Saudi Arabia is in the only country in the world where women are forbidden to drive – but this should be changed, a member of the Saudi royal family has said.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal published a four-page open letter titled "It is high time that Saudi women started driving their cars" in which he argued for the financial, social and religious benefits of allowing women to drive.
“Stop the debate. Time for women to drive,” the billionaire Prince tweeted in Arabic and English on Tuesday evening with a link to the letter on his website.
Preventing a woman from driving was an “issue of rights similar to the one that forbade her from receiving an education or having an independent identity,” he wrote.
“They are all unjust acts by a traditional society, far more restrictive than what is lawfully allowed by the precepts of religion.”
Women's rights activists have been detained for defying the ban on women driving in the conservative kingdom.
In 1990, dozens of women took to the wheel in the Saudi capital Riyadh in a protest against the ban. They were imprisoned for one day and had their passports confiscated.
More recent action has been hindered by the government, which in 2013 reacted to a planned protest with a heavy police presence, setting up checkpoints to watch for female drivers and individually warning campaign leaders not to drive.
But activists continued to post photographs or films of themselves driving in public online in defiance of the ban.
Mr bin Talal – the 41st richest man in the world – leads the Riyadh-based investment firm Kingdom Holding Company, which holds stakes in several Western companies, including Twitter.
However, he does not hold a formal position in the Saudi government.
The outspoken 61-year-old said that around 1.6 million women who work in Saudi Arabia have to rely on “costly” private chauffeurs or taxis.
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
In October 2014, three lawyers, Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih , were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.
In March 2015, Yemen’s Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile after a Shia-led insurgency. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has responded with air strikes in order to reinstate Mr Hadi. It has since been accused of committing war crimes in the country.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the ban on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities. The government warned that women drivers would face arrest.
Members of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continue to face discrimination that limits their access to government services and employment. Activists have received death sentences or long prison terms for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012.
All public gatherings are prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
In March 2014, the Interior Ministry stated that authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen, in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.
The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. He has already received 50 lashes, which have reportedly left him in poor health.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested aged 17 for participating in an anti-government protest. After refusing to spy on his fellow protestors, he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that would later contain his ‘confession’. At Dawood’s trial, the prosecution requested death by crucifixion while refusing him a lawyer.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.
Men often have to leave work to take their wives and children to everyday destinations such as clinics, he added, which “takes its toll on the national economy for it undermines the productivity of the work force”.
He said allowing women to drive was “an urgent social demand predicated upon current economic circumstances”.
In April, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said it was “up to Saudi society” to decide whether to allow women to drive, but “so far the society is not persuaded”.Reuse content