An instructor guides her trainee in driving skills during a training drive at the Saudi Aramco driving school for women at the headquarters of the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. (Photographer: Mohammed Al-Nemer/Bloomberg)

Saudi Women Finally Start Their Engines as Driving Ban Ends

(Bloomberg) -- They hit the road in celebratory packs, whooping and ululating for joy.

Teenagers gathered on Riyadh’s main boulevard to gawk. Men cracked jokes about how lucky they were to no longer have to chauffeur their wives around.

Saudi Arabia’s infamous ban on women driving came to an end with a mixture of excitement and trepidation early Sunday, as groups of women cruised the streets of the capital. The government said that more than 120,000 women have applied for licenses, and the handful of driving schools that serve women have months-long waiting lists.

Saudi Women Finally Start Their Engines as Driving Ban Ends

“You finally feel — I want to say, ‘equal,’” said Norah Albaiz, 21, after she drove to Starbucks behind the wheel of her father’s Toyota Land Cruiser. “We’re getting there. Nothing can stop me now.”

Few issues have been as polarizing in the conservative Islamic kingdom as the prohibition on female drivers, which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman promised to end as part of his plan to open up the oil-dependent economy and loosen social restrictions -- though he’s cracking down politically.

Rights activists jailed

While the government has been keen to promote the end of the ban as a sign that women’s rights are advancing, several of the country’s most prominent women’s rights activists -- including some who fought for years to drive -- were arrested last month on national security grounds. Women also continue to require the approval of male guardians to travel or marry -- though not to obtain a driver’s license.

Still, the public mood was largely jubilant on Sunday, as women reveled in a simple freedom they’d long been denied. They blasted music from open windows and cheered each other on. Police officers handed out flowers to female drivers. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the billionaire investor, shared a video of his daughter driving legally for the first time.

From the back seat of Albaiz’s Land Cruiser, Lena Altammimi said her “heart was bursting.”

“Many people claimed society wasn’t ready for it because people have a certain perception of the country that just wouldn’t budge,” said the 21-year-old Altammimi. “Seeing that very same society celebrate female driving yesterday and today is just a true indication that Saudi has been ready for a while and has transformed slowly but surely.”

The benchmark Tadawul All Share Index rose 1.76 percent on Sunday, buoyed partly by the insurance sector, which could benefit from more drivers on the roads.

‘Waiting Forever’

At least in the early stages, the new right will reach more privileged women, for the most part, many of whom already had foreign licenses from studying or working abroad. It will take time for the change to trickle into less wealthy or more conservative households, where some warn that this violation of custom could lead society down the path to sin. Some women say they never want to drive, while others say they’ll wait, worried they could face harassment.

“There were older women telling me not to drive this week, saying wait,” said Albaiz. “If we all just wait, we’re going to be waiting forever.”

She already plans to buy her own car, she said. She has her heart set on a vanity plate reading, in Arabic, “Get out of the way.”

For other women, like 28-year-old Jawaher Alshohail, the day was a chance to finally perform ordinary errands independently. And yet nothing was ordinary as she headed to the airport to pick up her sister in a brown Porsche Panorama.

“I can’t stop smiling,” her cousin Bashayer said, riding shutgun. “We feel like celebrities.”

A woman on the side of the street waved. When they passed through a security checkpoint, the police officer manning it did his best to act normal, his face awkwardly frozen. Alshohail said she had noticed many men torn between staring and politely ignoring them, sometimes barely holding back a smile.

Then, as they left the airport with her sister in tow, another officer stopped their car. Alshohail paused, rolling down her window.

“Congratulations on driving,” he said, grinning.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.