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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 July 2018

A historic moment for Saudi women should be seized as a catalyst for change

Women will be able to explore opportunities that were previously closed off to them

Huda al-Badri, 30, poses behind a steering wheel as women are allowed to drive for the first time in Saudi Arabia. EPA/AHMED YOSRI
Huda al-Badri, 30, poses behind a steering wheel as women are allowed to drive for the first time in Saudi Arabia. EPA/AHMED YOSRI

The sight of women behind the wheel on the roads of Saudi Arabia for the first time is one the world will remember for a long time to come. It was an uplifting moment for everyone involved; an exultant affirmation of freedom that had come after a long wait. Female diplomats celebrated by driving and tooting their horns alongside Saudi women; on social media, both men and women across the world rejoiced with them in spirit while on the streets of Saudi Arabia, traffic police handed out roses to female drivers.

There were, inevitably, detractors keen to point out that Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to lift the ban on women driving – many from the western world, conveniently overlooking their own nations' turbulent histories to dismiss progress elsewhere. Certainly, there is recognition within Saudi Arabia itself that reform is necessary, both culturally and to reinvigorate the economy. The autonomy that comes with the liberty to drive will enable women to seek opportunities which were previously closed off to them. This, in turn, will have a significant knock-on effect on the economy, estimated to be worth $90 billion. There have already been significant, incremental changes to the law in other areas to create greater independence for women.

Above all, this is a moment to celebrate a visible embodiment of a kingdom in metamorphosis and a catalyst for new and profound opportunities. Saudi women – who until last week had to depend on a male guardian or driver for transport – are already seizing upon the life-altering change that has taken place. More than 120,000 women have already applied for driving licences, according to the Interior Ministry of Saudi Arabia. This is only the beginning but it gives a clear indication of the extraordinary possibilities in a country anchored to the vision of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has driven the wave of reforms enabling greater female participation and empowerment. The crown prince's Vision 2030 is an inclusive blueprint for the modernisation of Saudi Arabia. The journey towards that destination began on Sunday on the roads of the kingdom.