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A billionaire Saudi prince says it’s ‘high time’ for Saudi women to start driving

Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)
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A billionaire Saudi prince has taken a striking stance against one of his country’s long-held codes: prohibiting women to drive.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi royal family, posted a four-page-long opinion piece on his website and linked to Twitter, declaring his belief that it is “high time” that Saudi women start driving cars.

The country’s ban, the prince wrote, is “fundamentally an infringement on a woman’s rights.”

“Preventing a woman from driving a car is today an issue of rights similar to the one that forbade her from receiving an education or having an independent identity,” he said, before citing a list of social, financial, economic, religious and political reasons for overturning the ban.

Alwaleed, who does not hold a formal position in the Saudi government, leads the Riyadh-based investment firm Kingdom Holding Company, which holds stakes in a number of Western companies. The investor is worth $18.9 billion and has been called by some the “Arabian Warren Buffett.”

Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, which advises the country’s cabinet, rejected even studying the idea just last month, however, so changes in the prohibition are not likely any time soon.

Saudi Arabia is the only control in the world where women are not allowed to drive. Women’s rights activists have criticized the country’s other strict requirements for women, including that Saudi women obtain permission from a husband or male relative to receive a passport, travel outside the country or marry. Women are also expected to wear headscarves and loose-fitting garments such as an abaya when in public.

Despite the restrictions, Saudi women are increasingly enrolling in universities and joining the workforce, The Washington Post has previously reported. And a number of key milestones have taken place in the past year — women were allowed to vote for the first time in the country’s history during December’s municipal elections. In April, Saudi Arabia banned its religious police from making arrests on their own.

Alwaleed shared his article on Twitter with the words “Stop the debate: Time for women to drive” in Arabic and English. The post caused some tweeters to use the Arabic hashtag “the time has come for women’s driving.”

One Twitter user said, “Logically, a woman driving a car is better. It is more safe than depending on a foreigner. More than this, she and her family are more deserving of her salary than a driver or a visa merchant.”

In his opinion piece, the prince said that years ago, a young man would be “shunned” for wanting to marry a working woman. “Today, a working woman is a coveted partner in marriage,” he wrote.

Citing labor statistics, he said more than 1 million Saudi women are in the workforce, meaning they all need a safe way of getting to work every day. The alternative to driving for most Saudi women is to hire a foreign driver, which the prince said reduces a family’s disposable income and contributes to the “siphoning of billions of riyals every year from the Saudi economy to foreign destinations in the form of remittances.”

A sharp drop in the price of oil, Saudi Arabia’s main revenue source, has forced the government to cut back on some benefits this year, hurting the middle class.

“In the past, many of those who called for women to drive had their voices muffled by the social objections that were raised and by the notion that allowing them to drive was more of a luxury than a necessity,” he said. A number of current “fatwas” in the country argue that driving should be forbidden for women because of a concern for their “safety and virtue,” the prince wrote. But the fatwas apply not to the act of driving itself, but to what could conceivably result from it, he wrote.

“Today, circumstances have changed, and having women to drive has become an urgent social demand predicated upon current economic circumstances.”

The facts and myths about Saudi Arabic and human rights

But then, not long after, local media reported he said “Saudi Arabia isn’t ready” to end the ban.

Allowing women to drive is “not a religious issue as much as it is an issue that relates to the community itself that either accepts it or refuses it,” he said.

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