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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive from June 24

The announcement dispels rumours that Saudi authorities were reconsidering lifting the ban

A Saudi woman tries a car simulator during women car show in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser
A Saudi woman tries a car simulator during women car show in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

Women in Saudi Arabia will legally be allowed to drive for the first time ever on June 24, with all preparations for the historic occasion in place, the Saudi assistant interior minister has said.

The move will affect women of all nationalities in Saudi Arabia, and will also allow them to work in driving-related jobs.

"We must treat women with respect, appreciation, trust and prevent any wrongdoing that may occur from any person towards those who drive their car on the tenth of next month," said assistant interior minister General Saeed bin Abdullah Al Qahtani, referring to the tenth day of Shawwal in the Islamic calendar.

The announcement dispels rumours that Saudi authorities were reconsidering the move.

Last week, Saudi Arabia released a veteran women's rights activist Aisha Al Manea following her arrest earlier this month.

A security source at the Saudi State Security Presidency said they had "monitored an orchestrated activity of a group of persons who dared to violate the country's religious and national pillars through making suspected contacts in support of the activities of foreign circles," according to the official Saudi news agency.

At least seven people were reported arrested just weeks before a ban on women driving is to end in the Gulf kingdom.

Saudi Arabia did not offer details on why the activists were arrested. But Ms Al Manea campaigned for the right for women to drive before the royal family decided to lift the ban on September 2017.

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Speaking at a forum on road safety in Riyadh on Sunday, Mr Al Qahtani said that police have been briefed on the occasion and have been trained accordingly.

The decision to allow Saudi's 16 million women to drive comes as part of a series of dramatic changes implemented by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The 32-year-old prince has pushed a reformist agenda in the kingdom since he assumed the role of heir apparent last year.

Prince Mohammed’s modernisation efforts have been hailed as a new era for Saudi both at home and abroad. He shocked the region with an anti-corruption purge last year, when members of the Kingdom’s royal family and multi-billionaires were detained at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.

Allowing women behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia comes as part of larger plan to mobilise the kingdom’s female population.

In the past, reforms have been difficult to implement in the kingdom due to the country’s religious conservatives. However they have also been marginalised by Prince Mohammed’s modernisation efforts.

Their reduced influence was on display when the country opened its first cinema earlier this year, despite opposition by several conservative clerics.

Several women’s universities have begun offering driving lessons to women since the beginning of the year.

Now five driving schools for women have been established, according to the country's General Department of Traffic. Women in the kingdom will also be allowed to work as drivers and in other traffic security-related facilities.

Saudi Vision 2030, the progressive economic plan widely considered the brainchild of the Crown Prince, highlights women mobilisation as one of its key pillars.