It seems every day I tune into social media there is a new announcement being made that reflects the extraordinary changes underfoot in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
On October 1, 2017 I was incredulous as I read in several articles, including Arabnews.com and Riyadhconnect.com, that King Salman issued a decree allowing Saudi women to drive. To the uninformed reader this decree may not sound earth-shattering, but Saudi Arabia has remained, until now, the only country in the world where it is illegal for women to drive.
The next day Blue Abaya posted that Ford Middle East was gifting a mustang to Sahar Nassif, a Saudi woman who has spent years campaigning for equal rights. In the past, Sahar was arrested for driving around Jeddah and when the proclamation was made by King Salman she rejoiced, saying she was going to purchase a yellow and black Mustang to celebrate. Ford got wind of the story and chose to gift her with the car of her dreams.
In related news, the Saudi Princess Nourah University is planning to establish a women’s driving school and the Ministry says the legal driving age for women will be 18 years. The ruling allowing women to drive is expected to become law by June of 2018, but many enthusiastic Saudi women are already getting behind the wheel to practice in preparation.
Saudi Princess Nourah University to establish a women driving school
Apparently, the seeds of change were planted even earlier. According to Gulf Insider, back in June of this year King Salman ordered that women no longer need a man’s permission to travel, study, or make complaints. As Maha Akeel, a women’s rights campaigner, suggests the move is a step in the right direction, opening the entire discussion on the guardian system for debate.
The decision to allow women these new freedoms seems part of a plan to include more women in the workforce to help diversify the country’s economy. The trend towards what is often referred to as “Saudi-isation” began as early as 2011, and has resulted in a grand 78-page document authorized by King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, KSA Vision 2030.
Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Program encompasses a huge mandate for change. Goals include efficient planning within government agencies and global investments, not to mention becoming the epicentre of trade and the gateway to the world. There are plans for growth through diversification of resources. More jobs, education and skills- building opportunities for citizens are being created. There is a push to strengthen the National Identity, develop tourism, improve living and working conditions for expats, and even increase household spending on culture and entertainment.
Towards the goal of entertainment spending, another shattering announcement was made on October 2. According to expatwoman.com, Cinemas are Returning to Saudi Arabia. I never knew they were once in existence, but upon reading the article I discovered that there were cinemas before 1980. Personally, I am thrilled at the prospect of adding going out to the movies to our current small list of entertainment possibilities and hope the decision opens the door for more opportunities here in Riyadh.
I read about these changes in the news, but I’m even more encouraged by the observations I’ve made in the short time since I moved here in May of 2015. I have witnessed the increase of women in the workforce first-hand, seeing more and more female cashiers at the major shopping centres. I have noticed each time I fly back to Riyadh from abroad more women in the airport who are dressing in fashionable abayas. They are pushing convention, adding colour and bling and even opting for fitted over the typical ‘tented’ attire.
Further updates on emirateswoman.com revealed, “Hot on the heels of news that Saudi Arabia will soon start issuing driving licenses to women, the kingdom has appointed its first female spokeswoman. Fatimah Baeshen was announced as a spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington, US, on Wednesday, a day after King Salman issued a royal decree to lift the driving ban on women. Saudi national Baeshen celebrated the announcement of her new role, saying she was ‘proud to serve’ her country.”
I still find going out into the city challenging, but every time I do it feels like more Saudi men and women alike are welcoming me. I’m not postulating that everyone here supports change and welcomes new ideas, but there does seem to be a growing sense of globalism. The incentive may have begun as an economic response to the oil crisis, but it has evolved. Many progressive-thinking Saudis, including those in positions of authority, recognize that their future success involves growth, and growth demands respectful partnerships within global frameworks.
As a woman who stands for equality and liberty for all people, it is exciting to see that positive change is not just a dream. It is becoming a reality, throughout the world. Don’t believe in the negativity of the naysayers who claim that the world is destroying itself. Don’t accept that the terrorists and the corrupt and greedy politicians and corporations are the rule. There is a global rising. There is a New Earth, just beyond the horizon.
So yeah, I’m feeling excited to be an expat in Saudi Arabia, witnessing historical change.