Tuesday 26 June 2018

One driving school in Saudi received 165,000 applications in just three days

Apparently the favourite models are going to be Toyota, BMW and Jeep – colour unimportant. But there will be a few hardcore bikers on the roads as well. The day millions of us have been waiting for – and for which several women went to jail for – has finally arrived. The lifting of the driving ban for women in Saudi Arabia, unbelievably the last country in the world to allow women to get behind the wheel.

The decision by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known around the world now, thanks to a slick PR campaign, as MBS – has attracted banner headlines, and thousands of driving licence applications from women throughout the kingdom. One driving school received 165,000 applications in just three days. Car sales are expected to soar by up to 10 per cent, with more than 400 thousand vehicles estimated to be snapped up in the remaining months of 2018.

Good news for the car industry – if not for the environment. And also essential news for the Saudi economy and its highly intelligent female workforce made up of women who more often than not have been educated abroad to masters and PhD level, and who until now had to return home to the alien stifling restrictions of life under religious traditionalists.

That’s all thanks to Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s plan to diversify its economy, reducing its reliance on oil, which has accelerated the introduction of social and economic reform.

The decision by MBS to launch Vision 2030 in 2015 was smart and built on social and economic pragmatism for a country which until now has enjoyed vast wealth built on oil – but riches that won’t last forever.

Part of his modernising Vision 2030, the lifting of the driving ban encapsulates not only social transformation but a blueprint for economic reform.

In recent years the number of women who work has soared to up to 22 per cent, still not enough, and the government aims to raise that to 31 per cent by 2030. But until now those working women have not been able to drive themselves to their jobs – creating not only transportation, but also financial obstacles for women who have had to employ their own driver – often an overseas national – on a salary that frequently ate up their own. Think of the dilemma so many young mothers in the UK face when juggling childcare costs with a return to work.

Another benefit for the country should be the emergence of many more two-car households. This will add to the economy by boosting spending and attracting strategic investors – both local and foreign – associated with motor insurance and car leasing companies. Pension funds and private investors have for months been looking at innovative solutions to serve the rapidly expanding automotive sector in Saudi Arabia.

With the lifting of the ban on women driving, the government’s goal of raising Saudi gross domestic product by 65 per cent will become easier, as this will revive other sectors, such as the automotive and retail, which will increase the productivity because more women will enjoy the ability to work.

And by overturning the antediluvian ban MBS hopes Saudi Arabia will attract even more tourists – who will see the kingdom no longer as a bastion of male repression, but a pluralistic confident society where women are on equal footing with men.

Saudi Arabia announced recently that it would invest $64bn (£48bn) in developing its entertainment industry over the next few years, in the hope that tourism will contribute 300 billion riyals (£60bn) to the economy by 2026.

Other positive spinoffs from today’s news will see the removal of the compulsory wearing of the niqab on national ID cards, and a tightening of the protection of women in a society plagued by social and sexual harassment that is all too often brushed under the carpet. A new anti-harassment law will land offenders with a five-year prison sentence and a hefty fine.

There’s an aura of optimism in the country that I as a researcher and businesswoman in my thirties have not witnessed before. Could this finally be the moment when all the other ingrained taboos such as segregation and male guardianship can be smashed as well?

Social media in Saudi is largely positive with numerous hashtags like “drive and the nation is behind you” and “be confident – you can do it” flooding Twitter.

We’ve got the right to drive. Next up, equality in the workplace. I can’t wait.

(Source: The Independent)

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