Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive for the first time in its history

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia has announced that it will now allow women to drive in a historic decision that makes the Gulf kingdom the last country in the world to permit women behind the wheel.

In a royal decree signed by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the order said it will be effective immediately but the roll-out will take months, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Tuesday.

A high-level committee of ministers has been set up to examine the arrangements for the enforcement of the order.

The committee will take up the recommendations within 30 days from the date of the decree, and will be implemented between 23 and 24 of June 2018, based on the Islamic calendar.

The decree said that women would be allowed to drive “in accordance with the Islamic laws”.

Following the decree, women will no longer need permission from a legal guardian to get a licence and will not need a guardian in the car when they drive, said the new Saudi ambassador to Washington DC, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

“I think our leadership understands our society is ready,” he told reporters.

In 2016, Alwaleed bin Talal, an influential Saudi prince called for an “urgent” end to the ban, saying it is a matter not just of rights but economic necessity.

“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,” Alwaleed said.

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

He also detailed the “economic costs” of women having to rely on private drivers or taxis, since public transit is not a viable alternative in the kingdom.

Using foreign drivers drains billions of dollars from the Saudi economy, Alwaleed said.

He calculated that families spend an average of $1,000 a month on a driver, money that otherwise could help household income at a time when many are making do with less.

Earlier this month, a Saudi cleric was suspended from preaching after saying that women should not be allowed to drive because their brains shrink to a quarter the size of a man’s when they go shopping.

While there have been restrictions imposed on women drivers, some female activists have defied the ban leading to their arrests.

In November 1990, 47 Saudi women drove their cars around Riyadh to protest the driving ban. They faced severe punishment at the time and the campaign died away until 2008, when Wajiha Huwaider dared to drive a car around the eastern provinces, escaping arrest.

From 2011 Sharif and another woman, Najla al-Hariri, became global figureheads of a cause that drew the attention of global leaders, who had urged the kingdom to overturn the ban.

Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had viewed allowing women to drive as a key plank of reforms, insisting that the move would lead to higher female participation in the workforce and a breakdown of gender roles that limit social interaction between men and women outside immediate family environments.

However, the Crown Prince and his father, King Salman, had feared that moving too quickly on reforms would cause anger among the clerical establishment and elements of Saudi society who adhere to rigid interpretations of Sunni Islamic teachings that have taken root in large parts of the country over more than a century.

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