 PM

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