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Women prepare to get behind the wheel as Saudi Arabia driving ban ends

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seen as the force behind the king’s decision to change the rules.

Women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to drive on Sunday, ending a ban that stained its reputation, kept women subjugated and hindered economic growth.

The move places Saudi women at the centre of a major transformation being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

There is also a tug-of-war between those agitating for more openings for them and a religious majority that remains wary of changes that could be influenced by the West.

It was only a few years ago that religious police enforced an austere interpretation of Islam that banned music of any kind in public, much less the sound of a woman’s voice.

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A woman tests a driving simulator at a road safety event for female drivers (AP/Nariman El-Mofty)

They could detain groups of unmarried men and women for simply standing or sitting together. They ensured restaurants and shops closed for daily prayers and waved sticks at women who had their hair or face uncovered.

Unlike previous Saudi monarchs who took cautious steps on reform, King Salman has granted his 32-year-old son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a free hand to usher in dramatic moves.

Allowing musical concerts, opening cinemas, easing restrictions on gender segregation and reigning in the powers of the religious police have all been signature reforms of the young prince.

He’s seen as the force behind the king’s decision to lift the ban on women driving.

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Women leave the Al-Jazirah Ford showroom in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (AP/Nariman El-Mofty)

On Friday outside a shopping centre in capital Riyadh, young single men and women walked through an open-air exhibit where Saudi women and traffic police explained the details of handling a car.

A song with a woman’s voice blared through the loudspeakers, singing: “I love you Saudia. My love, Saudia.”

Just four years ago, this government-sponsored event was unthinkable.

“I can say that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, came at the right time. He is young and motivated,” said Lulwa al-Fireiji.

The 60-year-old quickly clarified that while there was “nothing wrong” with previous Saudi rulers, now is the time for change.

“I will get a license, but I won’t drive right away because the elders are always scared. But the young people are motivated and we need at this time someone like Mohammed bin Salman – motivated, God bless him, and daring. He will move the country (forward) faster,” she said.

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A child stands next to a car at a showroom in Riyadh (APNariman El-Mofty)

Granting women the right to drive is part of a wider blueprint for the future drawn up by the crown prince. The government is pushing Saudis to become less reliant on the government for jobs, handouts and subsidies.

Official statistics show women make up the overwhelming majority of job seekers in Saudi Arabia.

The state cannot create enough public sector jobs to keep up with the pace of Saudis seeking work, so foreigners are being booted out of jobs to make way. Companies must stack their workforce with a minimum number of Saudi nationals or face heavy fines.

To encourage two-income households, Saudi women are taking on jobs that were once reserved for men.

On Sunday, when they start driving, many will no longer need to hire drivers. Women will even be allowed to work as drivers.

Under the crown prince, the message pushed by officials is that Saudi Arabia is modernising, not Westernising.

The prince has branded the reforms a return to “moderate Islam”. Even the country’s ultra-conservative clerics, who for decades warned against allowing women to work and drive, have toed the line with muted statements of support.

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