Saudi women take the wheel for first time as driving ban expires

A woman practices infront of a screen during driving lessons

Many Saudi women have ebulliently declared plans on social media to drive their mothers for coffee or ice cream as soon as the ban ends on Sunday, a mundane experience elsewhere in the world but a dazzling novelty in the desert kingdom. Many Saudi women spent most of their wages on drivers as a result.

"It may also take some time for enough driving schools that cater exclusively to women to be set up in Saudi Arabia, though when established they will create job opportunities for female driving instructors", says PwC.

The number of new drivers remains low, as women with foreign permits were only able to convert them starting this month.

Saudi Arabia's infamous ban on women driving came to an end with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, as a handful of women maneuvered their way through the still-packed streets of the capital early Sunday.

While Ms Worthem conceded that the biggest impact of the change would be on drivers, she doesn't expect the workforce to be completely wiped out. The conservative Muslim kingdom had announced previous year that it would lift its ban on female drivers at the end of June.

But in Saudi Arabia, it is believed that the end of the driving ban will allow many more women to join the workforce in the kingdom, whose economy shrunk by 0.2 per cent past year due to low oil prices. Sales jobs had previously been reserved for men in the highly conservative country, where unrelated men and women can not freely mix. "I'm just too proud to be doing this right now", said 23-year-old Majdooleen al-Ateeq as she cruised across Riyadh for the first time in her black Lexus.

Human Rights Watch last week said the kingdom has arrested two more female activists and many others have been barred from travelling outside the kingdom, in what it denounced as an "unrelenting crackdown".

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While there was never explicitly a law against women driving in Saudi Arabia, a ban was enforced by police and licenses were not issued to women. "During our fathers' and grandfathers' time, there was none of this women driving", said Wadih al-Marzouki, a retired government worker in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah.

Women with licences from Gulf countries will be required to convert them to Saudi licences, according to the Kingdom's traffic department.

The lifting of the ban comes amid an intensified crackdown on activists who campaigned for the right to drive. And the classes can be costly, running several hundred dollars.

"I'm proud, proud, proud", says one man driving by the scene. Until today many Saudi women had been forced to employ male drivers, which eats into their income while prohibiting others from owning cars. "Some naughty guys, you know", she said, giggling shyly.

"You could get the idea that OK now we're allowing driving and allowing a real opening, but that kind of encourages women to demand and ask for more", she said.

"I definitely won't like to drive", said Fayza al-Shammary, a 22-year-old saleswoman. "We just have to dream to have more women in all job sectors of motorsport".

Within minuted of the ban expiring at midnight, videos surfaced of women hitting the streets and driving through the kingdom.

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