Dozens of women took part in a “drive-in” protest, despite warnings from government, and mixed signals from the police.
An influential 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.
حان وقت قيادة المرأة للسيارةhttps://t.co/BBgyF8i1Gs
Stop the debate:
Time for women to drivehttps://t.co/6KAniFa4BT
— الوليد بن طلال (@Alwaleed_Talal) November 29, 2016
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal 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 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.
After his short tweet, Prince Alwaleed’s office issued an uncharacteristically long statement in English and Arabic 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 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 $1,000 a month on a driver, money that otherwise could help household income at a time when many are making do with less.
“Having women drive has become an urgent social demand predicated upon current economic circumstances,” said the prince.
A slow expansion of women’s rights began under late King Abdullah, who in 2013 named some women to the Shura Council, which advises the cabinet. Abdullah also announced that women could for the first time vote and run in municipal elections.
These and other decisions were initially opposed by some in Saudi society, he noted.
Sahar Hassan Nasief, a women’s rights activist in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, said the driving appeal from such an influential figure could help to bring about change.
“Everybody’s talking about him,” she told AFP news agency. “I think his comments gave us a lot of hope.”