100 days at the wheel ... Saudi women drivers feel exhilarated

Reham Al-Shamrani, from Alkobar admitted to some hesitation before hitting the Saudi streets for the first time. (Supplied photo)
Updated 04 October 2018

100 days at the wheel ... Saudi women drivers feel exhilarated

  • No male driver has irritated me on the road, they are all cooperative and supportive: female driver
  • The anti-harassment law that accompanied the lifting of the ban meant there was a good atmosphere for women drivers

JEDDAH: Nearly 100 days after women began to drive in Saudi Arabia, Arab News asked new motorists in major cities of the Kingdom for their experiences since the historic lifting of the ban.

The first women to drive in Saudi Arabia have spoken of their relief at being able to be self-reliant. They were full of praise for the way in which the ban was lifted, singling out new traffic laws for creating a safe environment. They referenced the anti-harassment law that accompanied the lifting of the ban, crediting it with creating a safe atmosphere for the wave of new women drivers. 

Saudi women are driving themselves to work, transporting their families around cities — and discovering roads in the main cities of the Kingdom are full of courteous male drivers. One even spoke of the humility of male drivers. 

Not all the experiences were immediately positive. One woman reported a man who tried to crash into her vehicle to the traffic police who quickly arrested him. But even this experience gave her confidence that she would be able to drive safely.

“No male driver has irritated me on the road. They are all cooperative and supportive,” said one.

Dr. Sharifa Al-Rajhi, a professor of statistics at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, has no hesitation in describing what the move means — for her, driving means freedom.

“We had some social obstacles that have long prevented women from driving, despite the fact that Saudi women have achieved great jobs on all levels. To me, driving means that you feel independent,” she said.

She began learning to drive in Florida when she was studying for her higher education programs. Returning to Saudi Arabia, she was “shocked” as she had to have a driver to take her everywhere.

“I had to take my driver’s wishes into consideration otherwise he would refuse to work. He got angry many times and asked to leave. I even beseeched a driver to stay as I needed his services. I have never begged a person like that,” Al-Rajhi said. It was a struggle for her to learn to drive, as her husband tried to give her lessons but it was not a success.

“I do not recommend a woman asks her husband, brother or even relative to teach her how to drive. A relative would easily get stressed over your mistakes, and this will have a negative impact on the trainee. She should seek the assistance of a professional instructor,” she said.

In frustration, she joined a driving school and started lessons with a male instructor in his sixties. “He kept encouraging me until he succeeded... (he managed) to break down my fear in just two hours,” she added.

She was then aged 26 she said that she mastered the basics of driving in a further two hours.

“The most important thing is to overcome fear, and everything else will go smoothly. I did not pass the test the first time due to being a bit reckless, but I made it at the second attempt,” she said.

She expressed gratitude for the royal decree allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia and noted that the anti-harassment law that accompanied the lifting of the ban meant there was a good atmosphere for women drivers.

“Truly speaking, no male driver has so far irritated or annoyed me on the road. They are all cooperative and supportive. I remember a security man at a checkpoint in the north of Jeddah stopped me and asked for the license and the vehicle’s registration card. I showed them to him. He smiled and said: ‘You are a heroine. You can now go,’” she added. 

Wassal Al-Dosari, from Dammam, described the day the ban was lifted. “On the morning of Sunday, June 24, I drove to work and back home. For the first time in my life, I did all my work myself without being harassed or annoyed,” she said.

She was surprised by what she found — all the male drivers she passed were helpful and encouraging.

“The new traffic laws have contributed to making our first driving experience in our country not only safe but also enjoyable. With these regulations, men drivers have obviously become more attentive, cautious and have shown humble driving behavior,” she said.

She added that the decision to lift the ban on women driving came at the right time, paving the way for women to drive in a secure atmosphere. “I extend my thanks to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the Crown Prince for making Saudi women’s dreams come true.”

Another driver, based in the eastern region, said her father had insisted she join a driving school to learn to drive.

“I was sent to Florida in 2012. When I arrived there, my father insisted that I enroll in a car-driving course. I completed the training hours and succeeded in the first test,” said Dai Al-Eidi, a US university business administration and marketing graduate. She got her license in 2012 and had five years’ driving experience abroad. She learned of the lifting of the ban before returning to the Kingdom.

“I was delighted with the news when I was abroad. I returned to Saudi Arabia and was offered several jobs. I got a job as a driving instructor,” she said.

Before taking up the job, she was asked why she wanted to become an instructor. “My answer was because driving a car in my country has always been a dream that has recently been made a reality.”

She added that she is very proud of the extraordinary support Saudi women are being offered in all fields. She also expressed her gratitude for the leadership for its trust and support.

“We women are all enthusiastic to make our precious country the best,” she added.

Likewise, Ghadeer Tayseer Al-Senan, another female driver from the Eastern Province, spoke of the relief at being able to drive your own car when you want, anywhere you want, without having to worry about how you will get there.

“When King Salman granted women the right to drive, it was an indescribable moment for us as Saudi women because finally a woman can rely on herself to secure her needs,” Al-Senan said. She added that she started driving eight years ago when she was living in the US, where she had her own car.

“I was independent for my rides when I was in the States, and I now know how it feels to have your own car to travel around and do your own rides. My father used to give me lifts, but he got tired of it after many years,” she said.

She has also noticed that male drivers show great respect to female drivers. “The decision is new and it was welcomed by men and women alike. This is quite clear from the female motorists’ joyfulness and the men’s respectful driving behaviors,” she said.

For Alkhobar driver Reham Al-Shamrani, there was some trepidation at first. 

