Wednesday, September 30, 2015

New Petition to Urge GM Boycott of KSA until Driving Ban Lifted

There is a new petition up on urging the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, to boycott Saudi Arabia until the ban on women driving is lifted.

You can link to the petition here and sign your name if you wish.

The iniquity of imposing a ban and fees

Great post (Sept 26, 2015) from Saudi Women's Weblog about the driving issue. A link to the post is here and I'm pasting in the post below.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Saudi Arabia is that the ban on women driving is societal. As a matter of fact, women driving is only prohibited in the cities. In traditional rural areas, women drive with no objections by society or government. If tribes living their traditional lifestyles in their villages have no objection to women driving, why would their more modern urban counterparts object? The answer is they don’t either. Women and men across the country have defied the ban either by driving or speaking out with no societal consequences but rather governmental. People have been suspended from their jobs, imprisoned and banned from travel simply for wanting the ban lifted. There is no definite answer as to why the government will not allow each woman to choose for herself whether or not to drive. However, there have been a few analyses as to why the ban is so strictly implemented. One of these is this article by Dr. Mohammed bin Saud AlMasoud published in Aleqtisadiah Newspaper on 19/July/2014. Here I’ve translated it for everyone:
Screenshot 2015-09-26 22.59.22
Lifting the ban on women driving will result in big losses for many. The
Lifting the ban on women driving will result in big losses for many. The campaign Women Driving is More Chaste addresses the abnormality of permanently imposing a strange man on Saudi women. The success of this campaign will be challenged by three institutions. These institutions will most likely constitute pressure lines to prevent women from obtaining the human and civil right of driving their own cars.
First: Fee-charging government bodies
– One and a half million drivers’ visas worth two and a half billion SAR (six hundred sixty-six million USD).
– The General Passports Department earns one and a half billion SAR (four hundred million USD) from residency fees.
– Health insurance fees bring in a minimum of seven hundred million SAR (a hundred eighty-six million USD).
Thus, the Interior Ministry will lose approximately five billion SAR (a billion and three hundred thirty-three million USD) if women driving were to be legalized. These enormous returns will start to dwindle and fall until ultimately they become nothing. It’s no wonder that the Interior Ministry is not overly enthusiastic about the idea of lifting the ban and are firm and strong against women who attempt to exercise their right to drive.
Second: Taxi companies
The vast majority of this companies are owned by elites. 85% of their business depends on women seeking transportation in the bigger cities. These businesses generate unbelievably huge sums that reach to five million SAR (a million and three hundred thousand USD) a month. Naturally, if women were allowed to drive, this enormous financial resource will gradually dry up. Hence those millions a month will be no more. Again, it’s no surprise that these elites would not be too excited or happy to see the ban lifted. This is what happen in Qatar when they lifted the ban on Qatari women driving. The taxi companies’ profits fell to a quarter of what they were. It is especially worrying for the Saudi companies now that taxi charges rose a 100% in the cities after fees on foreign recruitment rose.
Third: Recruitment agencies and airlines
When we talk about one and a half million visas then we are also saying one and a half million flights worth up to three billion SAR (eight hundred million USD), as well as one and a half million recruitment contracts valued at eight billion SAR (two billion USD) minimum. The price of recruiting one driver from abroad is about eight thousand SAR (two thousand USD) which adds up to thirteen billion SAR (three and a half billion USD). That is a number that would be difficult to let go. Experts are forecasting that under the current ban the number of drivers is expected to double to three million foreign drivers. Thus, these profits will also increase a 100%.
All the billions mentioned above are paid by Saudi families and specifically Saudi women, not once but many times over. What’s more, financial penalties up to twice the original cost are imposed if there is any delay in payment. For example, the driver’s residency renewal fees double if they are not paid on time.
Hence, we have so many winners at the expense of Saudi women. Women, who are weak, tender, helpless citizens in need of protection and care, represent 60% of humanity’s workforce, and yet women have to bear all these consequences. Since the ban on women driving is implemented with threats of firmness and strength against all who defy it, it would only be fair to revise all these driver recruitment fees and fines. These fees add up to about six billion SAR (one and a half billion USD) paid by Saudi families, in particular, Saudi women because drivers are imposed on them by necessity.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

‘Saudi Girls’ Finally Get to Drive, but Only in a Videogame

Story by Sarah Needleman in the May 21, 2015 Wall Street Journal. You can link to the story here, and the text is pasted below.

Saudi Girls Revolution’ is a mobile game made by NA3M, a company whose founder and chief executive is Saudi Arabian Prince Fahad bin Faisal Al Saud, above, grandson of the brother of the king. Photo: SHANITA SIMS

In futuristic setting, heroines ride motorcycles, fight villains; a prince’s hope

Saudi Girls Revolution’ is a mobile game made by NA3M, a company whose founder and chief executive is Saudi Arabian Prince Fahad bin Faisal Al Saud, above, grandson of the brother of the king. Photo: SHANITA SIMS

Saudi Arabian women this year will finally get the right to drive. It will just have to be in a post-apocalyptic world filled with baboon kings, crystal giants, fire dancers, mutants and zombie cybersoldiers.

