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Final hours of Saudi Arabia ban on female drivers

24 June 2018

So from all of us here at Arab News to all women in Saudi Arabia: Enjoy the ride! Children take a lap around a makeshift course in tiny electric cars as clowns appear on a small stage, dancing for the crowd.

Saudi women are officially allowed to get behind the wheel, after a decades-old driving ban was lifted. There were claims that removing the ban would lead to promiscuity and the breakdown of the family unit.

Women celebrate after they drove their cars in Al Khobar. The reform agenda is being spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In recent years, the nation has opened cinemas, loosened gender segregation, curbed the powers of the religious police and allowed music to be played in public.

The ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia is in its final hours.

"I can say that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, came at the right time".

"There can be no real celebration on June 24 while the women who campaigned for the right to drive and their supporters remain behind bars", said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Al-Fireiji, 60, quickly clarified that while there was "nothing wrong" with previous Saudi rulers, now is the time for change.

"I will get my driver's license, but I won't drive because I have a driver. He will move the country (forward) faster", she said.

A handful of female driving schools have cropped up in cities like Riyadh and Jeddah, training women to drive cars and also Harley Davidson motorbikes - scenes that were unimaginable even a year ago.

On Sunday, Rima Jawdet took us for a drive around the streets of the capital Riyadh and told us of the sense of empowerment and independence it gives her. They also can not appear in public without wearing a hijab. Companies are required to stack their workforce with a minimum number of Saudi nationals or face heavy fines. And on Sunday, when they start driving, many will be able to get more easily get to work and will no longer need to hire drivers, who often hail from India and Pakistan.

Now she can driver herself to work - or anywhere she wants to go.

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Prince Mohammed is set to inherit a country where more than half of its 20 million citizens are under the age of 25.

Many Saudis celebrated on social media, but some reactions were derisive or expressed concern about social impacts.

Under the crown prince, the message pushed by officials is that Saudi Arabia is modernising, not Westernising. The situation is a far cry from Kenya where women have nearly equal rights to men except in the conservative north.

She said: "I don't think there was an immediate connection between the two".

"The smear campaign that targeted these activists is unprecedented, and proves that any views that do not align with the government's reform agenda will not be publicly tolerated".

For almost three decades, Saudi women and the men who support them have been calling for women to have the right to drive. At least 10 are still being held in an undisclosed location with no access to lawyers. Critics say the arrests show how quickly reforms can be pulled back, and that the government still rules with an absolutist hand.

Rights group Amnesty International has hailed the end of the driving ban.

Three of the women still detained- Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan- are seen as icons of a larger democratic and civil rights push in the kingdom.

Under the guardianship system women can not travel overseas, work or marry without the consent of a male guardian, usually their closest male relative.

They were branded threats to national security and accused of being foreign agents.

In fact, it is a widely believed notion in Kenya that women are more careful drivers than men. As a preparation for the repeal of the driving ban, the government there has also trained its first batch of women auto accident inspectors who would respond to accident involving female drivers. You can not make demands on the government.

Final hours of Saudi Arabia ban on female drivers