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

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 its ban on women drivers in June, Amjad Alamri didn’t waste a minute becoming one of the first to get her license.

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

Alamri says she had been driving illegally since age 13, with her long black hair tucked up inside a hat. Now she’s part of a wave of female car drivers who may also be car buyers in the last country on Earth to allow women behind the wheel.

Yet, Alamri stands out for another reason in the conservative kingdom: She is also an ultra-rare female engineering student who aspires to someday design cars in the male- dominated auto industry. And preferably high-powered race cars, no less.

“They say it’s a major for males, that I’ll never find work,” Alamri says. “But I don’t care. I just want to study what I enjoy. I want to work as an engineer to improve vehicles.”

Her ambitions — and her enthusiasm in talking openly about them — underscore dramatic shifts in a country long hidebound to tradition. Spearheading the revolution is Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who issued a royal decree allowing women to drive from June 24.

Rebound expected

Industry analysts believe the watershed decision will rekindle auto demand in a sizable Saudi Arabian market that declined 18 percent in 2016 and 19 percent last year.

Buoyed by stable oil prices, a recovering economy and a surge in women drivers, Saudi Arabian passenger vehicle sales are expected to rebound 16 percent to 527,399 units this year, according to David Oakley, an LMC Automotive analyst for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Sales should keep increasing through 2022, reaching 796,375 that year, he predicts.

Even before the change, many households, including Alamri’s, already had one vehicle or more for female family members to use, typically driven by a male chauffeur.

But with more women getting their driver’s license and entering the Saudi workforce, the number of women wanting their own wheels is on the rise.

“We do still anticipate an uplift in sales due to the influx of female drivers,” Oakley said.

The potential market could be as big as 6.5 million women — although a much smaller number will actually buy vehicles, according to IHS Markit. The uptick 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 one global automaker that’s hoping to cash in. It launched a social media campaign called #SheDrives to encourage women to become licensed drivers.

“2018 is earmarked to be a pivotal moment in history for women in the kingdom,” Nissan Saudi Arabia COO Bader Al Houssami said in a news release earlier this year. “As we look to welcome millions of new female drivers in 2018, our focus is to tailor our business accordingly.”

New breed

As a mechanical engineering student at Alfaisal University in the capital city of Riyadh, Alamri is part of the new breed. When not helping design her school’s Formula Student racing car, she writes part time for a Saudi Arabia-based online car fan website. Most recently, she was in South Korea for that publication to test-drive the Kia K900 sedan and Niro EV crossover.

Alamri’s love of cars started as youngster, when she was addicted to a Japanese anime series about model car racing. “I thought driving was so cool, especially driving fast,” Alamri said.

Her big chance came when she was 13. The arrangement her family had with a driver from India suddenly fell through. In a pinch, her free-spirited mother suggested Alamri give it a go.

“I tried to move the car, and I did!” Alamri says of her first time in the driver’s seat.

Initial excursions in the family’s black Daihatsu Sirion were limited to the streets around her home, always with Mom at her side. But as she built confidence, she ventured farther afield.

Alamri says she has been stopped by police five times — but only twice was her cover blown as a female driver. She fast-talked her way out of one case by saying her male driver fell suddenly ill and that she urgently needed to get to class for a college exam. In the other, she was taken to the station and forced to sign a pledge to not repeat the transgression.

But brushes with the law hardly dulled her passion. Alamri took up kart racing — and this year broke her collarbone while learning how to ride a motorcycle.

Alamri says she is hardly alone. Saudi Arabia teems with women just as eager to drive. But attitudes haven’t changed as quickly as the law. Her father was among those opposed to the overhaul, while other relatives dismiss engineering as a waste of time for women.

“He was really mad. He couldn’t accept the idea of a woman driving,” Alamri said of her father. “A lot of people were against it. They just want to keep women under their control.”

Alamri says she is one of only three women in her university’s engineering program, and the only one focused on the auto sector. She had planned to seek work overseas after graduating. But encouraged by budding reforms, she has decided to stay.

“Everything is developing now,” she says. “I want to participate in this advancement.

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