IMAGE: Princess Lolwah Al Faisal
Michel Euler  /  AP
Princess Lolwah Al Faisal adjusts her headscarf during a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday. The highest-profile princess in Saudi Arabia's ruling royal family said Thursday that if she could change one thing about her country, she would let women drive.
updated 1/25/2007 8:34:49 PM ET 2007-01-26T01:34:49

The most prominent princess in Saudi Arabia’s royal family said Thursday that if she could change one thing about her country, she would let women drive — a rare and direct challenge to the driving ban imposed by the kingdom’s ruling male elite.

The remarks from Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal, daughter of a former Saudi king and sister of the current foreign minister, came at the World Economic Forum — a gathering known for getting world leaders to engage in frank, often off-the-record dialogue without fear of criticism.

Al-Faisal, however, spoke at a public session on promoting religious tolerance. Other attendees included former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, the prime minister of Malaysia, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and peace activist from Israel and an American cleric.

The moderator, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, asked panelists at one point to “self-criticize” and say what they would change to promote greater interfaith understanding.

Turning to the princess, he quipped: “What would you do, princess, if you were queen for a day? I won’t tell anyone.”

“First thing, I’d let women drive,” Al-Faisal said dryly, as the audience erupted in applause and laughter. She added as the applause died down, “Or else have a great transportation system, which we don’t have.”

Women in Saudi Arabia now can work at many jobs that once were off-limits — a point the princess made. But critics say their inability to drive holds them back from many jobs by forcing them to rely on hired drivers, or on male relatives, to get to work or to school.

Ban is thought to hurt the poor
Some critics say the driving ban has particular impact on poorer Saudi families who cannot afford to hire drivers. Because of that, some consider the driving ban not just as a women’s rights issue, but also as a factor holding back the country’s economic development.

Al-Faisal’s comments are particularly interesting because they show that while Saudi Arabia often presents a united front to the outside world, different opinions and even vigorous debate exist in private.

The 59-year-old princess is the most publicly visible female member of the royal family and one of the highest-profile Saudi women. She led a delegation of Saudi women business leaders to Hong Kong last year, has appeared at U.S. forums on interfaith dialogue and heads a prominent Saudi women’s college.

But it is rare for her to speak in public or in front of the media. And she has never before publicly pushed for an end to the driving ban.

Her comments also are intriguing because her father, King Faisal, who ruled from 1964-1975, had a reputation as more progressive on social issues than his successors.

Faisal’s changes cut short
King Faisal first instituted education for Saudi girls, for example, in the 1960s, and some have wondered if he might have pushed for more reform in the conservative, religious kingdom had he lived longer. He was assassinated in 1975 by a disgruntled royal family member.

When the current monarch, King Abdullah, assumed the throne in 2005, expectations were high that he would decisively and quickly lead the country toward more openness. Indeed, for a while, Saudi Arabia made small but striking steps toward reform, such as instances where Saudi female journalists were allowed to interview men.

But the reform pace has slowed, partly because of reported differences within the royal family over the pace and direction of change and partly because of resistance by religious conservatives who fear reform will dilute their strong influence.

An old issue resurfaces
The issue of women drivers has been mostly dormant from Saudi public debate in recent years. It flared after the Gulf War in 1991, when a group of prominent Saudi women staged a protest by driving through the capital of Riyadh. But the government cracked down hard, confiscating many of the women’s passports and thus preventing them from leaving the country for months afterward.

The debate has occasionally flared in newspapers since but never to such an extent as in 1991. Yet many Saudi women privately view the ban as a main barrier to progress.

Conservatives, however, are vocal in pushing to retain the ban — saying that allowing women to drive would inevitably lead to their moral corruption, by forcing them to interact with men who are not relatives in places such as gas stations.

Other Gulf countries, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab countries allow women to drive.

Al-Faisal is a sister of two prominent members of the current government, Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal and Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the outgoing Saudi ambassador to the United States.

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