AYA BATRAWY and MALAK HARB
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Cradling her four-month-old daughter, Nour Obeid scans the car showroom and heads to the mid-sized SUVs.
In the past, a woman looking to buy a car in Saudi Arabia would focus on the features in the back, but Obeid is checking out the driver’s seat, picturing herself doing grocery store runs or school drop-offs.
This Sunday, the kingdom will lift the world’s only ban on women driving, a milestone for women who have had to rely on drivers, male relatives, taxis and ride-hailing services to get to work, go shopping and get around.
The move could help boost the Saudi economy by ensuring stronger female participation in the workforce, meaning increased household incomes.
Car companies also see opportunity in this country of 20 million people, half of them female. Ahead of the ban being lifted, they’ve put Saudi saleswomen on showroom floors and targeted potential new drivers with advertising and social media marketing. Earlier this year, Ford sponsored a driving experience specifically for women in the city of Jiddah.
Saudi Arabia is the largest automobile market in the Middle East, with at least 405,000 cars expected to be sold this year. That’s down significantly from a few years ago, and the cost of buying a new car has gone up with the introduction of a value-added tax.
Still, car sales are expected to increase between six and 10 percent once women start driving, the chairman of the national committee for cars at the Council of Saudi Chambers told the daily Saudi Gazette.
The government recently began allowing women to sell cars as well. Sales jobs had previously been reserved for men in the highly conservative country, where unrelated men and women cannot freely mix.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia issued its first driver’s licenses to 10 women who already had licenses from other countries. Since then, dozens more have been licensed. None can drive until the ban is officially lifted.
The overwhelming majority of women in Saudi Arabia still don’t have licenses. Many haven’t had a chance to take the gender-segregated driving courses that were first offered to women only a few months ago. There’s also a waitlist of several months for a course at Princess Nora University in Riyadh. And the classes can be costly, running several hundred dollars.
Others already own cars driven by chauffeurs and are in no rush to drive themselves.
“We were princesses … We were in a good place. Now we’re going to be in a better place,” said Maram Al-Hazer, a manager at several car showrooms, including Ford, who has two family drivers. “To be honest everyone wants to relax and sit in the backseat and have someone to drive for them.”
Though women don’t need a male relative’s approval to get a driver’s license or buy a car, the moral and even financial support of a husband or father is key in this male-dominated society, where men have final say over a woman’s ability to marry, travel abroad or obtain a passport.
Nourah Almehaize started selling cars for the first time two months ago, but had already worked for six years in a call center handling queries about vehicles. She’s eager to learn how to drive so she can test-drive the Ford Explorer and Edge she’s been selling to customers, but her husband is telling her to wait.
“He is telling me not to (drive right away), to postpone it for a year until we see what it will be like, but I will apply anyways,” she said. “Currently, I have a driver. After a year I may not need him if I’ve had enough practice and I’m comfortable.”
Uzma Chohan, 38, has never driven and relies on a driver or her husband to go places. She prefers to run errands with her husband, which means waiting until he’s back from work in the evening or until the weekend.
The couple from Pakistan, who have two boys, has lived in Saudi Arabia for the past 17 years. They’re looking at larger SUVs for the family, but she won’t be driving just yet.
“In the beginning years, like to two and three, I’m a little scared about the people. Some naughty guys, you know,” she said, giggling shyly. “But after two years, after one year, it becomes normal, inshallah (God willing).”
Meanwhile, Obeid, who already has a driver’s license from Jordan, plans to obtain a Saudi license when she’s back from traveling abroad this summer.
“Me personally, it’s what the car looks like that’s important to me. Then I ask my husband about the specs so he takes a look at it to see what it’s like and if it’s durable,” she said.
Her husband, Mustafa Radwan, is encouraging her to drive and says he’d feel safer knowing that she and their two kids don’t need to rely on ride-hailing services. He’s optimistic and hopeful that Saudi men will be courteous to female drivers on the road.
“It’s different than what people expect. Myself as a man, or any man, when he sees a woman, he’ll give her the priority and give her the right of way to drive, and protect her. Maybe it’s in the culture,” Radwan said.
Not sounding as convinced, Obeid said: “I wish there were more men like you.”