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Friday , November 16 2018

Let women drive: Prince Alwaleed – ‘Using foreign drivers drain billions from Saudi economy’

HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud has tweeted on the topic of women driving in Saudi Arabia: Stop the debate: Time for women to drive.

Prince Alwaleed and Saudi Women Driving: It is High Time that Saudi Women Started Driving their Cars

It is high time that Saudi women started driving their cars, and it is high time that we turn the page on this issue the way we did on tens of other major ones that this country and the world have witnessed in the last one hundred years. Al Hamdulillah, we are still to this very day a Muslim community that is proud of its religion, tradition and Arab identity.

When Saudi girls ventured into the world of education half a century ago, some people saw it as the beginning of a progression that would lead them from primary education into universities and ultimately into the workplace. Such individuals were keen on accelerating this process, for they wished to see women become full partners with men, not only in raising families, but also in the development of their country. On the other hand, there were others who objected to such a transformation, fearing that this would lead to unwelcome consequences. The Saudi state, however, sought to adopt a patient strategy, allowing Saudi society to evolve according to its own pace and wishes.

A few years ago, a young man wishing to get married shunned being betrothed to a working woman. There was a social stigma associated with having a working wife, for it could suggest to cousins and kin that he was incapable of providing on his own for her and their children. This attitude has now radically changed, not because of any particular religious fatwas, but because of social, and particularly economic, transformations that have slowly propelled society to accept what it had previously rejected. Today, a working woman is a coveted partner in marriage.

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. They are all unjust acts by a traditional society, far more restrictive than what is lawfully allowed by the precepts of religion. Such a ban on driving is fundamentally an infringement on a woman’s rights, particularly as it continues to exist after she had won her right to an education and a salaried employment.

Beyond being a rights issue, it is also an economic, developmental and social one. The 2015 statistics issued by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development revealed that there were 1,589,177 working women in Saudi Arabia, largely located in the major cities. Whether one subscribes or not to this figure we can safely assume that there are more than one million Saudi women in need of a safe means of transportation to take them to work every morning. Public transport is not, at least at present, a fully viable means for them, for even Saudi men do not as a whole use it. The proper solution is to allow them to drive. Otherwise, they would have to remain dependent on foreign drivers, an alternative that exacts a cost from the family’s income, or else continue to take cabs, which are also costly, and driven by foreign drivers, which is a situation that is a source of concern to many Muslims who see it as a violation of Sharia law.

There is the added fact that there are always numerous errands that mothers need to attend to vis-à-vis their families. Without their being able to drive, it often falls upon the men to leave their work obligations to take their wives and children to clinics and other destinations, something that women could do on their own. This situation obviously takes its toll on the national economy for it undermines the productivity of the work force. There are also situations where the housewife becomes the sole family income earner, either because of the loss of a husband or his physical incapacity.

It should be noted that retaining foreign drivers not only has the effect of reducing a family’s disposable income, particularly at a time when many earners have seen cutbacks in various allowances, but also contributes to the syphoning of billions of riyals every year from the Saudi economy to foreign destinations in the form of remittances. Given the above, many affected families have been raising their voices calling for women to be allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia, something that is now considered a necessity in view of the following factors:

1. The Financial Factor As we are all aware, the Government has, pursuant to its economic strategy as outlined in its Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program 2020, either reduced or eliminated a number of privileges that had been accorded to some of its employees. The aim was, of course, to try to balance the state budget and to reduce its deficit. Needless to say, such a measure has impacted the income of many families and has caused them to look for ways to reduce their expenditures and to make do with diminished revenues. Huge saving can of course be realized through the dispensation with foreign drivers, were women to be allowed to drive. As things now stand, below is the real cost to a family of hiring a foreign driver on a two-year contract. (This involves visa cost to the State + recruiting office fees + monthly salary of the driver x 24 months + monthly food allocation x 24 months + medical exam upon arrival + medical insurance + ensuring accommodation and its requirements + residency fees + license fees + return ticket + additional month bonus at the end of employment) Let us add up these costs and divide them over 24 months in order to arrive at the average that a family spends on a driver. Even though certain figures may vary according to nationality, the amount that a family spends on a foreign driver ranges between 2,800 and 4,800 Saudi Riyals. The average, however, is 3800. Having such an amount saved per month would provide a considerable addition to the average family’s disposable income, as well as a welcome cushion in case of financial adversity.

