RIYADH: No sooner had the royal decree of Sept. 26, 2017 lifting the ban on women driving been issued than excitement filled Saudi Arabia. Women began to gear up for the big day when they would get behind the wheel without breaking the law.
I remember waking up my two young sons on the day the decree was announced with the words: “Well, gentlemen. It looks like I’ll be getting to drive before you both.” They looked at once stunned and delighted.
The royal decree took effect on June 24, 2018. It has been one year since women in Saudi Arabia were first allowed to drive, and the ranks of aspiring female drivers just keep swelling.
I had been hearing horror stories about the Saudi Driving School (SDS), located in Princess Nourah University in Riyadh, so I decided to put on my journalist hat and find out the truth. What I saw was somewhat different.
On May 23, I signed up for the driving placement exam, which allows women with prior driving experience to skip the mandatory 30 hours of lessons and settle for 12 or 6 hours, depending on an evaluation by a driving examiner.
I had my exam scheduled a full month later, but I had heard of exceptions being made, so I asked the officer concerned to set up an earlier appointment. My request was considered: I was evaluated in two weeks’ time and advised to take 12 hours of driving lessons.
Men in Saudi Arabia know from birth they will be able to drive on the Kingdom’s roads one day. Women, on the other hand, could afford to think likewise only since 2017. The goal of the SDS, according to its operations supervisor, Aseel Al-Saleh, is to “give women the confidence to overcome the fear of being on the road.”
She added: “When you take the final exam, wear your seat belt, say Bismillah and drive as you would do on the streets and not as if it were an exam you have to pass. No examiner will fail you if you succeed. Our pass rate is 90 percent.”
Although it opened its doors only a year ago, the SDS has already issued 40,000 driving licenses. After complaints of long waiting periods, the administrative process has been streamlined. With the staff working 12-hour shifts six days a week, help and guidance are always at hand for Riyadh’s aspiring female drivers. “Our motto is to teach them how to drive safely,” said Nora Al-Dossary, supervisor of marketing and PR at SDS.
For mothers with little children, the SDS has a high-quality nursery with a playground and a toy driving track. Kids can spend time there learning about road safety and getting their own “driving license” while their mothers finish their lessons.
Amira Al-Maliky, a lecturer coordinator, recounts the case of an elderly man who came to the office gates to tell her he had one daughter and a son who was in jail. If the daughter could drive, life would be different for him and his family. Al-Maliky said seeing the young woman’s learning process through to the end became a personal mission for her.
“The joy we get from helping people is what keeps us going,” she said. “We are trying our best to help all female applicants gain the confidence and the skill to take to the country’s roads.”
Of course some customers do have grumbles. A few applicants express frustration that they have to take lessons even after a full year of practice. Also, as Al-Dossary said, there are applicants who express surprise they have to take the full 30, or 12, hours of lessons despite having driven for a year without a license - and without “following the rules of safe and correct driving.”
At the same time, “the SDS recognizes unique Saudi talents and we are proud to have them as part of our school,” she said. She was referring to two instructors who have taken part in international racing. One of them, Jawaher AlZamil, who is now an examiner, was a rally racer who competed in the VMAX race in London last March. “My dream is to see Saudi women in the highest of positions” Al-Zamil said.
On June 20, I passed my theory exam. Now I am looking forward to the practical lessons, clearing the tests and joining the growing ranks of Saudi women who have a license to drive.