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As Saudi women campaign to drive, economists see upside

Heavy traffic in downtown Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Yousef Gamal El-Din, CNBC

Saudi women are planning to get behind the wheel on Saturday, defying a stern warning by the Kingdom's ministry of interior and pressing for change in the world's last male-only driving nation.

Dubbed the "October 26 Driving" campaign, the day aims to raise awareness of the benefits and the Islamic legality of women driving.

Activists have been calling for action on October 26 using a variety of popular social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter (#Oct26Driving) and WhatsApp. Campaigners are urging women simply to go about their commutes by driving the car themselves on that day.

"People keep saying it's a protest, but it's not in the conventional sense," a Saudi organizer of the campaign in Jeddah, who asked to not be named, explained to CNBC. "We're simply making a point, and hopefully the government will make the changes sooner rather than later".

The official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) released a statement by the ministry of interior on what it described as "rumors" on social networks.

"The laws of the Kingdom prohibit activities disturbing the public peace and opening venues to sedition which only serve the senseless, the ill-intentioned, intruders, and opportunity hunters," the statement, published on Wednesday, read.

It added "the concerned bodies will fully and firmly enforce the laws against violators".

It is not the first time women take the wheel for change. But women who are caught driving usually bring more trouble to their legal guardians than themselves, such as the husband, father or a brother.

Earlier in the week, clerics gathered in front of one of the King's palaces to voice their opposition to the prospect of sharing the road. Religious scholars still wield considerable influence on domestic policy decisions.

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Women in the Kingdom depend on mostly expatriate drivers to get around. Although there is no explicit law banning women from driving, there is no section for women in Saudi driving license centers.

Economists have also told CNBC that allowing women to drive could give the economy a mild boost, critical at a time the Kingdom is grappling with a rapidly growing, and predominantly young population hungry for jobs.

"The economic impact of empowering the female population, which is around half of the overall working-age population and which has an employment rate of under 30 percent, could be vast," Farouk Soussa, chief economist for the Middle East at Citi, told CNBC.

Saudi Arabia lacks comprehensive public transport for women, a major obstacle to them working as it complicates securing a viable commute.

"Women driving would be an important step for enabling the larger part of the population to become economically active," Soussa explained.

There's more. The necessity for drivers from abroad could further be reduced, and with it the ancillary infrastructure, thereby alleviating the burden of capital leaving the economy. The world's top oil exporter has one of the highest remittance outflows in the world, amounting to $29.5 billion in 2012, according to the World Bank, second only to the United States.

Saudi-based economists contacted by CNBC could not be reached on Thursday, or were reluctant to make comments on the matter given the political sensitivity of the subject.

Change has historically been slow in the ultraconservative Kingdom, and despite cautious reforms towards including women in local elections, there are currently no plans to have women in the driver's seat.