Irish woman in Riyadh: ‘Saudi is changing for the better’
When I mention that I live in Saudi Arabia to people I meet, it mostly triggers shock
Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive from next June, state media said on September 26th, in a historic decision that makes the Gulf kingdom the last country in the world to permit women behind the wheel. Photograph: Reem Baeshen/AFP/Getty Images
I am a private personal trainer from Co Wicklow, and I’ve been based in Riyadh full-time now for the past four and a half years. I’ve seen many expatriates come and go as Saudi is not for a place for everyone. But I enjoy my life here, and it is interesting to see so many changes happening in Saudi society, including the lifting of the driving ban for women this week.
When I first came to Saudi Arabia on a five-month contract in 2007, it was a huge culture shock for me. But I knew it was only for a brief time, so I stuck it out. After my initial stint, I returned in 2013 as I had a good job offer for a one-year contract, and saw it as a chance to save some money. I knew what I was letting myself in for so the culture shock wasn’t so bad the second time around.
When I mention that I live in Saudi Arabia to people I meet for the first time, it mostly triggers shock. People tend to focus straight away on the restricted lifestyle, though I am well used to it by now. The two major restrictions that seem to repulse people are women having to cover up when they go out, and women not being able to drive.
In fact, there are no official laws to say women must cover up, and women cannot drive. It is an unwritten rule that has been forced upon women by the religious powers. The law requires drivers to use a locally issued licence in the country, which were not issued to women, effectively making it impossible.
I focus on the benefits: I don’t have to dress up every time I go out as I’m covered up, and I have a driver to take me wherever I want to go. I probably go out a lot less than I would at home, because I have to book a driver, let him know where I’m going, and what time I need to be dropped off and picked up at. I can’t be spontaneous like I would be at home, hopping into the car and driving over to my friend’s house in a whim, or popping down to the corner shop. Having to cover up with an abaya (a black cloak) is not a pleasant experience in blazing sunshine.
Over the last two years though, the country seems to be making small, steady steps and heading in the right direction when it comes to more rights for women. The retail sector has seen a massive growth in female employees. 2013 saw the introduction of 30 women to the Shoura Council, a major part of the Saudi parliament. In 2015 women ran for the municipal elections for the first time which was another milestone.
Only last week the public celebrations for National Day took on a new meaning, where families sang and danced together in the street at a major carnival-type celebration organised by a new entertainment committee set up by the government.
People looking in from the outside don’t always see or hear about all these changes. On the inside, many people embrace these changes but of course others do not, particularly members of the very strict religious groups.
Permitting women to drive from June 2018 is an enormous step forward, and one that the entire world is talking about today and welcoming with open arms. This will definitely improve Saudi’s international reputation.
Am I looking forward to driving here myself? I'm not sure. I drove in Bahrain for five years and Oman for a year, which were both good experiences and thankfully accident-free for me. I may apply for a license if it is a fairly straightforward process, but Saudi Arabia has a very high rate of road traffic accidents, which is not surprising as many drivers do not follow the basic rules of the road.
I don’t see the announcement as simply a PR exercise; as it is a part of the 2030 Vision for Saudi Arabia, to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, and opening up the country to other industries, something the Emirates did a long time ago, in particular Dubai.
Saudi has a very young population, many highly educated and talented individuals including women who have a lot to offer their country and are ready for change.
Saudi Arabia is changing for the better, and I’m enjoying seeing those changes from a ringside seat.