The Saudi Arabian women driving forward


Next Sunday, women in Saudi Arabia will at last be allowed to drive, potentially transforming millions of lives. But the change has been overshadowed by the arrest of many of the activists who campaigned for decades against the ban

Emma Graham-Harrison

Enaam Alaswad has only risked getting behind the wheel of a car in Saudi Arabia once, sparked by the frustration of watching her driver try and fail, repeatedly, to squeeze into a tight parking space on the baking, dusty streets of her seaside hometown, Jeddah.

“I couldn’t bear it, I asked him to get out, and parked it myself. Then I got out and walked away,” says the 43-year-old with a laugh. With that neat piece of parallel parking, she would once have risked arrest. But Saudi Arabia is changing.

Stylish and acerbic, until the end of this month the divorcee has to rely on men any time she leaves her home, a two-bedroom apartment in a modest block, where three rescue cats and four kittens play behind blinds that shield her and two adult sons from the fierce sun and curious neighbours.

She almost always travels by car, like most people in Jeddah, a sprawling city of multi-lane avenues with only the scantest of public transport, where baking summer temperatures make walking or cycling more than a couple of blocks an exhausting, sweaty ordeal.

For all Alaswad’s life, Saudi law has forbidden women from driving, even in emergencies. Richer women managed by hiring drivers, but not everyone in Saudi enjoys the fabulous wealth of the royal family. Millions of others have had to rely on taxis or husbands, brothers and sons, sometimes even perching pre-teen boys in the driver’s seat.

Ride-hailing apps have made finding a driver a little easier in recent years, but for women just getting around, on a daily commute or the school run, to see friends or to go to the gym, carried an extra cost – in money, frustration, wasted time and sometimes fear. So like millions of other Saudi women, Alaswad was stunned and thrilled when the Saudi authorities unexpectedly announced that the ban would be lifted from late June. “I was fed up. Now I feel like we live in a nice country, not like before,” she says. “I wish this had happened when I was 20 or 30.”

After years of managing a car rental company in Syria, her mother’s home country, Alaswad reckons she can drive cars better than many men in Saudi Arabia. She fled to Syria after her marriage broke down over a decade ago. Now she is back, happy her country is changing and keen to play a small part in transforming the roads and getting women out of their homes by becoming one of Saudi Arabia’s first female taxi-drivers with the ride-hailing app Careem. “We have to build this country together, men and women.” Like most Saudi women, Alaswad credits her new right to drive to its young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the power behind the throne of his father, King Salman, and who, at 32, has positioned himself as a standard bearer for a new generation and champion of women’s rights.

Since his father took the throne in 2015, the crown prince has accelerated a slow improvement in women’s rights. This year women not only gain the right to drive, but they have been allowed at sports events for the first time, and strict dress codes have been somewhat relaxed. But he has also cracked down on activists who for nearly three decades led waves of grassroots campaigns for change, risking freedom and their careers to insist on women’s rights to drive.


First, many of the campaigners were in effect silenced, warned against commenting on the news when it was announced last year, even though they were almost universally welcoming. Then more than a dozen were later detained, in multiple waves of arrests. Some were charged with serious crimes including treason, some are uncontactable, and others have been released but are barred from travel. By cracking down on campaigners, while embracing the cause they championed, Saudi authorities sent a chilling message about the limits of change in a country that is still one of the most restrictive for women.

Although earlier this year Mohammed bin Salman declared men and women “absolutely” equal, that is not a position enshrined in Saudi law. Instead, a system of “guardianship” still infantilises and controls women, requiring the permission of a father, husband or son for many major life decisions including marriage, travel, even some kinds of medical treatment.

Critics of the crown prince say activists may have been detained because they were planning to challenge those rules. Mohammed bin Salman wants to claim credit for reform, to bolster his image as a benevolent, innovative leader and discourage any suggestion that popular pressure can lead to change in one of the world’s last absolute monarchies, they argue. “It’s about controlling the narrative, he wants to be seen as the sole reformer,” says Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic and former newspaper editor who moved into self-imposed exile in the US after a wave of detentions of the crown prince’s critics. “He is for reform, but wants it to be his reform.”

