100 days at the wheel ... Saudi women drivers feel exhilarated

Reham Al-Shamrani, from Alkobar admitted to some hesitation before hitting the Saudi streets for the first time. (Supplied photo)
Updated 04 October 2018

100 days at the wheel ... Saudi women drivers feel exhilarated

  • No male driver has irritated me on the road, they are all cooperative and supportive: female driver
  • The anti-harassment law that accompanied the lifting of the ban meant there was a good atmosphere for women drivers

JEDDAH: Nearly 100 days after women began to drive in Saudi Arabia, Arab News asked new motorists in major cities of the Kingdom for their experiences since the historic lifting of the ban.

The first women to drive in Saudi Arabia have spoken of their relief at being able to be self-reliant. They were full of praise for the way in which the ban was lifted, singling out new traffic laws for creating a safe environment. They referenced the anti-harassment law that accompanied the lifting of the ban, crediting it with creating a safe atmosphere for the wave of new women drivers. 

Saudi women are driving themselves to work, transporting their families around cities — and discovering roads in the main cities of the Kingdom are full of courteous male drivers. One even spoke of the humility of male drivers. 

Not all the experiences were immediately positive. One woman reported a man who tried to crash into her vehicle to the traffic police who quickly arrested him. But even this experience gave her confidence that she would be able to drive safely.

“No male driver has irritated me on the road. They are all cooperative and supportive,” said one.

Dr. Sharifa Al-Rajhi, a professor of statistics at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, has no hesitation in describing what the move means — for her, driving means freedom.

“We had some social obstacles that have long prevented women from driving, despite the fact that Saudi women have achieved great jobs on all levels. To me, driving means that you feel independent,” she said.

She began learning to drive in Florida when she was studying for her higher education programs. Returning to Saudi Arabia, she was “shocked” as she had to have a driver to take her everywhere.

“I had to take my driver’s wishes into consideration otherwise he would refuse to work. He got angry many times and asked to leave. I even beseeched a driver to stay as I needed his services. I have never begged a person like that,” Al-Rajhi said. It was a struggle for her to learn to drive, as her husband tried to give her lessons but it was not a success.

“I do not recommend a woman asks her husband, brother or even relative to teach her how to drive. A relative would easily get stressed over your mistakes, and this will have a negative impact on the trainee. She should seek the assistance of a professional instructor,” she said.

In frustration, she joined a driving school and started lessons with a male instructor in his sixties. “He kept encouraging me until he succeeded... (he managed) to break down my fear in just two hours,” she added.

She was then aged 26 she said that she mastered the basics of driving in a further two hours.

“The most important thing is to overcome fear, and everything else will go smoothly. I did not pass the test the first time due to being a bit reckless, but I made it at the second attempt,” she said.

She expressed gratitude for the royal decree allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia and noted that the anti-harassment law that accompanied the lifting of the ban meant there was a good atmosphere for women drivers.

“Truly speaking, no male driver has so far irritated or annoyed me on the road. They are all cooperative and supportive. I remember a security man at a checkpoint in the north of Jeddah stopped me and asked for the license and the vehicle’s registration card. I showed them to him. He smiled and said: ‘You are a heroine. You can now go,’” she added. 

Wassal Al-Dosari, from Dammam, described the day the ban was lifted. “On the morning of Sunday, June 24, I drove to work and back home. For the first time in my life, I did all my work myself without being harassed or annoyed,” she said.

She was surprised by what she found — all the male drivers she passed were helpful and encouraging.

“The new traffic laws have contributed to making our first driving experience in our country not only safe but also enjoyable. With these regulations, men drivers have obviously become more attentive, cautious and have shown humble driving behavior,” she said.

She added that the decision to lift the ban on women driving came at the right time, paving the way for women to drive in a secure atmosphere. “I extend my thanks to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the Crown Prince for making Saudi women’s dreams come true.”

Another driver, based in the eastern region, said her father had insisted she join a driving school to learn to drive.

“I was sent to Florida in 2012. When I arrived there, my father insisted that I enroll in a car-driving course. I completed the training hours and succeeded in the first test,” said Dai Al-Eidi, a US university business administration and marketing graduate. She got her license in 2012 and had five years’ driving experience abroad. She learned of the lifting of the ban before returning to the Kingdom.

“I was delighted with the news when I was abroad. I returned to Saudi Arabia and was offered several jobs. I got a job as a driving instructor,” she said.

Before taking up the job, she was asked why she wanted to become an instructor. “My answer was because driving a car in my country has always been a dream that has recently been made a reality.”

She added that she is very proud of the extraordinary support Saudi women are being offered in all fields. She also expressed her gratitude for the leadership for its trust and support.

“We women are all enthusiastic to make our precious country the best,” she added.

Likewise, Ghadeer Tayseer Al-Senan, another female driver from the Eastern Province, spoke of the relief at being able to drive your own car when you want, anywhere you want, without having to worry about how you will get there.

“When King Salman granted women the right to drive, it was an indescribable moment for us as Saudi women because finally a woman can rely on herself to secure her needs,” Al-Senan said. She added that she started driving eight years ago when she was living in the US, where she had her own car.

“I was independent for my rides when I was in the States, and I now know how it feels to have your own car to travel around and do your own rides. My father used to give me lifts, but he got tired of it after many years,” she said.

She has also noticed that male drivers show great respect to female drivers. “The decision is new and it was welcomed by men and women alike. This is quite clear from the female motorists’ joyfulness and the men’s respectful driving behaviors,” she said.

For Alkhobar driver Reham Al-Shamrani, there was some trepidation at first. 

“There was certainly some hesitation and fear and I was wondering if the Saudi street would accept seeing a girl driving. Some eight hours after the decision became effective I picked my sister’s children up on a ride to the nearby supermarket to buy them ice cream,” she recalled.

