Driving empowers Saudi women and unleashes our country’s potential
Driving is more than self-transport: It is a freedom that transcends mobility, opening vistas of choice and opportunity. This metaphor is especially apt for Saudi Arabia’s women as the 61-year female driving ban ends. Saudi women have awaited this change. I am one of them.
I am no novice. I drove for years in Oregon, where I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, and during a recent work assignment in Houston. But I responded to King Salman’s 2017 royal decree by taking a safe-driving course offered by my employer, Saudi Aramco. That this class exists says a lot about how the future will unfold.
Vision 2030 is a national program championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy beyond oil and make our cities among the world’s best places to live. Though government jobs have long been the norm, a dynamic private sector is taking root, in fields as diverse as robotics and IT, finance and tourism. It is a timely change.
As chief engineer at Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s oil company, I am excited about our independent refocus on the broader energy and chemicals industry — a direction that aligns with Vision 2030’s objectives. Because here, like everywhere else, disruptive technologies continue to grow exponentially, impacting every aspect of life. And talent is the competitive advantage.
Clearly, women must be part of Saudi Arabia’s economic and social transformation. Despite the driving ban, we are already a force.
More than half of the country’s degrees are held by women; 60 percent of us have a master’s or Ph.D. We work in fields such as medicine, academia, real estate and banking. We are industrial entrepreneurs. We dominate creative fields such as fashion and art; we are active in humanitarian causes. As for me, I hold the top technical position at the world’s largest oil and gas company.
In a STEM industry where women are globally and historically under-represented, I have developed software for reservoir simulations, worked as a computer systems engineer and managed international projects.
Yet despite our levels of education and professional achievement, women represent just 22 percent of the Saudi workforce. To put our potential into context, Bloomberg Intelligence calculates that if Saudi women’s job-force participation achieved GCC-region levels, gross domestic product (GDP) gains could reach $90 billion by 2030. With more than half the Kingdom’s population under 25, the need for quality jobs — and women to fill them — is urgent. Yet the long tradition of depending on a husband, son, father or brother to get from point A to point B is not conducive to employment. And in a country where mass transit is still a developing sector, most homes employ a foreign driver at crippling expense.
Plainly, the Kingdom must literally mobilize women — which brings me back to my driving course.
The Saudi Aramco Driving Center, created in partnership with the Saudi Traffic Police Authority, ensures that Aramco’s female drivers and their female dependents take to the roads armed with knowledge, skill and confidence.
The class began with driving theory. Interactive simulators offering 180 and 360-degree views of the road gave me a realistic immersion into hazardous scenarios, from rain and fog to sandstorms and poor night visibility. My ability to handle rough road conditions was convincingly tested. From there I learned about engine basics and other functions, and how to conduct fluid and tire air-pressure checks. I progressed to advanced maneuvering, and on the main driving track experienced every possible configuration from roundabouts to different road grades.
The entire point was to become a defensive driver, as well as a role model and influencer. Learning — and leading — through proven methodologies and competencies mean the roads we drive will be safer and more courteous.
After 24 hours of training — 12 on the driving range, 11 on company premises, and one in preparation for my exam — I had my Saudi driver’s license. And with that small laminated card, I became a part of history; there is no longer any nation where women may not drive. Nothing is more precious than being able to shape your own destiny, and that absolutely includes something so normal, so taken for granted, as getting where you want to go on your own power.
That could be another metaphor for these transformative times — a Kingdom built on oil becoming a nation of human energy, longstanding cultural practice shifting to make it happen. Driving will empower us women, but it is also unleashing a nation’s full potential. And we will get there on our own power.
Nabilah M. Al-Tunisi is chief engineer at Saudi Aramco’s global headquarters in Dhahran.