RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi women will be allowed to drive from the age of 18, a government spokesman said on Thursday, partially allaying speculation they could still face tighter controls than men when finally allowed behind the wheel.
In a royal decree issued on Tuesday, King Salman ordered an end by next year of the ban on women drivers, a conservative tradition that has limited women’s mobility and been seen by rights activists as an emblem of their suppression.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving.
The decree stipulated that the move must “apply and adhere to the necessary sharia standards”, referring to Islamic law, but did not elaborate, sparking speculation that restrictions might include a higher minimum age or limited hours of the day.
The king ordered a ministerial committee to report within 30 days on how to implement the new policy by June 24, 2018.
Asked on al-Arabiya TV about the minimum age for Saudi women, Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki said: “Eighteen years is the age at which a person can obtain a driver’s licence and drive a car in the kingdom.”
United Nations human rights experts praised the ban’s removal as a major step towards women’s autonomy and independence, but urged the kingdom to do more to ensure gender equality.
“We now encourage the government to repeal all remaining discriminatory laws,” two experts who report to the U.N. Human Rights Council said in a joint statement.
“If it is serious about the importance of women’s rights for economic reform, addressing remaining barriers to the human rights of women should be the next step in its ambitious reforms,” said the UN investigator on extreme poverty Philip Alston and Kamala Chandrakirana, chair of the U.N. working group on discrimination against women.
The interior minister said separately that lifting the ban would reduce the number of car crashes in Saudi Arabia, which has one of the world’s worst traffic death rates.
Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef, who took over from his uncle in June, said security forces were ready to apply traffic laws to men and women, though he did not mention if women would be recruited as traffic police.
“Women driving cars will transform traffic safety to educational practise which will reduce human and economic losses caused by accidents,” he was quoted as saying on the ministry’s Twitter feed. He did not elaborate.
Around 20 Saudis die each day in traffic accidents - in a population of 30 million. The government aims to reduce that by a quarter as part of its Vision 2030 reform programme.
While Saudi women have generally welcomed the lifting of the driving ban, some men expressed concern it would increase the number of cars on already crowded Saudi roads.
A typical middle- to upper-class Saudi family has two vehicles, one driven by the man of the house and a second car in which a full-time chauffeur transports his wife and children.
The royal decree promises to change lifestyles for many of the more than 10 million adult women, including foreigners, who live in Saudi Arabia and may help restore auto sales growth in a market dented by the economic fallout from weak oil prices.
But because of conservative traditions, it may actually take years rather than months for women to become a major presence on the roads in some areas.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt