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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Exclusive: Friends to hit the road together as first western women to get their Saudi driving licences

"Having the ability to choose is wonderful, I don't miss going to movies or sports stadiums, but driving has been a big thing for me"

Laura Alho and Kelly Downing show off their new driving licences in Riyadh. Abdul Ahad for The National.
Laura Alho and Kelly Downing show off their new driving licences in Riyadh. Abdul Ahad for The National.

Sheer determination: that's what friends Kelly Downing and Laura Alho believe got them two of the first driving licences issued to foreign women by Saudi Arabia.

The pair had been keen to get their licences as soon as possible after Saudi authorities announced the ban on female drivers was to be lifted. However, they didn't quite expect to become the first westerners to receive them.

"It still feels very surreal. It's very exciting," Ms Alho told The National. "I have been waiting for this thing forever."

She even owns a jacket with "June 24 2018" — the date she will finally be able to use her new licence — and the corresponding date in the Islamic calendar, embroidered on the back.

The positive impact on Saudi women becoming drivers has been widely acknowledged. But it is also going to influence their foreign compatriots — those who may have already been drivers in their home countries.

Ms Alho is in her 11th year of living in the kingdom. She arrived as a single Finnish woman to take up a nursing job. Now she is married with two children, running a full-time Saudi-focused travel blog.

Ms Downing moved from the suburbs of Washington DC to Riyadh in late 2012, after her Saudi husband finished his MBA. She met Ms Alho through mutual friends months later, and the pair have been excitedly watching the succession of reforms in the country ever since.

Driving licences were issued to 10 Saudi women last Monday, just weeks before Saudi Arabia's ban on female drivers is to be lifted on June 24.

The Ministry of Information said another 2,000 licensed female drivers would join their ranks this week.

"It's been a rapid rise of changes recently," Ms Downing said. "The ways things are currently, I'm very, very happy to be here.

"Having the ability to choose is wonderful, I don't miss going to movies or sports stadiums, but driving has been a big thing for me."

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Read more:

First Saudi women given driving licences before law change

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The two friends made sure they were among the first to register when the system for booking appointments opened on May 21. They opened their Absher accounts on the Ministry of Interior website, submitted their documents — including a medical report and translations of their foreign licences — and managed to book the first spots on the first day expats with foreign licences could have their paperwork converted.

"As soon as I saw that the system was up for appointments, I woke my husband before prayer and said I had to do it," Ms Downing said.

"He knew from the beginning that I wanted to be the first, so he helped me navigate the websites and get everything in order and everything submitted correctly."

However, a couple of days later their appointments were cancelled as the system was not ready.

Laura Alho's jacket counts down to the day she'll be able to finally get behind the wheel. Abdul Ahad for The National.
Laura Alho's jacket counts down to the day she'll be able to finally get behind the wheel. Abdul Ahad for The National.

Last Tuesday, they both received messages at night saying their appointments had been scheduled for the next morning.

Ms Downing was scheduled for 11.20am, soon after the traffic department opened, and Ms Alho was scheduled for soon afterwards.

After having their thumbprints taken and licence information entered into the system came a short driving test around a course in the car park. It lasted only a couple of minutes, Ms Alho said. She had to demonstrate a three-point turn and a parallel park as the driving instructor watched from outside, following the car along the course.

"Laura arrived moments after I was handed my licence and it was incredible to hug her and share my happiness in that moment," Ms Downing said.

"It was so straightforward, it was amazing. I was prepared to wait all day if I had to, but everyone was in a great mood. I keep saying it's the best DMV experience I've ever had."

"The guy gave me the thumbs up, but then I went back inside he said to my friend 'you passed' and to me, 'you didn't pass'," Ms Alho said.

"And I said are you serious? He said 'no, of course you passed'."

When they collected their new licences moments later, they asked whether they had indeed managed to be the first expatriates to get their licences. They were told they had, being the first American and first European respectively, with several Saudi women and one Lebanese woman just sneaking in before them that day.

"It felt incredible, I was just so happy. It means so much for my life here. I already have a say in my life because my husband gives me a say, but now I'm independent and I can leave the house without worrying about a driver," Ms Downing said.

Ms Alho agreed. "I think it's a really great time to be here, it's such a historic moment and we've been waiting for so long," she said. "It's going to make such a huge difference in everyday life. You can do spur-of-the-moment things, like going to restaurants or to the park. You always had to plan those in advance before."

And, come June 24, the duo have agreed that, whether it be a road trip or simply taking in the sights of Riyadh, they'll be on the road somewhere, together.

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