“There was certainly some hesitation and fear and I was wondering if the Saudi street would accept seeing a girl driving. Some eight hours after the decision became effective I picked my sister’s children up on a ride to the nearby supermarket to buy them ice cream,” she recalled.

She said a male driver next to her at a traffic signal looked at her in awe. “Even when the green arrow of the traffic light appeared, he kept stopping where he was for a while. It was an experience I will never forget.” she added.

Similarly, Sarah Al-Sakran, from Riyadh, said at the beginning she found it strange, especially as she was one of the first female drivers to get behind the wheel.

“It was awkward on the street. I had difficulties, so I got annoyed first, but things went well later. No annoyance, no harassment,” she said.


Saudi pursuit of ‘green Kingdom’ goal gets a boost

Updated 18 November 2019

Saudi pursuit of ‘green Kingdom’ goal gets a boost

  • Agreement between agriculture ministry and Dubai's ICBA aimed at conserving natural resources
  • Kingdom's biosaline agriculture research and systems stands to benefit from ICBA's expertise

DUBAI: Agricultural development and environmental sustainability in Saudi Arabia will receive a boost in the coming years, thanks to a new agreement between the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai and the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture.

The agreement aims to enable Saudi Arabia to achieve its goal of preservation and sustainable management of its natural resources by raising the quality of biosaline agriculture research and systems.

The ministry says that the agreement will make use of the ICBA’s expertise in capacity development besides agricultural and environmental research, especially in the fields of vegetation development, combating desertification and climate change adaptation.

“It also includes training programs for Saudi technicians and farmers,” the ministry said. “In addition, it will localize, implement and develop biosaline agriculture research and production systems for both crops and forestation, which contributes to environmental and agricultural integration.”

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, the ICBA’s director general, told Arab News: “The agreement had been in the making for about two years. That was when we were approached by the Saudi government.”

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, ICBA Director General, at the center's quinoa fields in Dubai. (Supplied photo)

She said: “We put forward a proposal to demonstrate how the ICBA can help the Saudi government to implement its Green Kingdom Initiative, through which the ministry is trying to restore green coverage in the country and revive old conservation practices.”

Geographical features and climatic conditions very greatly from one part of the country to the other.

In the past, experimentation with such crops as potatoes, wheat and alfalfa proved detrimental to the Kingdom’s environment and natural resources due to faster rates of groundwater withdrawal.

“The ministry wanted to put a halt to over-abstraction of water, so they went through different policies,” Elouafi said.

“They made sure, for example, that farmers stopped producing wheat because about 2,400 liters of water is consumed to produce 1 kg of wheat. It was a huge amount,” she added.

“The new strategy is to find more appropriate crops for the farming community, which is quite large in the Kingdom.”

Saudi Arabia has been trying to grow its own food on a large scale since the 1980s. 

The objective of the Green Kingdom Initiative is to reduce the agricultural sector’s water demand by finding alternatives to thirsty crops.

The agreement will require the ICBA, over the next five years, to build for Saudi Arabia a new biosaline agriculture sector. 

As part of this shift, cultivation of a number of crops, notably quinoa, pearl millet and sorghum, will be piloted in high-salinity regions and then scaled up.

“The crops did very well in the UAE,” Elouafi said. “We’re looking at Sabkha regions, which have very high salinity and wetlands, and are on the ministry’s environmental agenda.”

Another objective is “smart” agriculture, which will involve raising water productivity, controlling irrigation water consumption and changing farming behavior.

Elouafi said that getting farmers in the Kingdom to stop cultivating wheat took some time as they had become accustomed to heavy government subsidies. In 2015, wheat production was phased out, followed by potatoes a year later and then alfalfa. 

“Farmers were provided everything to the point where they got used to a very good income and a very easy system,” she said.

“Now farmers are being asked to start producing something else, but the income won’t be the same, so it’s very important at this stage that the ministry has a plan and it’s fully understood.”

The agreement envisages preparation of proposals for ministry projects that involve plant production, drought monitoring, development of promising local crop and forestation varieties, and conservation of plant genetic resources.

“We’re also discussing capacity building because the ministry is big and has many entities. Because Saudi Arabia is a large country and has the capacity to meet some of its food requirements internally, what’s required is a better understanding of the country’s natural capabilities in terms of production of the crops it needs, like certain cereals,” Elouafi said.

“The way the authorities are going about it right now is more organized and more holistic. They’re trying to plan it properly.”

Elouafi said that having a better understanding of Saudi Arabia’s water constraints and managing the precious resource is essential.

 

Although almost the entire country is arid, there is rainfall in the north and along the mountain range to the west, especially in the far southwest, which receives monsoon rains in summer.

Sporadic rain may also occur elsewhere. Sometimes it is very heavy, causing serious flooding, including in Riyadh.

“They (the government) are very interested in drought management systems. The Kingdom has a long history of agriculture,” Elouafi said.

“It has large quantities of water in terms of rainfall, and certain regions have mountainous conditions, which are conducive to agriculture.”

Clearly, preservation of water resources is a priority for the Saudi government. But no less urgent is the task of conversion of green waste to improve soil quality, increase soil productivity and water retention, and reduce demand for irrigation.

The Kingdom is one of at least three Gulf Cooperation Council countries that are taking steps to develop a regulatory framework for the recycling of waste into compost.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman are respectively aiming to recycle 85 percent, 75 percent and 60 percent of their municipal solid waste over the next decade, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) entitled “Global Food Trends to 2030.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE rank in the bottom quartile of the 34 countries covered by the EIU’s Food Sustainability Index, with low scores for nutrition and food loss and waste. 

The answer, according to many farmers, policymakers and food-industry experts, is a shift toward more sustainable management of each country’s natural resources.