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Let Women Drive, a Saudi Prince Urges

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Prince Alwaleed bin Talal in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2015. In a four-page letter posted on his personal website, the prince argued that “it is high time that Saudi women started driving their cars.”

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Fayez Nureldine/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A prominent Saudi prince and business magnate has added his voice to the debate over women’s rights in his country, urging it to abandon its driving ban for women.

“Stop the debate,” the prince, Alwaleed bin Talal, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “It’s time for women to drive.”

In a four-page letter posted on his personal website, he argued that “it is high time that Saudi women started driving their cars,” and he couched his views in economic terms, noting that foreign drivers are typically paid 3,800 riyals, or about $1,000, a month to shuttle women around. The cost, he argued, contributes to capital outflows and strains household budgets at a time when Saudi Arabia is trying to shift its economy away from reliance on oil.

Prince Alwaleed’s statement seemed unlikely to affect policy.

In April, Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince, who has amassed power in Riyadh, the capital, and is seen as a contender for the throne, said he was “not convinced” women should be allowed to drive, adding that his reservations concerned resistance in society rather than religious doctrine.

The driving ban is enforced by Saudi Arabia’s religious police, and it has been the occasional target of protests. Women were allowed to vote and run in local elections last December, a first. But they have a low rate of participation in the work force, a long-term problem for the kingdom as it tries to diversify its economy and rely less on foreign workers.

Prince Alwaleed is not in the government and does not speak for it, but as one of the world’s wealthiest investors he enjoys a higher profile than most other Saudi royals. A billionaire, he is particularly active in the hotel and construction industries and has extensive holdings in the United States and Europe.

Video

‘Ladies First’: Saudi Arabia’s Female Candidates

In Saudi Arabia, women still can’t drive. But they have been recently granted the right to vote and to run in an election. In this documentary, The Times’s Mona El-Naggar takes us inside the ultraconservative kingdom and into the largely inaccessible world of Saudi women.


By MONA EL-NAGGAR and ADAM BOLT on Publish Date October 15, 2016.


Photo by Yousur Al-Hlou for The New York Times.

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Prince Alwaleed said the ban could not be defended under religious law. “Such a ban on driving is fundamentally an infringement on a woman’s rights, particularly as it continues to exist after she had won her right to an education and a salaried employment,” he wrote.

Ending the ban would allow the kingdom to eventually “dispense with” the services of an estimated one million drivers and would stimulate the economy by allowing women to work by driving other women who did not feel comfortable behind the wheel.

He added that the fatwas, or religious rulings, used to justify the bans were “the product of their times” but acknowledged that the decision was “clearly and intrinsically political.” He also said that he would support restrictions even if the ban were lifted, like prohibiting driving outside city limits or requiring women drivers “to carry smartphones to be used when needed.”

This is not the first time Prince Alwaleed has found himself at the center of a controversy.

In 2008, a 20-year-old model accused Prince Alwaleed of raping her on a yacht off the coast of the Spanish island of Ibiza. In 2012, a panel of Spanish judges dismissed the case, citing a lack of evidence.

Last December, Prince Alwaleed denounced Donald J. Trump, then a candidate for the Republican nomination for president.

“You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America,” he wrote on Twitter. “Withdraw from the U.S presidential race as you will never win.”

On Nov. 9, after Mr. Trump won, Prince Alwaleed wrote, “Whatever the past differences, America has spoken, congratulations & best wishes for your presidency.”

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