Allies of the young prince argue that he is pushing hard to transform Saudi society against powerful forces, and he has to restrain protests, whether liberal or conservative, because they risk spiralling and derailing the entire reform project. He has certainly appeared as determined to rein in hardline Islamists as to silence feminist campaigners. A senior cleric was suspended when he made claims that women shouldn’t drive because their brains were half the size of men’s and shrank when they went shopping. But regardless of the crown prince’s own aims, allowing women to drive is itself a powerful political liberation that will make a huge difference to millions of people. His apparent fear of the forces it could unleash is ugly, but may be rational.

“It is empowering, it means lots of things, hope for change, for progress, independence,” says Tahani Aldosemani, assistant professor in technology at Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University just outside Riyadh, and one of the first 10 women to be issued with her own licence. She learned to drive while studying in America. “Since I came back from the US, I was so eager for the ban to be lifted,” says the mother of five, who can’t wait to start driving the school run. “I will let my driver go, because it will free up money that we can spend on the children.”

More affordable commutes mean extra cash in households and more incentive for women to work, both key reasons the ban has been repealed. The crown prince has pledged to transform the moribund economy, wean the country off its dependence on oil, curb corruption and get more Saudis into work. His “Vision 2030” plan calls for a third of Saudi women to be in work by the end of the next decade, up from just one in five now.

Car companies are already chasing the sales opportunities that new women drivers offer. Renault has promised free cars to the first seven women to get their licences, and at a Toyota dealership near central Riyadh, several new female colleagues milling around between sedans and SUVs were ready to offer dates, water and a range of “unmissable special deals” to women buying their first car.

“We are expecting a big sales increase,” says Thaer Ismail, a sales executive. The cheapest car, bought on an instalment plan, costs barely half the minimum driver’s salary, he points out, so families have a huge incentive to spend on cars. Ramadan shoppers start drifting in around 9pm in a steady flow that will last past midnight, gazing at luxury sports cars before regretfully haggling over downpayments for a new Camry. The female sales staff are all fully veiled, only their eyes showing from black niqabs, but their presence on a shop floor with male colleagues and customers would have been illegal only a few years ago.

When women start working as taxi-drivers it could also open up opportunities for travel to women from more conservative families whose male guardians bar them from cars driven by men they don’t know. Helping other women become more mobile is one reason Alaswad wants to be a part-time driver, encouraged by her son who also worked for the firm when he was finishing his degree.

Careem has embraced the end of the ban, offering free rides to women going to driving school, and planning to launch a unique service with women drivers. Only other women and family groups will be able to request a female driver, to manage security risks and conservatives’ social concerns. The drivers will have a 24-hour hotline, with calls guaranteed to be answered within minutes, and – unlike men – free support from its equivalent of the AA.

The latter is likely to be needed even by experienced drivers such as Alaswad. Saudi Arabia is notorious for speeding and it ranks among the 25 most dangerous countries in the world for driving, according to a government safe driving campaign. Last year, there were nearly half a million accidents, with more than 7,400 people killed, according to the Saudi Gazette. The kingdom’s roads are crowded, thanks partly to cities built for the automobile, with SUVs and luxury sports cars vying for space with the sedans of the less wealthy. Drivers are often aggressive, verging on reckless, and radar checkpoints have only partly curbed an appetite for speed and a disregard for road rules.

There have been the perhaps inevitable sexist jokes about the streets getting even more dangerous, even though insurance data worldwide provides solid evidence that women are more careful drivers than men. But there is little evidence that women will be able to flood into the streets on 24 June anyway. Despite nine months of planning, the country seems badly positioned to meet the huge demand, and only a fraction of the women who want to drive will have licences to do so on the day. Only a handful of places offer classes to women, mostly at universities such as Riyadh’s Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman, but despite prices that are up to six times more expensive than men’s driving lessons, they are still oversubscribed.

Instead, some women are taking secret lessons with family and friends to prepare, or are even considering getting a licence in neighbouring countries such as Bahrain. The designer Eman Joharjy hopes that when they do finally take to the road, at least some will be wearing a special abaya – the enveloping robe prescribed for women by Saudi custom – she has created to celebrate a new generation of female drivers. It has sleeves that cinch in at the wrist so they don’t catch on indicator and light switches, and a tailored bottom edge to prevent snagging on clutch, brake or accelerator.

For years she has been pushing a quiet revolution in women’s rights through business and sports, specifically hi-tech abayas that allow women to exercise in public areas. Cheerful and energetic, she began jogging through the streets around her home a decade before women were first allowed into a Saudi sports stadium to watch live football. “I don’t like being in gyms, I like running, tennis, cycling, especially being in touch with nature.”

