'No more a passenger': Driving schools for women take off in Saudi Arabia

A Saudi woman (front) receives a driving lesson from an Italian instructor in Jeddah on March 7, 2018.

Saudi Arabia's decision to overturn a ban on women driving could prove lucrative for international carmakers, with the likes of Ford launching driving schools for women ahead of the radical change in the law.

"I've always been a passenger in the car and I can't wait to get behind the wheel," said Shams Hakim, a female university student in Saudi Arabia. She's attending a driving school at Effat University in Jeddah.

"I'm excited, but I also have some apprehension about what is actually involved in driving," Hakim adds.

The student of Business Human Resources is one of 250 women who have signed up to carmaker Ford's Driving Skills for Life for Her (DSFL) program, essentially a hands-on driving school run by Ford that's based in the university. Hakim says the program has given her "the confidence and education I need for the journey that lies ahead to obtain my license."

Carmaker giant Ford has started a hands-on driving education course for women only, ahead of the lifting of the driving ban on women i the country. According to a royal decree, the ban has to be lifted before June 24 2018.

The overturning of the ban means that women will be allowed to drive in the conservative, religious country for the first time in decades. Hundreds of women have even signed up to become drivers for ride-hailing companies, like Careem.

Ford said more than 250 students joined the driving school program this week in the lead up to International Women's Day on Thursday. Previously, the law in Saudi Arabia had meant that Ford's driving school sessions were for men only.

"The DSFL for Her sessions have been tailor-made for Saudi women as they approach the day when they can legally drive on public roads," Ford said in a press release.

It said the lessons included learning about your vehicle — where students are taught the fundamentals of preparing to drive such as adjusting the seat, checking mirrors and correct hand position — things that drivers take for granted in many countries.

A Saudi woman poses for a photo with a certificate after completing Ford's driving course in Jeddah on March 7, 2018.

Safe braking and the dangers of driver distraction were also covered in the course. In Saudi Arabia, 7,500 road deaths in 2017 were attributed to the use of mobile phones while driving, the Saudi Gazette reported in early March.

The lifting of the driving ban on women is one of several societal reforms overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Along with overturning the driving ban, women are now allowed to attend sporting events in Saudi Arabia. A 35-year-old ban on cinemas has also been lifted as part of the crown prince's radical (for Saudi Arabia) reform drive.

Women are not formally banned from driving under Saudi law but it is illegal to grant them a driving license under the current system, effectively creating a ban. King Salman decreed in September 2017 that women were to be allowed to gain driver's licenses.

Although the majority of senior religious scholars approved the move, some traditionalists are not happy. One Saudi cleric was also suspended after he said women should not drive because their brains shrink to a quarter the size of a man's when they go shopping, according to Reuters.

Haifa Jamalallail, president of Effat University, said the reform was overdue: "The wheels of change are constantly moving, and finally Saudi Arabia has caught up with the rest of the world with regard to women driving. Statistics show that women are generally safer and more defensive drivers than men," he said.

Road safety is a key issue in a country where 9,000 people were killed in car accidents in 2016, according to Arab News.

Women in Saudi Arabia appear to be relishing the life-changing opportunity to drive with women's universities offering to open up driving schools, Reuters reported, and companies like Ford keen to attract a lucrative new customer base.

Ford said that women who are not able to participate in person will be able to view online videos featuring a female student learning the basics from a female instructor in Arabic with English subtitles. The carmaker said it also plans to expand the program across the Saudi Kingdom in the future.

Jim Vella, president of the Ford Fund, the philanthropic arm of the Ford Motor Company, was in Saudi Arabia for the launch of the driving school around International Women's Day.

"We are thrilled to be part of this historic milestone as we bring Ford Driving Skills for Life for Her to Saudi Arabia," he said. "This program is designed to help young women feel safe and confident behind the wheel for the first time, and with it, we look forward to welcoming a new generation of women to the driver's seat."