Driving ambition: Saudi women reflect on three years at the wheel

Female motorists tell ‘The National’ the law change allowing them to drive has let them pursue their dreams

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As women across Saudi Arabia on Thursday plan to celebrate three years since the ban on female motorists was lifted, those who have learnt to drive say it has transformed the way they live.

"Driving has completely changed my life," Hala Mohammed, a Saudi citizen living in Jeddah, told The National. 

“Pre-corona, I was dropping and picking up my kids from school, going to work and getting medical check-ups done for my sick mother, who is a widow, without the need to ask a man – be it my husband, driver or brother – to do it for me,” she said.

“I feel like I am in charge of my life and I am grateful every day for this freedom. It is hard for me to imagine how we lived for all these years without this basic right.”

Since the restriction was lifted, more than 174,000 driving licences have been issued to women, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported last year.

"So many of my dreams have come true since we started driving in the kingdom," said Mishaal Ali, a Saudi medical student in Riyadh.

“I bought my dream car, drove in my home city and I am pursuing my career all on my own. We are a big family – we don’t always have a driver – and I cannot depend on my brothers to take me everywhere as they are married.”

She said the move to allow women to drive had allowed her to study.

“When the decision came to drive, I told my parents I can pursue my dream as I can now drive to university and pursue my degree,” she said.

A royal decree in September 2017 granted women the right to drive and obtain driving licences. On June 24, 2018, Saudi women took to the road for the first time in 30 years.

Muneera Alghamdi, a Saudi citizen living in Jeddah, remembers the first day well.

“I had an American driver’s licence so, for me, it was pretty easy to convert that into a Saudi licence. I remember being ready for that day and driving on the morning of the 24th with my mother in the passenger’s seat,” she recalled.

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I hope one day I can become a Formula E Champion

The right to drive has not only changed lives by giving women more freedom. For some, it has become a source of income.

A Bloomberg Economics report indicated that the decision could add up to $90 billion to the kingdom’s economy by 2030.

"The government created new establishments, roles, positions and offices for this purpose. If women weren't allowed to drive, this job position would've never existed – I can proudly say I am from one of the first few female Saudi driving instructors to ever exist," a driving instructor in Jeddah said.

“Now I earn, am financially independent and in position to empower other women. I love teaching women how to drive, which to me was unimaginable until four years ago."

One of her students was her sister, who has since signed up to become a driver with ride-hailing service Careem.

Farah Nabeel, a young Saudi citizen living in Riyadh, pointed to the rise of women in motorsports to show how things are changing.

In 2019, Reema Juffali became the first Saudi Formula E racer and the first Saudi woman to participate in international racing series, the Jaguar I-PACE eTrophy – the world’s first electric vehicle championship, which promotes zero-emission motoring in Saudi Arabia.

"We have more opportunities to witness world-class events that promote gender equality in our country and to actually participate and become a part of them," Ms Nabeel told The National.

“I hope one day I can become a Formula E Champion too.”

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