When Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) announced in 2017 that women would be allowed to drive starting June 24th, 2018, women in the Kingdom rejoiced. Whereas in the past, they needed to resort to male guardians or drivers to transport them across the country, they now had the independence to travel inside the country as they pleased, be it for work or leisure.
This opened a set of doors women in Saudi thought would never open, and created huge opportunities for them in the job market. However, the Kingdom too was to reap some rewards.
Saudi women on the roads are a boon to the economy
On the day of the ban lifting, Bloomberg published quite the headline: “Saudi Arabia’s $90 Billion Reason to Allow Women to Drive.”
In that article, they cited data from their economics arm Bloomberg Economics, stating that the ban lifting could add as much as $90 billion to the Kingdom’s economic output by 2030. This fits in line with MBS’ Vision 2030, a plan to diversify the Gulf nation’s economy away from oil.
After all, only 34.6% of the Saudi workforce is comprised of women (Q1 data by GaStat), and not being able to drive was one of many hindrances preventing them from getting jobs. This percentage represents 1.075 million women in employment. Consider then the total Saudi female population (2018 census by GaStat) aged between 19 and 59, which numbers 6,413,298. This means only 16.76% of the female Saudi population aged between 19-59 hold jobs. From a glass-half-empty point of view, that means 83.24% of Saudi women aged 19-59 are unemployed, which is an alarming figure.
The Kingdom already has a problem with an overflowing expat population, and has been pushing for more Saudi employment through nationalization schemes such as Saudization. The driving ban had compounded an already troublesome issue. According to the General Organization of Social Security (GOSI), Saudis represented only 24.4% of job holders in the country.
Now, post the ban lifting, an estimated 3 million Saudi women are expected to be on the road by 2020, AFP notes. This will no doubt provide a timely boost to the Kingdom’s economy.
What are Saudi women saying?
AMEinfo spoke to two members of the Kingdom’s first female car club, known as the Volkswagen Women’s Car Club. The club was formed to unite likeminded women who enjoyed their newly found independence.
“The Volkswagen Women’s Car Club unites us in a way that we never thought possible before,” said Ammal Farhat, a Volkswagen enthusiast and one of the first Careem Captainahs in Saudi Arabia, in a press release. “Now that we can get behind the wheel, we feel more empowered and have a greater sense of independence and control over our own lives.”
When asked how her life had changed since she became able to drive, Farhat told AMEinfo: “My life completely changed, especially that I can go anywhere and accomplish things I couldn’t before because I had to wait for a driver or a taxi to take me around. Also, as a single mother, being able to drive allowed me to spend more time with my two children and allowed me to take them around even for school, therefore being able to drive is something I and all women in the kingdom appreciate.”
Another member, Wejdan Al Abdilkareem, shared Farhat’s sentiment: “It has become easy to commute between work, home, and any places I need to get to, and I’m grateful that I am able to do that now.”
Naturally, making the transition into the driver’s seat was not easy, with Al Abdelkarim saying that “As driving is new for us women in Saudi, we needed to learn about all the different aspects of our cars and how to take care for them: where to get spare parts, which shops are supportive, welcoming and trustworthy for women, etc.”
When asked if there is anything that can be changed or improved for women driving in the country, Farhat said, “Of course, and that’s why we launched Volkswagen KSA Women’s Car Club, to bring women together and share knowledge and experience. We are planning to host training sessions with Saudi Society for Traffic Safety and many other sessions to empower women in driving and to help them build that experience.”
With initiatives such as this car club bubbling to the surface, it’s only a matter of time before more entities and initiatives surface around this growing group of driving women. The economy will similarly see a rise in methods to support them, and in turn, boost economic output.