On a steamy evening in Riyadh, just after evening prayer, scores of Saudi women gathered outside one of the city’s most popular malls. There, under pulsing searchlights and speakers blasting upbeat Arabic music, the women lined up to enter a parking lot that had been converted into an expo featuring an array of driving-related workshops. The festival, with the Arabic tagline Tawakli w Intalki, or “Have Confidence, and Get Out There!” began on June 21, with similar expos opening in several other Saudi cities, ahead of the end of the ban on women drivers in the Kingdom scheduled for June 24.
At the expo, the guests, most clad in plain black abayas and niqabs, and a few in colorful robes, their hair uncovered, followed female guides from station to station, pausing for presentations on car maintenance, traffic etiquette, and basic technique. Some women recorded a tutorial on braking using their phones, while others snapped selfies next to a seatbelt exhibit. Most popular were the arcade-like driving simulators and the “application” station, where women could practice parking a real car. “That was the first time I ever sat in the driver’s seat! It feels so good,” said Zaineb al-Qubaishi, 30, after stepping out of a silver Hyundai she’d successfully moved from one parking spot to another. Nearby, Baraah Luhaid, one of the festival organizers, watched three sisters cheer their mother as she cautiously steered a virtual car around a track. “I’m so happy for these women. For us. Females, we already have the power, you know? But we want to help them feel they can use it.”
The festival was organized by the Saudi Ministry of Interior as the latest demonstration of the government’s ongoing balancing act: conveying a sense of controlled order while capitalizing on the goodwill many feel about the change. The new driving policy, first announced by King Salman in September 2017, comes amid sweeping reforms championed by the powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and his ambitious “Vision 2030” program. Launched in April 2016, the program aims to improve Saudi Arabia’s global image, loosen social restrictions, and establish the Kingdom as a “global investment powerhouse.”