People inside and outside Saudi Arabia are asking many questions about what will happen when women, starting in late June, can legally drive for the first time in decades. Will car sales soar? Will every Saudi woman apply for a license right away?
But experts say those driving-specific questions may be missing the bigger picture. Millions of women will be allowed to drive, but more importantly, it gives those millions a better chance to be a part of the Saudi economy. “That flexibility and freedom will be a catalyst to encourage and enable women to access the workplace,” says Jonathan Holmes, Korn Ferry’s managing director for the Middle East.
The country, the second largest in the Arab world, is trying to modernize fast, and one of the areas its leaders know they need to work on is getting more women to work. Only 22% of Saudi women currently work; the government wants that figure to be at least 30% by 2030. Allowing women to drive may increase the number of available workers solely by ensuring that those workers are allowed to get to a job on their own. “Driving is one thing, but it’s [the] entire package. Accessing the labor market means a lot,” says Patricia Martin Echeverria, leader of Korn Ferry’s Assessment and Succession practice in the Middle East.
Even before the driving rules change, women are more visible in the job market. Ecehverria says she works with a bank where as recently as two years ago 70% to 75% of job candidates were men. Now, she says, women make up 70% to 75% of its job candidates.
Of course, there are some direct businesses benefitting from the impending change. Schools have been organizing driving lessons for women, and car dealers have set up women-only showrooms. However, “It’s not going to double the number of cars,” says Echeverria. A more likely scenario would be some new car-buying by women, while families that already have large cars—so women in the family could be driven around—may opt to trade some in for different models. Echeverria believes that there may be a move to insure all drivers and potentially increase the amount of mandatory government car inspections.
But those business changes likely will be dwarfed by experiences that women like Dr. Amal Fatani may have. Fatani has held various academic and government positions in Saudi Arabia for decades and now employs about 1,000 women at an outsourcing firm. Driving, she says, may make it easier for her employees to get to work and open up businesses like hers to a whole new pool of candidates. The sight of a woman behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia will be normal, just like everywhere else, sooner rather than later, she says. “People will see that everyone can care for themselves,” Fatani says. “It’ll be extremely normal.”