Saudi prince makes economic case for women drivers

Reuters News

4/15/2013 6:14:53 AM - Reuters News

DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince AlWaleed bin Talal, a nephew of King Abdullah, has thrown his support behind allowing Saudi women to drive, saying it makes economic sense.

Women are barred from driving in the Arab kingdom - leaving them reliant on mostly foreign drivers.

"(The question of) women driving will result in dispensing with at least 500,000 foreign drivers, and that has an economic and social impact for the country," the prince said on his Twitter account on Sunday.

He did not spell out the economic benefits, but Saudi officials have said they are worried about the amount of money being sent out of the country by foreign workers.

Many Saudi families would also have more disposable income if they no longer had to pay for drivers.

Saudi Arabia, home to about nine million foreign workers, began a crackdown on illegal immigrants this year to boost the proportion of Saudi citizens in private sector jobs from the current 10 percent.

In the same Twitter message, the prince said he supported that campaign.

Saudi Arabia is a conservative monarchy, backed by religious scholars. It follows an austere Salafist form of Sunni Islam and allows clerics wide powers in society where they dominate the judicial system and run their own police squad to enforce religious morals.

After pro-democracy protests swept through the region in 2011, dozens of Saudi women responded to the "Women 2 Drive" campaign, posting pictures and videos of their driving on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Some of the women were detained briefly and two faced charges, including that of "challenging the monarch".

One of them was let go after signing a pledge not to drive again, while the other was sentenced to 10 lashes. Reuters could not confirm if the lashing sentence was inflicted, but a Saudi princess tweeted that it had been revoked.

While there is no written legislation banning women from driving, Saudi law requires citizens to use locally issued licenses while in the country. Such licenses are not issued to women, making it effectively illegal for them to drive.

(Writing by Yara Bayoumy, Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Heavens)