2. The Economic Factor Allowing women to drive would have three important benefits to the society and economy as a whole:

1. Internalization of Monetary Resources: It is a given that foreign drivers transfer the bulk of their earnings to their home countries, something that constitutes a loss to the Saudi economy. If we were to suppose that the average driver transfers, on average, SR, 2,500 per month, i.e., SR30,000 per year, then we can extrapolate from the number of foreign drivers employed by Saudi families that approximately SR 30 billion is taken out of the Saudi economy. Would it not be better for such a large sum to remain inside Saudi Arabia to help boost the Saudi economy?

2. Deporting More than a Million Foreign Drivers: Statistics show that the number of privately employed foreign drivers in Saudi Arabia has reached more than one million. Were women to be allowed to drive, then we would be able to dispense with the services of all, or most, of them. This would lower traffic accidents and decrease the congestion at airports, banks, hospitals, etc, thereby affording better access to a number of services to the Saudi citizenry.

3. Employing Women by Other Women: Should a woman not wish to drive her own car, she could employ another Saudi woman to do so. This would obviously create more jobs for Saudi women. On the other hand, a Saudi housewife can save money by asking her maid, who is capable of driving, to assume that task.

The Social Factor In the past, many of those who called for women to drive had their voices muffled by the social objections that were raised and by the notion that allowing them to drive was more of a luxury than a necessity. Today, however, circumstances have changed, and having women to drive has become an urgent social demand predicated upon current economic circumstances. It goes without saying, however, that were women to have this right, it would not mean that the government would force every guardian to abide by it. There will no doubt be an element within society that would refuse it. But there will be other segments that will find it satisfying and would wish their daughters, sisters and wives to exercise it. There will also be others who would adopt a wait and see attitude, preferring to watch developments as they unfold. But what cannot be allowed is to have one segment imposing its preferences on the rest of society.

The Religious Factor We have before us a number of Fatwas, issued by our virtuous jurists, forbidding women from driving, or finding it distasteful, because of concern for their safety and virtue. Such Fatwas do not find the act of driving in itself as being Haram (forbidden), for no one can classify it as such, but accord that designation to what could conceivably accrue from it. Those Fatwas, as with many others, are the product of their times, and they reflect the traditional disposition to fear and reject new social developments. Oftentimes, of course, they subsequently get superseded by other Fatwas and the evolution of social norms. Those who object to women driving are quick to cite the Fatwas that are in support of their stance. I can, however, invoke other Fatwas that are violated on a daily basis, particularly the one invoking the Hadith that forbids a woman from being alone with a man who cannot be classified as a mahram (legal guardian). All the while this quote is so often repeated, our daughters, sisters and wives are in seclusion riding in cars driven by foreign drivers. It is, of course, easy to insist that we should adhere to this Fatwa, but is this in fact realistic considering that it has become normal and acceptable in every household? We are all aware of the possible harmful consequences that could ensue to a woman riding alone in a car with a foreign driver, for he could drive her, despite her wishes, anywhere within the country or even outside of it. Yet we seem to accept it. Would it not be better from the standpoint of safety, security, not to mention religious morality, to allow women to drive their own cars than to expose them to the dangers inherent in having them driven alone by foreign males?

The Political Factor The question can be legitimately asked as to who has the authority to allow Saudi women to exercise what is deemed by many as their natural right to drive their own cars. The decision that needs to be made is clearly and intrinsically political, for it would encompass a swath of factors that run the gamut from the social and economic to the moral and religious. Furthermore, it has to take into account the ever growing vocal demand for women to have that right. In the forefront of such decisions that aim at the public welfare stands our ruler. This has been regarded by our society as a given, and we have a number of historical examples in that respect to which we can point. Those decisions often ran counter to the views of certain elements within our society but soon became incorporated into our norms. Those included the appointment of women to the Shoura Council, the allowing of women to drive within the campus of King Abdullah University, and, previous to that, in the ARAMCO compound, and the empowerment of women to vote in municipal elections. Many years earlier, the political decision was taken, despite some severe opposition, to open the schools to Saudi girls. No one can now deny the benefits that have accrued to society from that judicious and fi rm decision or would wish to reverse it.

 

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