As Women Take to their Cars, Saudi Arabia Prepares for Quiet but Dramatic Changes off the Roads

Faisal Al Yafai

A week on from Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a driving ban on women and the kingdom already feels different. Saudi women reveled in the change, gleefully posting photos and videos of themselves in the driving seat on social media and having extended, public conversations about what kinds of car they intend to purchase. Such noticeable aspects of the change in the law are only the tip of the iceberg. Reversing the driving ban brings Saudi Arabia in line with the rest of the Gulf states, and the rest of the world, and sends a powerful signal that the kingdom is changing. But the change will be far more widespread than merely new cars on the road. Women driving will transform the kingdom, socially, culturally and especially economically, impacting both individual families and even significant decisions by major companies. The real change is Saudi Arabia will be felt off the roads.

 

For the decades the driving ban was in the place, the burden of it fell most heavily on lower-middle-class families. Families that could afford it always employed a driver to ferry female members of their households around. Often these women had their own cars and their own drivers.

 

But it was on those families that couldn’t afford – or, more often, could barely afford – a driver that the burden was most keenly felt. In the same way that some families, in Saudi Arabia and in many other places, have to balance the costs of childcare with the salary of a second breadwinner, so, in Saudi Arabia, those on more modest incomes had to balance the salary of a job against the added expense of a daily driver. The ban, therefore, had hidden expenses and will consequently have less visible rewards.

 

But it is the economic impact that has companies and analysts salivating. This economic impact can be split into two parts, those felt directly and those felt indirectly.

 

The most directly-felt impact will be on car sales. Saudi women now make up the largest cohort of potential female drivers in the GCC – which means that, within a short period of time, measured in months rather than years, perhaps as many as two million women will be seeking to buy a car. Not all of those will be looking for new cars, but merely stating the numbers in that way shows how excited car dealers in the kingdom will be. (Not only car companies, of course. Many women will require loans to purchase their cars and insurance to cover them on the roads.)

 

But there are other indirect changes and the impact of these could ultimately be more dramatic. The way to understand these changes is to first understand how Saudi Arabian society adapted to being the only country in the world where women could not drive.

 

For a start, many women simply did not work, because of the costs involved in hiring a driver. Only around 20 percent of Saudi Arabian women work, compared to percentages well above 40 percent next door in equally affluent Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. That meant that much of the available workforce simply was not being used.

 

The government hopes to increase that to 28 percent in the next two years. Even a relatively small increase in the number of women seeking work could have a dramatic impact on the kingdom’s GDP, as well as helping efforts to get more Saudi nationals in jobs currently done by expatriate workers. But it will also mean that, gradually, the kingdom will need to find many new jobs for women who may have been out of the jobs market for many years, or even decades.

 

Those women who did work, hired drivers. These drivers – one Saudi government estimate put the number at nearly a million – needed to be given their salaries, accommodation and to have their related visa costs paid for. Without that need, many will have to go home – that is a side not often discussed, that many tens of thousands of predominantly South Asian workers who can’t find alternative work could be at risk of unemployment. Without the need to pay drivers, female and household disposable income will go up (and that extra money will circulate within the Saudi economy rather than being lost as remittances).

 

But there will also be other changes. Some large companies offer female employees an allowance for a driver. Without the need to do that, as the cost of hiring female employees goes down, there may be a small increase in the hiring of women. Some companies may even look to locate themselves further from urban centers.

 

Socially, too, there will be changes, not immediately, but over time. Families have become used to women not being able to drive – now that that has changed, there may be different choices over who does the shopping or picks up the children. Families could choose to live further away from urban centers or decide to put their children in different schools.

 

One of the major complaints women had about the driving ban was the need to rely on others: mothers needing their sons to drive them around, daughters asking their brothers for lifts. These social dynamics will shift, subtly.

 

Over time, these small changes can have a dramatic impact on the shape of Saudi Arabian cities, working lives and family dynamics.

 

For years, pressure for the change has come from inside and outside the kingdom. Those asking for the change said the sight of women driving would be a dramatic symbol of a changing Saudi Arabia. Now that the change is finally here, it will not be on the roads that the most dramatic impact is felt.

 

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

AFP PHOTO/Amer HILABI