In an announcement on Twitter, Saudi’s foreign ministry said that half its population would be allowed to take the wheel for the first time.
The decision follows decades of protest from Saudi women. In 1990, a convoy of women flouted a ban to drive in convoy through the streets of Riyadh. In 2011, the Saudi campaigner Manal al-Sharif posted footage of herself driving to YouTube, becoming a figurehead for the Women2Drive movement.
Women can’t quite buckle up just yet. The government has until June 30, 2018 to implement the new decree, which overturns an earlier religious edict banning women from driving.
“This move has economic implications in addition to social ones,” said Saadia Zahidi, Head of Education, Gender and Work at the World Economic Forum.
“Over the last years, higher income women could often arrange transport privately, but for many lower and middle income women mobility came at too high a price, both financially and socially. Despite this, Saudi Arabia has narrowed its economic participation gap faster than any other country in the world in the last decade.”
More women than men graduate every year in Saudi Arabia, and the government aims to raise the proportion of women in the workforce from 22% to 30% in 15 years. As the nation seeks to wean itself off oil revenues, unlocking the economic potential of its entire population will be crucial.
“If the increased mobility from driving is coupled with improved public transport infrastructure and broader reforms in the labour market, the full power of the Saudi female workforce could be unleashed in the economy,” added Zahidi.
According to the latest edition of the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report, Saudi Arabia ranks 141st out of 144 economies. The report looks at how women fare compared to men in four areas: health, education, employment and political representation.
While Saudi Arabia has a long road ahead to create a more equal society, there are signs of progress in the segregated kingdom. Women won the right to vote and stand in the 2015 municipal elections, resulting in the appointment of 20 female councillors.
“Only through organic, inclusive progress, and by addressing women as partners rather than victims, can we turn the Arab region into an engine of prosperity and opportunities for all.”