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Saudi Women and the Economy

by Mohammad Zayed* — In a historic step towards economic and social reforms following the falling of oil prices by more than 50%, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz has recently declared the lifting of the long-standing ban on women driving in the kingdom (the only country in the world that bans women from taking the wheel) that is scheduled to take effect in June 2018. The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Khaled bin Salman, son of the current king, was quoted as saying “It’s not just a social change, it’s part of economic reform.”

In 2016 Saudi Arabia launched “Saudi Vision 2030”, which aims to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and diversify the economy through healthcare, education and tourism megaprojects. Hala Dosari, a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute, said “The timing had less to do with social pressure and more to do with the government recognizing that in order to accomplish its ambitious economic vision they had to make gradual adjustments.”

The Saudi Ministry of Education reported that women in the kingdom have more graduate degrees than the men; but they represent only 20% of the workforce in the kingdom. Following the low oil prices, the Saudi government has worked hard to put more people into the private sector; Saudi Arabia plans to decrease the unemployment rate to 9% by 2020, including women. Moreover, a large number of employed women usually spend a great amount of their salaries on chauffeurs or must be driven to work by male guardians.
The Saudi General Authority for Statistics reported that about 1.3 million foreigners work as drivers, representing about 60% of the foreign labor in the country. However, much of that money leaves the country. Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi expert at the Atlantic Council, said “The remittances from drivers alone reach almost $4 billion.”

“That’s a significant recurrent toll that’s leaving the Saudi economy on a yearly basis as a result of a government regulation barring women from driving,” he added.

But allowing women to drive, said Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics, “will not only save money but also simplify the lives of working Saudi women who must rely on either their male relatives or private hires transportation to get them to and from work.”

Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said “The royal decree issued by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman allowing women to drive cars is an enormous step forward. But it should now be complemented by a similar measure enabling women to work without requiring the approval of a male guardian.”

“The end of the driving ban is of crucial importance for Vision 2030 because it unlocks the economic potential of women in the kingdom, especially those women living in poverty,” he added.

McKinsey Global Institute has shown that putting women on an equal footing with men regarding economic opportunities would add about $12 trillion in global GDP by 2025.

But still women are not allowed to open a bank account, start certain businesses, have a passport, or travel abroad without the permission of a male relative (father, brother, or son), rights considered as essential to open any business.  “You can revoke the ban, but you cannot force men to allow their sisters and wives to drive,” said a Saudi man on condition of anonymity in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Mohamed Zayed is an Egyptian journalist based in Dubai, UAE, writing for different news sites, specialized in Middle East affairs.

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