She said a male driver next to her at a traffic signal looked at her in awe. “Even when the green arrow of the traffic light appeared, he kept stopping where he was for a while. It was an experience I will never forget.” she added.

Similarly, Sarah Al-Sakran, from Riyadh, said at the beginning she found it strange, especially as she was one of the first female drivers to get behind the wheel.

“It was awkward on the street. I had difficulties, so I got annoyed first, but things went well later. No annoyance, no harassment,” she said.

‘American Sharqawia’: US Consul General Rachna Korhonen bids Saudi Arabia farewell

Updated 09 July 2020

‘American Sharqawia’: US Consul General Rachna Korhonen bids Saudi Arabia farewell

  • "There’s some magic in the water of the desert," says Korhonen

JEDDAH: As she reaches the end of her second mission in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, US Consul General Rachna Korhonen will soon be heading home, taking memories to last a lifetime.
Known for her love for culture and the Arabic language and for her vast knowledge of the region, Korhonen became well known as a constant supporter of Saudi women and youth in the region, participating in numerous cultural and social events in the Eastern Province and across the Kingdom.
After two more weeks in the Kingdom, Korhonen will return to the US capital to serve as the executive director of the Bureau of Near East Affairs (NEA) and the Bureau of South Central Asian Affairs (SCA) at the US State Department which supports the posts in the region, including Saudi Arabia, thus continuing her connection with the Kingdom.
With 14 years of experience as a US diplomat, she served 3 years in Riyadh in 2010, and then came back to serve as the consul general in Dhahran in August 2017. “I would say Riyadh was the start of my relationship with Saudi Arabia, and Dhahran and the Eastern Province is the culmination of the relationship,” said Korhonen told Arab News on a video call. She almost feels herself Sharqawia, a resident of the Eastern Province, Sharqia.
“Ana Sharqawia (‘I am a Sharqawia). The measure of any place is the people, it’s not about the place, it’s really about the people.”
As consul general, her role was to build relations and promote the interests of her home in the country where she was posted. Korhonen went the extra mile, she joined in the region’s celebrations and understood its traditions and culture.

Recalling her time in the Eastern Province, she said: “I’ve been getting to know Sharqawis, the people who live and work here, who have made this their home in the years since Aramco started or were born in Al-Ahsa. I think anyone who comes to the Eastern Province falls in love,” she said.
“The biggest reason I’ve gotten to enjoy myself here is (because) it has quite a bit of America here. I think it’s difficult to realize how much America exists in Saudi Arabia until you come to the Eastern Province,” she added.
As the drilling for oil began in 1935 with the help of the California Arabian Standard Oil Company (CASOC), which later became Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s oil capital has been home to thousands of Americans over the past 85 years, who have had a major influence on the region.
“Aramco is definitely a reminder of home, and you put that in with the people, the hospitality, the normal way of being Saudi which is to welcome your guests no matter who they are. You put those things together, you get the best of the United States and you get the best of Saudi Arabia.”
A native of New Jersey and big baseball fan, her love for the game didn’t stop her from supporting the Al-Ettifaq Football Club in Dammam, attending matches and singing their anthem.
Her trips to Al-Ahsa, a place she calls the most beautiful place in the Kingdom, allowed her to discover the region’s vast experiences.
Her appreciation of Al-Ahsa goes deep. Both the scenery and the hospitality of the people make it her favorite city — she even took Ambassador John Abizaid on a trip there in February.
“As you drive towards Al-Ahsa, you can see the sand changing color, from a bright yellow to a reddish color,” she said. “You start seeing the desert turning green, which is amazing to me. I’m a mountain and forest type of person and I can tell you that I now like the desert too, it’s beautiful.”
The uniqueness of Al-Ahsa called out to Korhonen and she recalls her first visit to the region in 2017. “The history, the people, the food, the culture, is very different from any place I’ve been to in Saudi Arabia, Hasawis (people of Al-Ahsa) are lovely. I think there’s some magic in the water of the desert,” she said.
Korhonen developed an interest in regional cultural events, visiting local markets picking out sheep for Eid, learning about the Saudi love for falconry and participating in the traditional celebratory dance of Al-Arda. She even has a Diwaniya, a parlor where guests are received, at her home.

When she returned to the Kingdom in 2017, Korhonen noticed the transformation of the Kingdom, noting that Vision 2030 has been the instigator for this noticeable change.
“The changes have been tremendous, I think Vision2030 is really going to really bring Saudi Arabia onto the world stage. I think some parts are already there. In the energy sector, Saudi Arabia has always been a leader,” she said. “I’m betting you right now that you’re going to see Saudi women, you’re going to see Saudi men, you’re going to see Saudi kids, Saudi art, culture and music, the traditional Saudi things, all starting to show up on the world stage.”
As the Kingdom heads towards diversifying its economy, Korhonen anticipates that the world will begin seeing more Saudi entrepreneurs with innovative ventures, as education is key. She noted that with the continuous flow of Saudi students on scholarships in the US, their return to the Kingdom will help bring forth a new business-like mindset with partnerships between the two countries that will help the Kingdom’s economy to flourish.
“It’s coming,” she noted. “I’ve seen some of the (US) businesses here, but I haven’t seen enough yet and I’d like to see more of that in the next 2-5 years, because Vision 2030 will be a success if we can get entrepreneurs to start businesses and hire more Saudis,” she added. “That to me is the key and that is what you should be bringing back from the US.”
As the end of her mission draws near, it's safe to say that we'll be seeing Korhonen back in the Kingdom in the near future.
“I’ll honestly come back because of the people, because of the friendships I’ve made here.”