Lift on driving ban in Saudi Arabia puts millions more behind wheel, in market for car

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SEOUL, South Korea – When Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on female drivers in June, Amjad Alamri wasted no minute to become one of the first to get her license.

The 22-year-old figures she had waited long enough.

Alamri says she had been driving illegally since she was thirteen, with her long black hair that had been put in a hat. Now she is part of a wave of female motorists who may also be car buyers in the last country on earth to leave women behind the wheel.

Yet, Alamri distinguishes itself for another reason in the conservative kingdom: she is also an ultra-rare female technology student who strives for design cars ever in the male-dominated auto industry. And preferably powerful race cars, no less.

"They say it's a major for men, that I will never find work," says Alamri. "But I do not care, I just want to study what I like, I want to work as an engineer to improve vehicles."

Her ambitions – and her enthusiasm to talk openly about them – underline dramatic shifts in a country that has long lagged behind tradition. The spearhead of the revolution is the Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who issued a royal decree that allowed women to ride from 24 June.

Rebound expected

Industrial analysts believe that the decision on the rapids will fuel demand for cars in a sizeable Saudi Arab market that fell 18 percent in 2016 and 19 percent last year.

Supported by stable oil prices, an improving economy and a strong increase in female drivers, sales of Saudi Arab vehicles for passenger cars will increase to 527,399 units this year, according to David Oakley, an LMC Automotive analyst for Europe. , the Middle East and Africa. . Sales should continue to rise until 2022, to 796,375 that year, he predicts.

Even before the change, many households, including Alamri's, already had one vehicle or more for female relatives to use, usually powered by a male driver.

But with more women getting their driving license and entering the Saudi workforce, the number of women wanting their own wheels is increasing.

"We still expect an increase in sales due to the influx of female drivers," Oakley said.

The potential market could be as large as 6.5 million women – although a much smaller number will actually buy vehicles, according to IHS Markit. The upturn is expected to be spread across all segments and brands, with sedans, SUVs and crossovers getting the biggest boosts, IHS said.

Nissan Motor Co. is a global car manufacturer who hopes to raise money. She launched a social media campaign called #SheDrives to encourage women to become driver's licenses.

"2018 is earmarked as a crucial moment in history for women in the kingdom," said COO Bader Al Houssami, Nissan Saudi Arabia earlier this year in a press release. "Because we want to welcome millions of new female directors in 2018, our focus is on adapting our company accordingly."

New breed

As a mechanical engineering student at Alfaisal University in the capital Riyadh, Alamri is part of the new breed. If she does not help designing her school Formula Student race car, she writes part-time for a Saudi Arabian-based online car friends website. Most recently she was in South Korea for that publication to test the Kia K900 sedan and the Niro EV crossover.

Alamri's love for cars began as a young person when she was addicted to a Japanese anime series about model car racing. "I thought driving a car was so cool, especially because it went fast," said Alamri.

Her big chance came when she was 13. The arrangement that her family had with a driver from India suddenly fell through. In no time, her bold mother suggested that Alamri would try.

"I tried to move the car, and I did!" Alamri says about her first time on the driver's seat.

The first excursions in the family's black Daihatsu Sirion were limited to the streets around her house, always with the mother next to her. But when she built up trust, she ventured further away.

Alamri says she was arrested five times by the police – but only twice her cover was blown like a female driver. She quickly spoke out of one case by saying that her male driver suddenly became ill and that she urgently needed to go to university for a college exam. In the other she was taken to the station and forced to sign a promise not to repeat the offense.

But brushing with the law hardly moderated her passion. Alamri went kart racing – and this year broke her collarbone while learning to ride a motorcycle.

Alamri says she is hardly alone. Saudi Arabia is teeming with women who love to drive. But the attitude has not changed as quickly as the law. Her father was one of those who was against the revision, while other family members rejected the technique as a waste of time for women.

"He was really angry, he could not accept the idea of ​​a woman who is driving," said Alamri about her father. "Many people were against it, they just want women to remain under their control."

Alamri says she is one of only three women in her university's engineering program, and the only one focusing on the automotive sector. She planned to look for work abroad after graduation. But encouraged by budding reforms, she has decided to stay.

"Everything is developing now," she says. "I want to participate in this progress.