Prince AlWaleed bin Talal took to social media this week to express his opinion on female drivers, a contentious issue in the highly conservative kingdom.
Using his Twitter account, the Prince threw his support behind allowing women to drive, arguing that the current situation leaves many women reliant on foreign drivers.
“(The question of) women driving will result in dispensing with at least 500,000 foreign drivers, and that has an economic and social impact for the country,” the Saudi Arabian billionaire tweeted over the weekend.
While the Prince did not spell out the exact economic benefits, it is believed that he was alluding to growing fears surrounding the country’s large foreign worker population.
Saudi Arabia is currently home to nine million foreign workers, but officials have recently become fearful about the amount of money being sent out of the country as a result. The monarchy began a crackdown on illegal immigrants this year, in the hopes of increasing the number of Saudi citizens in private sector jobs from 10 per cent.
Women are not formally banned from driving in the Arab kingdom, but citizens must use Saudi-issued licences in order to get around the country and currently these are only issued to men – making women drivers an anathema.
Pro-democracy protests that swept though the region in 2011 saw dozens of Saudi women respond to a “Women 2 Drive” campaign, posting pictures and videos of themselves driving.
However many of these women were detained and two were faced with various charges including “challenging the monarch”. Reports later surfaced that one woman was only released after signing a pledge to never drive again, while the other was sentenced to 10 lashes. (It cannot be confirmed that this penalty was carried out.)
Women’s rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider told reporters that while she welcomed the Prince’s statements, she was not overly optimistic that they would result in positive change.
“We got used to him saying the right things but nothing happens,” she said.
“I think he only makes headlines, but then nothing happens,” Al-Huwaider said.
Interestingly, Princess Ameerah al-Taweel, the Prince’s wife, made world headlines only last year on the same issue. She argued then there was a need for reform on the issue.
“I think it’s a very easy decision,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour only a few months ago. “And it is for the government. A lot of people are saying this is a social issue. … Education was a social issue. And a lot of people in Saudi Arabia were against women getting educated. Yet the decision was made.”