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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Women are steering their way towards brighter futures – and not just behind the wheel

The lifting of the driving ban is about more than greater independence. It marks a turning point in the Kingdom's economy

An instructor guides her trainee during a training drive at the Saudi Aramco driving school for women in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Mohammed Al-Nemer / Bloomberg
An instructor guides her trainee during a training drive at the Saudi Aramco driving school for women in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Mohammed Al-Nemer / Bloomberg

Today marks a new dawn in the lives of Saudi women – and with it a turning point in the kingdom’s economy.

Women are getting behind the wheel for the first time as the driving ban is lifted, a moment that is as remarkable in the conservative kingdom as it will be transformative. It was hard not to be uplifted by the images released earlier this month of joyous Saudi women clutching their freshly printed driving licences. Thousands have signed up for lessons, excited by the prospect of greater independence.

The lifting of the ban follows a string of necessary reforms introduced since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was appointed to his role last year and immediately set out his Vision 2030 diversification plan.

Its impact will be felt far and wide and will not simply be restricted to the freedom to explore Saudi's roads. Saudi women will be able to run their own businesses, attend football matches, cinemas and concerts and travel unaccompanied without the impediment of needing a male guardian or a lack of mobility.

But the reforms go far deeper than mere entertainment or lifestyle. Rather, they aim to encourage Saudi women to consider the role they play in shaping the country’s future.

By enabling women to deploy their skills and labour – be it in sport, culture or business – the Saudi economy will receive a significant boost. Today, Saudi Arabia is among the world’s most influential and wealthiest nations. Diversifying from dependence on oil will require the kingdom to utilise its significant human capital. The consequence of women taking the wheel will be part of that smart restructuring.

One knock-on effect is already evident within the car industry. On hearing the news, Toyota immediately deployed nearly 100 female frontline staff in showrooms across the kingdom while Ford launched a training programme to bring its female staff up to speed.

Meanwhile, scores of Saudi women will become driving instructors and Careem and Uber drivers. Beyond the motor industry, the lifting of the ban is certain to help Saudi women access job opportunities they were once denied. A survey by the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce indicated that transportation was a major concern holding Saudi women back from joining the labour market. Currently women make up roughly 22 per cent of the national workforce; Vision 2030 is determined to raise that number to 30 per cent.

In a region where the car is king, while soaring temperatures and limited pedestrianised areas affect our mobility, the lives of Saudi women are about to become easier. But more than that, they are now in charge of their destinies in a manner previously unheard of. At times it has been hard to keep track of the astonishing reforms stewarded by the crown prince. And yet the sight of Saudi women behind the wheel, which will soon be a regular occurrence rather than a spectacle, perfectly distills the country’s transformation.