Saudi Arabia plans to lift ban on women driving
The change aligns Saudi Arabia with virtually every other country in the world, including other conservative monarchies in the Persian Gulf. (The Washington Post)
September 26 at 7:37 PM
Women in Saudi Arabia will be permitted to drive in the kingdom for the first time, according to a royal decree issued in Riyadh on Tuesday that overturned one of the most widely criticized restrictions on human rights.

The change may be the most visible sign yet of a modernizing Saudi Arabia, with reforms implemented by the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Signed by his father, King Salman, and broadcast on state television, the decree said that the “majority of senior scholars” had deemed the change legitimate under Islamic law and ordered the government ministries concerned to make whatever legal adjustments are required to implement it by June 24.

For much of the rest of the world, the prohibition on women driving has long symbolized the many restrictions on individual freedoms in Saudi Arabia, particularly those applying to women.

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Khaled bin Salman, who spoke at a news conference in Washington, hailed the development as a “historic, big day in our kingdom.” He said that female drivers would not need to travel with male “guardians” or seek permission to obtain driver’s licenses, and that women’s li­censes from other countries in the region would be recognized.

The change aligns Saudi Arabia with other conservative monarchies in the Persian Gulf that have long allowed women to drive. It was unclear whether the lifting of requirements that male relatives accompany women or give permission for them to leave their homes, still implemented in much of the country, would apply to activities other than driving.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud speaks at a ceremony on Sept. 20, 2017. (Bandar Al-Jaloud/AFP/Getty Images)

The Saudi government, which has long endured negative publicity over its restrictive domestic policies, was eager to broadcast the change. In addition to the news conference at the embassy in Washington, the Foreign Ministry contacted reporters offering to arrange calls with selected Saudi women to comment on the policy.

The ambassador said the decision was not based on religion but on social and economic considerations, and was part of the modernization reforms being implemented by the crown prince.

“There is no wrong time to do the right thing,” the ebullient ambassador said. With more women entering the workplace, “they need to drive themselves to work.” He said the implementation delay was needed to ensure that the legal and logistical environment was prepared for the change. “We have to make sure our streets are ready” for a potential doubling in traffic, he said.