By Umer Tariq
In a historic move Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has issued a royal decree allowing women to drive for the first time. The ultraconservative country was the only country in the world that prohibited women from driving. Following the decree a high-level committee has been set up to examine arrangements for enforcement of the order. The decree will be fully implemented by June of 2018.
The move has been celebrated not only by campaigners in Saudi Arabia but around the world. Manal al-Sharif, one of the women behind the Women2Drive campaign, hailed the decision by posting a photo on Twitter of herself behind the wheel of a car. She was arrested back in 2011 on charges of disturbing public order and inciting public opinion by twice driving in a bid to press her cause.
The debate to allow more freedom to women in the Saudi society has been raging for many years; the rise of social media platforms further intensified the debate as more and more Saudis took to these platforms to demand more rights for women.
However, one of the major arguments to allow women to drive was more of an economic nature. According to estimates chauffeurs collectively earn about $8.8 billion annually in Saudi Arabia with almost 800,000 foreign chauffeurs currently working in the country. The decision to allow women to drive is likely to save the country billions of dollars and boost the automotive and other related industries.
The decree when fully in place by 2018 will allow thousands of well educated and ambitious Saudi women to participate more actively in the country’s economy. What remains to be seen is whether the Kingdom also reconsiders other laws that are of discriminatory nature to women and how it tackles the expected backlash from conservative clerics. So far the signs have been positive as only last week women were allowed to participate in the National Day celebrations for the very first time.
*The writer is Deputy Editor of Daily The Patriot