Image Credit: Luis Vazquez

The UAE has become a magnet for the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council states. Tourists have been flocking in by the hundreds of thousands. The bulk of the visitors from the Arabian peninsula in recent times have been from Saudi Arabia. And they don’t just visit only once. Families make the bulk of visitors, but there are also a sizeable number of single males and females who venture to the UAE on their own.

What is it that attracts these visitors from a nearby country? It is certainly not the weather as there are no significant climatic differences between the two countries. Nor is there a dramatic change in topography that may induce some to visit. Shops and restaurants are not much different in both countries. Yet in the balance of travel, visitors from the Saudi side most likely outnumber their UAE counterparts by 10 to 1.

There are significant reasons then that would attract someone to make the trip from Saudi Arabia to the UAE. The first is that they find the UAE more similar than different from their own culture. And besides a host of other reasons such as world class entertainment, there is the compelling draw of a country that places no unjustified restrictions on its women.

Suzanne, a resident of Jeddah, offers her own perspective on the matter: “It’s all about personal freedom. The UAE is an Islamic country which follows a similar code as in Saudi Arabia, yet allows women choices that we find denied here. And the number one irritant and nuisance to all women here is not allowing them to drive their own cars. Perhaps we can attempt to get a discussion going in the Majlis Al Shura pertaining to this matter by using a different logic; perhaps the argument of conservation?”

Doing the math

She continued: “The fastest and least expensive way to conserve water and other resources in Saudi Arabia and save some of our outbound tourist dollars would be to allow women to drive! Where is the connection? Allow me to give an explanation in a very rough estimate of figures: If women were given the right to drive, approximately a million drivers could eventually be sent back to their home countries. Each one of these men consumes about 300 litres of water a day, (about one-third cubic metres). That’s 300 million litres per day for a million drivers. That’s 90 billion litres per year, with allowances made for their vacation time. That’s 90 million cubic metres per year of water consumed by drivers alone.

“The desalination plant in Saudi Arabia produces 1 million cubic metres of water per day. That’s 365 million cubic metres a year. If we had a million less drivers we would only need 275 million cubic metres. The Shuaiba desalination plant would thus have 25 per cent surplus water for people to use if women could drive their own cars. Double check the math.

“The same approximate figures would hold true for electricity consumption. Even if drivers were to be slowly phased out, this would amount to an enormous saving for the country in terms of water, energy, and of course finances as well. The employment of drivers is becoming an increasing financial burden.

“Some women’s salaries are spent solely on a driver’s expenses. Should women then not receive government subsidies for each household, as compensation for the expenses of having to pay recruiting agencies, visas, air fare, medical check- ups, driver’s licences, traffic tickets, extra living quarters, furniture, insurance, meals, medical bills and medication, and of course water and electricity etc., in addition to drivers’ salaries?

“What a huge financial burden for a country with a shrinking middle class, and with minimum wages not much higher than that paid to a driver brought in from a developing country, many of whom have never driven a car before coming to work in Saudi Arabia. That brings up the safety issue as well: Safety on the road, safety allowing one’s children day in and day out in the presence of a stranger.

“Which leads me to my next point. The burden of women being banned from driving is also of a psychological and social nature. How has a conservative society such as Saudi Arabia ever allowed itself to bring total strangers into their homes, not knowing the slightest thing about their past, or their moral conduct? It’s a mystery. The whole issue of the ban on women driving is a mystery and a paradox. And you wonder why we all escape to the UAE? Perhaps it’s because they have got it right!”

And thus Suzanne concludes her argument with such a novel defence. In that she has chosen an original slant to a social issue of growing concern is indicative that this issue will not simply go away. Nor will those marginalised by social restrictions that confine and constrict their personal development be silent forever. The blanket of traditions and beliefs should be shed from the body of this issue.

It is then that perhaps we would become more in line with the UAE.


Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah.