Saudi Arabia announced today that it will end its long-standing prohibition on women drivers, according to The New York Times. The ban won’t be lifted immediately, though: the kingdom stated that it will need time to both educate women how to drive and men on how to interact with women on the road.
The new policy, which will go into effect in June 2018, was announced on state-owned media and at an event held in Washington, DC, highlighting how much of this decision was geared toward changing perceptions of Saudi Arabia by Western governments. The move is also seen as part of an effort by the son of the king, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to overhaul the kingdom’s economy, society, and reputation globally.
The cultural edict is seen as partly responsible for the many obstacles that Saudi women face in joining the workforce. Lack of mobility tends to foster unemployment. According to the country’s own General Authority for Statistics, 34 percent of Saudi women were unemployed last year.
The current ban is a result of a religious fatwa issued in 1990, which prohibited women from driving within the borders of the kingdom. It is also illegal for women to be granted a driver’s license. Women who are employed have to hire private drivers to get to and from work, or use ride-hailing services like Uber or Careem to get around, which eats up much of their pay.
Lifting the ban will have an effect on the ride-sharing services that operate in the kingdom. In recent years, many Saudi women have come to depend on the app-based companies to gain freedom of movement. (Some would even say that women were a “captive market” for these services.) Soon, they may be signing up to earn money by driving for Uber or Careem, a firm valued at $1 billion that is based in Dubai and operates across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.
Uber, in particular, has a unique relationship with Saudi Arabia. Last year, the company raised a staggering $3.5 billion investment from Saudi Arabia's main investment fund. As part of the deal, Public Investment Fund managing director Yasir Al Rumayyan took a seat on Uber's board. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud sits on the company's policy advisory board.
At the time, Uber executives expressed support for allowing women to drive, but did not state explicitly whether they planned to hire women drivers. “We've always said that women should be allowed to drive,” an Uber spokesperson said today. “In the absence of that, we're proud to have been able to provide extraordinary mobility that didn’t exist before. We look forward to continuing to support Saudi Arabia's economic and social reforms.”