Al­waleed: Let women drive

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

RIYADH:

An out­spo­ken bil­lion­aire Saudi prince has called for an “ur­gent” end to his coun­try’s ban on women driv­ing, say­ing it is a mat­ter not just of rights but of eco­nomic ne­ces­sity. “Stop the de­bate: Time for women to drive,” Prince Al­waleed bin Talal said on his of­fi­cial Twit­ter ac­count. Al­waleed is an un­usu­ally forth­right mem­ber of Saudi Ara­bia’s ex­ten­sive royal fam­ily. He holds no po­lit­i­cal posts but chairs King­dom Hold­ing Co, which has in­ter­ests in­clud­ing in US bank­ing gi­ant Cit­i­group and the Euro Dis­ney theme park. He is a long­time ad­vo­cate of women’s rights in the con­ser­va­tive Islamic king­dom, which has some of the world’s tight­est re­stric­tions on women and is the only coun­try where they are not al­lowed to drive. In con­junc­tion with his short tweet, Al­waleed’s of­fice is­sued an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally long state­ment late Tues­day out­lin­ing his rea­sons for sup­port­ing an end to the ban. “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 for­eign 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 3,800 riyals ($1,000) a month on a driver, money which oth­er­wise could help house­hold in­comes at a time when many are mak­ing do with less.

Even if their hus­bands can take time out to trans­port the women, that re­quires tem­po­rar­ily leav­ing the of­fice and “un­der­mines the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the work­force”, Al­waleed said. “Hav­ing women drive has be­come an ur­gent so­cial de­mand pred­i­cated upon cur­rent eco­nomic cir­cum­stances.” The prince said he is mak­ing his call on be­half of those with “lim­ited means”.

Ac­tivists say women’s driv­ing is not tech­ni­cally il­le­gal but that the ban is linked to tra­di­tion and cus­tom. Some women have chal­lenged the pro­hi­bi­tion by get­ting be­hind the wheel and post­ing im­ages of them­selves on­line. A slow ex­pan­sion of women’s rights be­gan un­der the late king Ab­dul­lah, who in 2013 named them to the Shura Coun­cil which ad­vises cab­i­net. Ab­dul­lah also an­nounced that women could for the first time vote and run in mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions, which were held last De­cem­ber. Th­ese and other de­ci­sions were ini­tially op­posed by “cer­tain el­e­ments” in Saudi so­ci­ety but soon be­came ac­cepted, Al­waleed said, call­ing for “a sim­i­larly de­ci­sive” po­lit­i­cal act.

In April, Deputy Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man said change can­not be forced, and “it is up to Saudi so­ci­ety”. In Al­waleed’s view, how­ever, “what can­not be al­lowed is to have one seg­ment im­pos­ing its pref­er­ences on the rest of so­ci­ety”. Sa­har Has­san Nasief, a women’s rights ac­tivist in the Red Sea city of Jed­dah, said the ap­peal from such an in­flu­en­tial fig­ure could help to bring about change. “Every­body’s talk­ing about him,” she told AFP. “I think his com­ments gave us a lot of hope.” — AFP

Prince Al­waleed

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