The announcement last week that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has lifted the ban on women driving doesn’t mean that females have had no real say in the country’s automotive market up until now. Just like in the rest of the world, women have a huge influence when it comes to vehicle purchases.
In the U.S., for example, women either directly choose, or less directly influence almost two-thirds of new vehicle purchases, according to data from J.D. Power and Associates.
“While I was there, one of the high-ranking ministers told me, ‘Who are you kidding? My wife picked out my car!’” automotive industry analyst Rebecca Lindland told NBC News of her three years working in the Saudi kingdom.
The king's announcement was widely hailed both in and out of the country as a vital move, part of the program being putting in place to transform Saudi Arabia by 2030 beyond just one of the world’s largest producers of oil.
The move will not officially go into effect immediately. Among other things, the government said driver training programs will need be set up, and even police will need to be trained in how to deal with a woman driver in a country with severe rules on the interaction between men and women in public.
But it's seen as especially critical for women who don’t immediately have access to a male relative or some other acceptable driver to go shopping or deal with other household affairs.
"Things have to change. People are demanding it," Sahar Nasief, who lives in in the Red Sea city of Jiddah, and an active campaigner for the right for women to drive, told the Associated Press. "Young people don't want to live the way we lived. They want to live better. They want to live how other people are living."
How the Kingdom Will Change
At a time when the Saudi economy is being hurt by weak oil prices, an ongoing war with rebels in nearby Yemen, a boycott of neighbor Qatar, and government austerity measures, this move could help boost business. The Saudi automotive market is currently down by more than 10 percent, according to global auto tracking service Focus2Go, and “not recovering.”
“It’s way too early to tell what is going to happen,” said Dave Sargent, head of automotive research at J.D. Power. “The people in Saudi Arabia are still digesting what this means and how it will all play out. In the short term, the effect will be relatively small in terms of vehicle sales. Saudi families, other than very wealthy ones, are unlikely to immediately rush out and buy additional cars in large numbers.”
Automakers aren’t likely to take any steps to increase shipments to Saudi Arabia, Sargent added, until they get a clearer view of what the new rules will mean towards overall car sales and, in particular, “which vehicle segments Saudi women gravitate to.”
For her part, analyst Lindland expects Saudi’s new women drivers will be drawn to “smaller cars that are fit for one to four people,” rather than the larger and more expensive cars and SUVs that currently dominate the market.
"Evidence suggests women are safer drivers, so we're looking forward to women showing men a thing or two on the road.”
The impact could play out over time, Lindland added. It’s unclear how many older women will exercise their new freedom, but she expects younger women will see it as a rite of passage, much like those in the rest of the world.
Having had no experience behind the wheel, Saudi officials plan to develop training programs for the women drivers before the king’s new decree takes effect.
But, despite the classic jokes about women drivers, “"Evidence…suggests women are safer drivers, so we're looking forward to women showing men a thing or two on the road,” said Amanda Stretton, a former British race car driver and editor of the website Confused.com.