She designed a special abaya somewhere between a jumpsuit and cloak so her legs could move freely but no one could accuse her of breaking modesty laws. Soon friends were running with her, and asking for copies of her abaya, so she packed in her day job at a hospital accounts department to start making sports abayas full time.

Reem Asaad is an economist who rose to prominence as a campaigner for women in the workplace; her work was triggered by increasing frustration at having to buy lingerie from male shop assistants, because of a bar on women working in retail. It made for extremely uncomfortable shopping trips. But Asaad also saw it as symptomatic of a wider malaise in a society where obstacles to female employment left the women dependent and therefore vulnerable. “I’m convinced that economic empowerment is the bedrock of everything else,” she says, at a meeting in the headquarters of the Riyadh firm where she now works, still the only woman visible on a sleepy Ramadan morning when many staff have not yet arrived to work. “I started campaigning in 2008, and to be frank the transformation in the decade that followed was unforeseen, not in my wildest dreams,” says Asaad. Driving is another key step for women, she says, and she is particularly pleased that her young daughters will be free to move as they wish.

The changes may have been driven in part by the coming of age of a new generation. Saudi Arabia is a young country, with over half the population under 30. These younger citizens who have grown up in a more connected world, and know how different life is even for residents of other conservative Muslim states, are much more critical of the harsher restrictions on social life in Saudi, and are perhaps the key audience for the crown prince’s reforms.

The social changes are popular and will help the economy; but they could also help the young leader defuse pressure for political reforms, critics say. “Rule by a continuous iron fist at home will be entrenched. Mohammed bin Salman will silence any dissident voices while allowing limited personal freedoms,” the dissident and LSE professor Madawi al Rasheed predicted last year.

That shadow of silence has already fallen over activists in Saudi Arabia itself, who have largely stopped speaking to foreign journalists. And while Saudi women are celebrating the dawn of a new era personally and nationally, few want to talk about the women who helped make it possible.

In interviews, young students to seasoned professionals variously dismissed questions by saying they hadn’t heard of the women campaigners or didn’t know enough about their cases to comment. Or they backed the government’s crackdown, saying authorities would not act without good cause.

In Riyadh, summer temperatures rarely dip below 30C, even in the coolest pre-dawn hours, so people who want to do anything outside their air-conditioned homes and cars must wait for night to fall. In the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, this embrace of darkness is deepened by the religious requirement to abstain from food or drink in daylight hours. The city flips to a nocturnal schedule, its restaurants, cafés and malls crammed at 2am with families browsing for cars or new clothes, catching up over pizza or shakes or Lebanese delicacies.

And so it’s not until past 10pm that high-school student Ghina arrives for her latest motorbike class at the Bikers Skills Institute, in a fenced-off compound on the city’s outskirts, with her father and younger brother. The tarmac courtyard is a private area where women can put safety ahead of official dress codes, and swap their veil and abaya for leathers and helmet. Getting on a motorcycle is a radical choice for a country that only legalised cycling in 2013. But the 14-year-old was encouraged to sign up by her dad, a biker too, only once it became clear the end of the ban would apply to all vehicles. Still, she hasn’t told all her classmates, just some closer friends. “As a Saudi, I never imagined that I could do something like this here, but I’m so glad I did,” Ghina says with a grin between loops of the track. “You can express yourself.”

It will be several years until she is old enough to take a bike or car on the roads outside the compound, but Zeinab Jaghlit, a pharmacist, who draws up even later with her husband and daughter, hopes to be riding across the desert by the end of the year. She is one of only four women to sign up for the motorbike classes. “At the beginning it felt very strange, but now it’s exciting,” she says. She has held a licence for driving cars from her native Jordan for years, but had given up hoping she could use it in Saudi Arabia.

She had come from a “driving party” for a cousin who just two weeks before the ban was due to lift became the first woman in the family to get her Saudi permit. The family surprised her with a birthday party serving up a cake decorated with “congratulations on the new licence”, but she still doesn’t quite believe there will be women on the roads by the end of the month. “Really I didn’t expect it. I’m used to driving outside the country, but when they said it was going to start here, I was shocked,” Zeinab says, showing a picture of her cousin beaming with her licence beside the cake. “We are celebrating. You know how long we have been waiting.”



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