x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Your car is in the lift, Madam

Women may not be able to drive in Riyadh but they still have purchasing-power, leading Jaguar to create a female-only showroom.

The customer service staff Bedour Al Oun, left, and Abeer Salama with a Jaguar XF in the female-only car showroom in Riyadh.
The customer service staff Bedour Al Oun, left, and Abeer Salama with a Jaguar XF in the female-only car showroom in Riyadh.

RIYADH // A couple of years ago, it dawned on the men who sell Jaguars in Saudi Arabia that they were not paying enough attention to an important part of their clientele: women. "We started to listen and we found out that your typical Jaguar buyer tends to be a lady or [someone] influenced by a lady in one way or the other," said Alan Whaley, general manager of Al Saif Motors, exclusive importer of Jaguars and Land Rovers for Saudi Arabia.

"We thought: 'What do we do to cater for lady buyers?'" The answer is located on a chic boulevard in downtown Riyadh: a female-only showroom built above the regular showroom. Spacious and sunlit, it is large enough for three or four cars, and has cozy corners for coffee-sipping and brochure-browsing. The luxury vehicles that are for sale are brought up to the second-floor space by a hydraulic lift in the corner of the ground-floor showroom.

Customers arrive by stairs located behind a side door kept locked from the outside. This is a routine procedure for businesses that cater to women to comply with rules of the religious police. Mr Whaley said the females-only showroom makes sense in Riyadh, where banks, government offices and mobile phone companies all offer ladies-only branches. There is even an all-female hotel that opened last year.

His upper-crust customers usually fall into one of three categories: "The royals", female spouses "who have an awful lot to say in terms of what the family buys" and "very powerful business ladies [who] make their own decisions in terms of what vehicle they buy ? and we're seeing more and more of those". Though Saudi women cannot drive, they can purchase and register cars in their own name. Dalal Nasser, 23, is one of the showroom's two saleswomen. She says she enjoys her work because "it's a new job here in Saudi Arabia. Plus I like cars so much. I like Cadillacs and Jaguars".

Women appreciate the female-only showroom "because it's more comfortable for them", Ms Nasser said. "Women dealing with women, it's easier; there's more comfort than women dealing with men. Because you know the tradition here." Part of Ms Nasser's job is outreach and on a recent day, she visited a female banker at her office "to show a new offer" from the company. (Free maintenance for three years with a newly purchased Jaguar.)

Later, she went to a party hosted by a Saudi princess because "one of my friends told me about it and said there would be many important women there". Ms Nasser did the rounds, talking up Jaguar, distributing catalogues about its latest model, the XF, and inviting the women to visit her showroom. Sometimes, the company trucks a car to parties where the invited guests are part of the kingdom's Jaguar-buying strata, Mr Whaley said.

"Normally in these VIP parties, you'll have Cartier on show there, and you'll have Saks," he said. "It's the kind of thing that we welcome being involved in." Prospective VIP buyers, especially royal family members, also may have cars trucked to their home - or palace - so "the lady can look at it in comfort, in her own time, in her own house", Mr Whaley said. A female saleswoman is also dispatched to answer questions about the vehicle.

Mr Whaley says he has noticed a big difference between women in Riyadh and Jeddah, where the company has three of its seven showrooms. "Riyadh still tends to be very conservative, very traditional" and ladies of the capital are more interested in legroom, how the TV works and having darkly tinted windows. Female clients in the more free-wheeling Jeddah, he adds, are "completely different and you can see it ? in terms of the colour and the wildness because you can mix interior and exterior colours.

"And the wildness of Jeddah, it tends to be much more racy. Jeddah women tend to say 'How many horsepower is that?'" Sales of Jaguars, which cost between 160,000 to 370,000 Saudi riyals (Dh157,000 to 362,000), were up 120 per cent in the first quarter of 2009 over the corresponding period last year, Mr Whaley said. There is no way to tell if the all-female showroom and home-viewing option boosted sales, but that is not really the point, he added.

"We look at it as value added. It's a long-term investment." An investment Mr Whaley expects will pay dividends when Saudi women are allowed to drive. "I think business will increase two- to three-fold, especially with Jaguars," he said. When that day will arrive is a never-ending source of speculation in the kingdom. One year ago, the state-guided Saudi press was being told to avoid the topic of women driving.

But in recent months, there has been a small, but noticeable increase in editorials and columns arguing that the ban against female drivers is not an Islamic requirement and should be lifted. "The discussion regarding women's right to drive is becoming somewhat tiresome," read a Saudi Gazette's editorial a few days ago. "Saudi women with masters' degrees and PhDs are nearly 100 per cent employed in Saudi Arabia.

"So where is the logic in opening up the workplace for such capable and highly educated women but depriving them from driving?? If we are to utilise our greatest asset, we must give them the freedom of movement. And that means the right to drive." That followed two similar calls from prominent Saudi personalities. Mohammed Abdo Yamani, a former information minister, appealed in Al Watan newspaper to "the grand mufti, the board of senior ulema and the Shura Council to resolve the issue and relieve Saudi women of this injustice".

How, Mr Yamani asked, "can a person stop his wife and daughters driving a car ? and then go and permit them to get in a car with a foreign man"? Abdullah al Mutlaq, a respected senior sheikh, also joined the chorus, saying that Sharia does not prohibit women from driving and that "customs and traditions in our society must not rule us absolutely", the Gazette reported. He noted that Bedouin women in rural areas already drive out of necessity, "earning respect with their abidance of traffic laws".

Many Saudi women have driver's licences from foreign countries. "I drive in Cairo and Beirut," Ms Nasser, the saleswoman, said. Her work colleague, Bedour al Oun, who works in the distributorship's customer service, does not yet have her licence. But once in a while, she admits shyly, she takes advantage of the all-female showroom. She drives around it in a Jaguar. cmurphy@thenational.ae