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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

Saudi women rev up ahead of end of driving ban

Many sit in car parks waiting for the clock to strike midnight

Amina Abu Al Ola guides Rohood Bugis as she takes the wheel in a virtual training area set up in Jeddah on June 23, 2018 as the clicked down to the midnight lifting of a ban on Saudi women driving on public roads. Naser Al Wasmi / The National
Amina Abu Al Ola guides Rohood Bugis as she takes the wheel in a virtual training area set up in Jeddah on June 23, 2018 as the clicked down to the midnight lifting of a ban on Saudi women driving on public roads. Naser Al Wasmi / The National

It was not New Year's Eve on Saturday, but women across Saudi Arabia were excitedly anticipating the stroke of midnight - in this case to turn keys in car ignitions and become one of the first for decades to drive in the kingdom.

The sound of engines revving could be heard hours before midnight in Jeddah’s Red Sea Mall car park, breaking what would normally have been a quiet Saturday night.

Saudi women could be seen in their cars as they waited for the ban on driving - in force since 1957 - to end.

There, and in three other major Saudi cities, the Centre of International Communication sectioned off a large swath of road to set up makeshift classrooms for women looking to drive.

"That's it, I think I've figured it out," said Rohood Bugis, at the wheel in a virtual training booth.

Amina Abu Al Ola, a trainer, corrected her, advising her to be more gentle on the throttle.

"It will be different when you drive a real car, make sure you're aware of everything," she said.

Sultana Al Amri, a manager, said she felt "amazing".

"The fact that at 12 o'clock my life changes, and then when my daughter becomes of age in three years, her future will be ahead of her."

Officers at police checkpoints scattered throughout Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, were anticipating an influx of women drivers, with some police saying they were happy to “ensure their safety first, but also congratulate them”.

In Riyadh, the capital, police were at the ready along the King Salman highway to welcome the newcomers to the road. On highway billboards and electronic messaging, signs were put up addressed to women marking the momentous day.

"Our sisterly women drivers, we wish you continued safety," read one.

In the weeks before the lifting of the driving ban, Saudi authorities prepared a detailed plan and trained police to address any issues that might occur on the historic day.

Sources from the ministry of information told The National that more than 10,000 women have applied to the driving school in Jeddah.

Thousands of women have received licences through one of five training schools in the kingdom, not including those who already had licences from other counties and could trade them in for Saudi licences after an eye exam and a brief driving test.

The decision to allow Saudi women to drive comes as part of a series of reforms implemented by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has pushed for transformation of the kingdom's economy since he assumed the role of heir apparent last year.

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

“I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime,” said Layla Moussa, 67. “I’ve waited long enough and now to know that my daughter-in-law, and my three granddaughters, will have a normal life, it’s settling.”

Although the Saudi government made efforts to expedite the process of issuing licences, many women are still waiting.

“I am so hopeful of this, even just to be a part of this history," said Wafa Al Hajri. "My first trip will be first in the neighbourhood so I can believe it, then I will take my father out."

Five Saudi universities – in Jeddah, Taif, Tabuk and two in Riyadh – have full-fledged driving programmes that take those with no previous experience through an intensive course including theory, simulators and practical training.

Those who pass the test are issued licences, with costs approximately 2,500 Saudi riyals.

Although universities began accepting applications before Ramadan and the first batch of licences was issued on June 4, thousands are still waiting for the chance to get their driving permits.

“Honestly, I am just so happy to be a part of this,” said Latifa, from Taif. “Who would have thought in my lifetime we would get this opportunity. I feel like it’s a new life for me, and I can’t wait to begin.”