One short drive for me … a leap into the history books for Saudi women
It was a totally unremarkable drive, made totally remarkable by the day: June 24, 2018, when Saudi Arabia ended its de facto ban on women driving.
This is how history happens. You often stumble into it. Four days ago I arrived in the last country in the world where women could not drive. And then on Sunday, all of a sudden and quite simply, we could.
As our iPhones turned to midnight in the Arab News Jeddah offices, my Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas handed me the keys to the company car and invited me to drive with him into the history books.
In the back seat were Aisha Fareed and Aseel Bashraheel, two of our Saudi female colleagues. One of them would have been in the driver’s seat if they’d had their licenses, but their day will come. As we climbed into the hulking black GMC, Aisha told me she’d never been driven by a woman before. So there was more than one first that night.
Let’s back up (if you will). How did I end up here, a single Canadian woman, driving my male boss in a country where no one imagined this would ever be possible? For almost a decade I’ve lived in the UAE, where men and women alike relish the Gulf car culture, from its valet parking to its supercars.
But no one I knew ever had an interest in coming to Saudi Arabia. My Emirati friend invited me to a wedding here once, and her brother took me aside: “You don’t want to go to Saudi Arabia,” he advised me. “Not as a single woman. It will be too difficult for you there.” Khalas.
But in the past year, the Saudi story started to change. I became intrigued, and when Arab News offered me a chance to help tell some of that story, no aspect appealed more than Saudi women driving.
This historic day is not about women driving, it’s about all of us having the choice. And that’s why one small drive for me was a giant drive for Saudi women in the Kingdom.
For me, it was not enough to cover it from my base at the Arab News bureau in Dubai, and so with June 24 approaching, I applied for my visa. Incredibly, it was processed in a day. And while there was a small hold-up at Immigration because I didn’t have the company registration number, the officers served me gahwa and chocolates.
Yes, that’s right. They served me coffee and chocolates, and on Sunday police officers were handing out flowers to female drivers. That’s how much the Saudi story has changed.
This is having an effect, particularly in the UAE, which is full of global citizens. Almost everyone there I told was excited, “totes jelly (jealous),” even. Headlines about culture thriving and women driving are making this a place of interest. But until it’s easier to travel here, not everyone can come, which gives it an unattainable allure as a destination.
So that’s how I came to be behind this wheel, driving up and down Prince Saud Al Faisal Street, while a Canadian news channel tried to call my boss for an interview. At stoplights we posed for selfies and I timidly rolled down the window to wave at surprised onlookers.
We were cheered on by Saudi men and women, who smiled, waved back and gave us their thumbs-up. “Anna min Canada (I am from Canada),” I told two men in a car at the lights. They seemed delighted. “Welcome to the Kingdom,” they said. “Enjoy.”
I was feeling rather emboldened until we pulled up at a light next to a police car. We decided not to push our luck by waving. For a moment I wondered if this was a good idea. I thought about my mother, and how I would tell her I was in jail. I have a UAE license, and an international one for back-up, but these are early days, and it’s a chancy place to test the waters. We waited in nervous silence, staring straight ahead, until the light turned green and we drove off without incident.
While our midnight drive was fairly quiet, cars began flooding the Corniche and horns honking after 3 a.m. And then, like any morning after a historic night, I woke up to reality. I approached the car-rental desk in my hotel and asked to rent a car. “With a driver?” the man asked, hopefully. “No, I want a car for myself,” I said, laying my licenses down on the desk. “I will call my supervisor,” he said.
The supervisor said no, I needed a Saudi license. “Will I ever be able to rent a car here?” I asked. “Inshallah,” was the answer.
And so I did what so many women here have had to do: I waited for my male colleague to pick me up. The SUV I drove last night is normally the domain of our company driver, Bakhsh, who has been ferrying me back and forth to my hotel and carrying my bags. I’ve been joking with my new Saudi friends that I rather like this: Who needs to drive?
But this historic day is not about women driving, it’s about all of us having the choice. And that’s why one small drive for me was a giant drive for Saudi women in the Kingdom.
• Mo Gannon is a senior editor at the Arab News bureau in Dubai