Year in review: Women gear up for a new dawn in Saudi Arabia

The government wants to increase women's participation in the workforce from 22 per cent to at least 30 per cent by 2030

Saudi activist Manal Al Sharif, who now lives in Dubai, flashes the sign for victory as she drives her car in the Gulf Emirate city on October 22, 2013, in solidarity with Saudi women preparing to take to the wheel on October 26, defying the Saudi authorities, to campaign women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia. Under the slogan " driving is a choice ", activists have called on social networks for women to gather in vehicles on October 26, the culmination of the campaign launched in September, in the only country in the world where women do not have the right drive. AFP PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP PHOTO / MARWAN NAAMANI
Powered by automated translation

Women in Saudi Arabia are gearing up for momentous change in 2018, and the kingdom will surely be making the headlines again next year as its social and economic reforms roll out.

The biggest — and most memorable — announcement pertaining to Saudi women was in September, when the government finally granted women the right to drive. Starting from June 2018, Saudi Arabia will begin issuing driver licences to women not only for cars but also for motorcycles and lorries.

This was a move that broke one of the kingdom’s long-standing rigid rules and part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitions to shed the country’s ultra-conservative image.

As laid out in his Vision 2030, it is also part of Crown Prince Mohammed’s plan to overhaul the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy, and giving women the right to move freely will push women into the workforce and boost sales of vehicles.

The government says it wants to increase women’s participation in the workforces from 22 per cent currently to at least 30 per cent by 2030. Freedom of movement for women will not only have a huge impact on the economy, but also on the women who have had to rely on costly male drivers or male relatives to get to work, school, visit friends or simply run errands.

Read more: Saudi’s Mohammed bin Salman promises to return to ‘moderate open Islam’

Also in 2018, women will be allowed to attend sporting matches in national stadiums, from which they were previously banned. There will be designated "family sections", which are common in most public spaces in the kingdom and are separate from male-only sections of the stadium. This — according to the government — will ensure their comfort and their participation in national sporting events.

Three previously male-only venues will be opened up to women and families in Jeddah, Dammam and the capital Riyadh in 2018, said the head of the general sports authority Turki bin Abdul Mohsen Al Sheikh.

Crown Prince Mohammed tested public reaction to the decision this year when he lifted the ban to allow women and families into Riyadh's main stadium for the National Day celebration. Public reaction was positive. Hundreds of women went to the stadium for the first time to mark the country's 87th annual National Day in September, donning national colours and cheering for their country.

Saudi Arabia is also set to welcome its first female foreign ambassador in 2018. Dominique Mineur — currently Belgium's envoy to the UAE — will move to Riyadh in the summer, according to Belgian media.

Although Ms Mineur’s appointment has yet to be confirmed by the foreign ministry, Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders said the decision to appoint female envoys to places like Riyadh “should have been obvious”.

“[It] is further evidence of the stakes of women’s rights in these countries, but above all of our willingness to send the most competent people to positions that are increasingly important on the international scene," he said in a recent speech in Brussels.

With the many reforms led by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed, previous restrictions are being loosened. Some would even argue they are being done away with altogether.

Read more: Saudi Arabia to launch tourist visa in early 2018

In December, the kingdom announced that it will lift a 35-year-old ban on cinemas, which prompted celebrations from film fans, directors and movie chains wanting to be part of an untapped mass market in the Middle East.

The first cinemas could start showing films as early as March, the government said, part of a liberalising reform drive that has already opened the door to concerts and comedy shows, which were previously discouraged by hardline conservatives to avoid men and women mixing together.

"Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification," said Saudi Arabia’s minister of culture and information Awwad bin Saleh Alawwad. "By developing the broader cultural sector we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the kingdom’s entertainment options."

Many believe that the young crown prince is banking on the younger generation — both men and women — to help reforms succeed.

"For decades, the instinct of Saudi's rulers, driven in part by a conservative culture and in part by the mere fact that politicians were often older, was to pursue gradual change, to tweak the consensus," writes Faisal Al Yafai, a columnist at The National. "But demography and economics have outpaced that era.

“Prince Mohammed believes swift, even radical, change is necessary — and there is an entire generation of young people behind him who agree; who want change, not in the future, not gradually, but now.”