Speaking at the opening of the Jedda Economic Forum, Iyad Madani, Saudi minister of culture and information, on Saturday urged would-be Saudi women drivers to try to overturn the ban.

"There is nothing in the written laws of the country that prohibits women from applying for a driver's licence," Madani said, responding to a question on women's voting rights from British Baroness Emma Nicholson, a member of the House of Lords.

Madani said the Saudi central government was powerless to drop the driving ban, since any prohibitions are matters for local authorities.

"It is up to her to take legal procedures to knock down the municipal law in that area," Madani said.

'Femininity' approach

The panel's moderator, Saudi media analyst Husain al-Shubukshi, said he was surprised the first speaker in the normally staid Jeddah forum had already begun a controversy.

"The most surprising thing in this session was that there is no law against women driving in Saudi Arabia," al-Shubukshi said.

"I advise all women to apply today."

Emma Nicholson asked when
women would be allowed to vote

Madani otherwise defended Saudi Arabia's treatment of women, saying the kingdom recognised that women were different from men, according to the laws of nature.

"Our approach isn't to call for feminism, but rather femininity," Madani said.

"In nature, such differences are there and they are important."

After Madani's speech, Baroness Nicholson - seated in a segregated section of the auditorium reserved for women  - asked the minister whether the Saudi government would soon relax the ban on women voting or running in political elections.

Women were permitted last year to run for seats in local chambers of commerce.

In Jedda, two women won seats and currently sit on the board.

Elections

Madani said it was ironic that a Westerner - not a Saudi woman - was clamouring for women's rights, saying the driving ban was a bigger issue in the West than in the kingdom.

"The initiative should be taken by activists in the women's community"

Iyad Madani,
Saudi Minister of Culture and Information

The political atmosphere in Riyadh, however, is opening somewhat, and Madani urged women to seek more representation on non-political groups as a prelude to running for office.

"The initiative should be taken by activists in the women's community," he said. "The doors, if not wide open right now, are partially open."

The three-day forum that opened on Saturday will hear speeches by former US vice president Al Gore, among others.

Gerhard Schroeder, the former German chancellor, had already spoken, saying that he hoped US Senator Hilary Clinton, a Democrat from New York state, would win the next American presidential election.