Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal makes plea to allow women to drive

One of the most outspoken members of Saudi Arabia's royal family urged the kingdom to let women drive as more working-class women carve more rights for themselves. 

Fayez Nureldine/Reuters
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal attends the traditional Saudi dance known as 'Arda,' which was performed during Janadriya culture festival at Der'iya in Riyadh Feb. 18, 2014. The Saudi billionaire prince says its time to allow women to drive cars.

An outspoken Saudi prince and billionaire investor said Thursday it’s about time the kingdom let women drive, framing his argument in social, economic, and religious terms.

“Such a ban on driving is fundamentally an infringement on a woman’s rights,” Prince Alwaleed bin Talal wrote in a four-page letter on his personal website last week.

“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. They are all unjust acts by a traditional society, far more restrictive than what is lawfully allowed by the precepts of religion,” he writes.  

Prince Alwaleed’s statement is unlikely to affect policy. Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and a contender for the throne, said in April he was “not convinced” Saudi society would accept women drivers, according to The New York Times. But the comment from the American-educated Alwaleed adds to the chorus of voices demanding that women drive and be accorded more rights in Saudi Arabia.

“For decades, women’s rights have been seen through the eyes of a handful of wealthy, Western-educated Saudis whose driving campaigns and Twitter hashtags ignite the global media. However the inability to drive – and many restrictions like it – are the bread-and-butter issues of working-class Saudi women,” Elizabeth Dickinson reported for The Christian Science Monitor in March. It’s women “who can’t afford drivers or cars, whose families object to taxis, and who persist nonetheless – who are shaking up society. They don’t use the rhetoric of human rights and wouldn’t consider themselves campaigners. But with their actions alone, they are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”

While Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that doesn’t allow women to drive, the law does not technically forbid them from getting behind the wheel. Rather, only men are awarded driving licenses, according to BBC. Saudi Arabia’s religious police enforces this ban.

In his argument against this ban, Alwaleed, who is chairman of Saudi’s Kingdom Holding Company (KHC), framed the debate in religious and economic terms. He said that fatwas, or religious rulings, used to justify it were the “product of their times,” and that the decision was “clearly and intrinsically political.” He added that it is an economic detriment at a time when Saudi Arabia is trying to wean itself off its economic dependence. He estimates more than one million drivers are employed to drive women around, many of whom are foreigners that receive 3,800 riyals, or about $1,000, a month to chauffeur women.

"Retaining foreign drivers not only has the effect of reducing a family's disposable income ... but also contributes to the siphoning of billions of riyals every year from the Saudi economy to foreign destinations in the form of remittances," he writes.

But Khaled Al Maeena, former editor of the local newspaper the Saudi Gazette, told the Monitor in March that the Saudi elite, in particular, don’t want change.

"The elite can pay 1,500 riyals ($400) a month for drivers," he said.

The divide between men and women in Saudi Arabia is one of the widest in the world. The World Economic Forum ranked the kingdom 127th of 136 countries in its 2013 report on the global gender gap.

The kingdom has relaxed some of its other stances on women under the late King Abdullah, as the Monitor’s Michael Holtz reported.  

In 2011, Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections starting in 2015. The royal decree highlighted his willingness to challenge Saudi Arabia's conservative movement…. Abdullah also contributed to women’s gains in education. Women study beside men at the $12.5 billion research university he built and named for himself: The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. When it opened in 2009, the university became the first school of higher education in Saudi Arabia to allow co-ed classrooms. (Its dorms have remained single-sex.) 

But driving remains a holdout, with protests against the ban extending back 20 years.  

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