Education and Skills

At last, Saudi women have won the right to drive

Female driver Azza Al Shmasani alights from her car after driving in defiance of the ban in Riyadh June 22, 2011. Saudi Arabia has no formal ban on women driving. But as citizens must use only Saudi-issued licences in the country, and as these are issued only to men, women drivers are anathema. An outcry at the segregation, which contributes to the general cloistering of Saudi women, has been fuelled by social media interest in two would-be female motorists arrested in May.

Moving forwards: Women will soon be entitled to drive in Saudi Arabia Image: REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed

Ceri Parker
Previously Commissioning Editor, Agenda, World Economic Forum
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Saudi Arabia has decided to lift its ban on women driving, a move that reflects the changes afoot in one of the toughest places in the world to be female.

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.

Muna AbuSalayman, a Saudi TV anchor and partner at women’s employment website Gloworks, has long argued that change will come from within – for Saudi Arabia and the broader region:

“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.”

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