Be Saudi-Hire Saudi! Saudi Women Allowed to Drive, NRI Drivers feel the Brunt
In most countries being able to drive is a fundamental right, afforded to anyone that is of legal age. However, this is not the case in Saudi Arabia. In this ultraconservative Islamic nation, women are not allowed to do many things that females worldwide take for granted, including getting behind the wheel. Though there is no official law in place, local authorities consistently turn down license requests from women, effectively resulting in a defacto ban. Those who defy the unwritten rule often end up losing their jobs and even risk getting arrested and jailed.
Fortunately, life for the country’s women is about to change for the better, thanks to an official decree issued by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz on September 26, 2017. The law, which goes into effect in June 2018, will enable them to obtain a driver’s license without requiring consent from their legal guardian and, more importantly, drive alone, without a male guardian in the car. While those allowances may seem strange to most of us, they are a significant step forward for Saudi Arabia where every aspect of a female’s life, is controlled by her father, brother, husband or son.
Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabian suffragettes, who have been fighting to get this antiquated rule overturned for over three decades, met the news with much joy. The reasons for not allowing females to drive ranged from it being “inappropriate” in the Saudi culture, to fear that they would be unable to deal with roadside emergencies, such as flat tires or breakdowns. Unfortunately, the ban meant that women were unable to hold jobs unless they could afford private drivers or convince a male relative to take them. The latest reform follows on the heels of a number of changes made by the country’s ultraconservative regimen the past few years.
In 2015, women were given the right to vote and run for council seats. In July 2017, girls were finally allowed to play sports in public schools and in mid-September, females were invited to attend Saudi Arabia’s National Day festivities held at a local stadium for the first time. While the reforms are certainly encouraging, Saudi women are still severely restricted in what they are allowed to do. They not only have to abide by a strict dress code, but also cannot travel abroad, work, or undergo medical procedures without the approval of their male “guardian.” But these recent changes are giving them hope that things can only get better going forward.
Unfortunately this move by Saudi government is not good news for Indian drivers working there- it threatens to snuff out the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Pravasi ‘house drivers,’ particularly those from Kerala. Majority of the estimated 5-14 lakh chauffeurs in Saudi Arabia are from India. At a time when hundreds of Indian workers are returning home every week in the wake of the Saudi government’s aggressive nationalisation (called Nitaqat) of the labour force, the new reform will accelerate the job loss of drivers. One Indian driver working in Saudi says, “Indians make up the largest expatriate community in Saudi Arabia and, among Indians, Keralites are the largest group. Generally, Saudi households prefer to employ Keralites as house drivers as they are considered trustworthy and employable”
There are between five lakh and 14 lakh chauffeurs and taxi drivers in Saudi Arabia. The huge majority of them are from India. Since women are not allowed to drive, they have to depend on chauffeurs and taxi drivers. Better-off Saudi households employ permanent house drivers who take homemakers to shopping malls, girl students to universities and schools and working women to their offices. Saudi working women spend a sizeable chunk of their salaries on chauffeurs.
According to one Indian who returned back to Kerala after three decades of working in Jeddah, said “The ‘house driver visa’ was one of the easiest and cheapest for the uneducated Gulf job aspirant, mainly from north Kerala region. Though the salary was low and job change was tough, the main attraction of ‘house driver’ was the free board and lodging, plus, the generous tips from the employer’s household.” Another fallout of the reform, Pravasis point out, is that more and more educated Saudi women will join the white-collar workforce, replacing expatriate employees, executives, and professionals. And, as the empowered Saudi women drive into the workplace, a section of the expatriate workers will be driven out.