That’s the setting for the coming mobile videogame “Saudi Girls Revolution,” in which a group of young Saudi women race souped-up motorcycles to fight the evil tyrannical rulers of a corrupted Arabian Empire. It is being made by NA3M, a company with offices in Jordan and Denmark whose founder and chief executive is Saudi Arabian Prince Fahad bin Faisal Al Saud, grandson of the brother of the king.
“I hope every single individual who owns a phone plays,” says the 31-year-old prince. He even means his royal family members. “Their status doesn’t change the fact that they’re still consumers,” he says.
“Saudi Girls Revolution” is set in the late 21st century, where a world war over the loss of natural resources has wiped out three-quarters of Earth’s population. The one city untouched by war: Riyadh, rich with water. After the death of the king, unrest leads to brutal government camps for women.
Enter the eight heroines of “Saudi Girls Revolution.” Dressed in abayas—the full-length black robes worn by some Muslim women—they drive high-speed motorbikes equipped with magical shields and energy blasters, fighting villains and oppressors across treacherous landscapes.
These “Mu’tazilah,” a name with roots in Arabic and Islamic culture that means those who break away or stand apart, possess distinct personalities and backgrounds that loosely reflect various groups of Saudi Arabian society, according to the game’s creators. Um Bandar is the wise, elderly ringleader who teaches women to fight for themselves. Asma and Allanoud are twins who push against religious sectarianism. Hussa is gay; Leila is from the disconnected upper class of society. There is even an “ass-kicking” cyborg, Prince Fahad says. He likens their skills to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
A 35-second video on YouTube gives a taste of the game. In the teaser, the shadow of a woman stands beside a motorcycle, her hair and abaya blowing in the wind. Smoke rises amid debris and rain, as a red meteor falls from the sky. In the background, a woman sings: “From far away they came to life with knowledge. They changed our world then left us without warning.”
Choosing an alternate-universe version of Saudi Arabia for the game’s vehicular setting might seem pointed, considering women there are forbidden to drive. While no law explicitly prohibits them from getting behind the wheel, the government has refused to grant licenses to women.

A poster promoting the coming mobile videogame ‘Saudi Girls Revolution,’ in which a group of young Saudi women race souped-up motorcycles to fight evil.
A poster promoting the coming mobile videogame ‘Saudi Girls Revolution,’ in which a group of young Saudi women race souped-up motorcycles to fight evil.
Photo: NA3M
Dozens of Saudi women in recent years have protested the decadeslong ban by driving cars in the kingdom. Still, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry reaffirmed the ban last October, warning that strong measures would be taken against offenders. Earlier this year, two women were detained for more than 70 days for challenging the ban.
Prince Fahad says there is no political motive behind “Saudi Girls Revolution,” though he hopes it will “inspire women to see themselves in roles that are equal to men.” The website for NA3M says concepts like the one behind the game can “challenge convention.” (Mostly, though, it says it wants people to “enjoy a kick-ass game.”)
Prince Fahad, who lives in London, grew up playing foreign-made games with powerful female characters like Lara Croft from “Tomb Raider.” After graduating from Stanford University in 2007, he spent two years at Facebook Inc. working on an Arabic version of the social network.
He wanted to empower Saudi women by showing them—literally—in the driver’s seat. “If we can tell people stories about women driving, maybe they will, maybe it will actually happen,” he says.
Several characters, Prince Fahad says, are named after relatives, like his grandmother.
The inspiration for some villains, such as the game’s evil baboon kings, comes from plants and animals in Saudi Arabian cities. Take Ta’if, for example, where baboons there roam freely, coercing bananas, dates and other fruits from passersby. “If the baboons don’t get what they want, they jump on your car,” he says. “You have to pay the toll.”
It isn’t the first time Prince Fahad has drawn from real life for games. He says an earlier NA3M game, “Run Camel Run,” was inspired by his father, who collects hundreds of camels. Some compete in camel beauty pageants.
“My dad is very conservative,” the prince says, adding that his father wanted him to become an engineer. “He had reservations about me doing anything untraditional when it comes to working. But now he loves [“Run Camel Run”]. It’s his favorite game.”
“Saudi Girls Revolution” is slated for release on the Apple Inc. and Google Inc. app stores sometime later this year. It will be free to download and paired with a digital comic book that tells the back stories of the eight heroines.

An early rendering of a bike being considered for ‘Saudi Girls Revolution,’ which is still under development and slated for release later this year. Photo: NA3M
“I wanted to engage the Saudi community…to allow them to be comfortable and familiar and used to these types of visuals,” Prince Fahad says. He says he anticipates some backlash in Saudi Arabia over the driving theme, but not from his immediate family because he was raised by strong, independent women.
Videogames that touch on politics, religion and social issues aren’t new. The Sims allowed players to create gay characters since the first game in the life-simulation series was published in 2000. The annual Christian Game Developers Conference promotes games made “specifically to glorify God.” And in the 2014 mobile game “Kim Jong Jetpack,” players take on the role of the North Korean leader and try to save the world from an invasion of evil unicorn pigs, or “unipigs.”
But few, if any, videogames can boast developer credentials linked to royalty. “It makes a huge statement,” says Asi Burak, president of Games for Change, a nonprofit that focuses on inspiring social change through videogames. Prince Fahad spoke at the group’s New York gathering in April.
“You have someone [who’s] part of the establishment in a huge Arab country…starting a game company to deal with Arab culture and Arab themes,” Mr. Burak says. “It’s edgy.”
Write to Sarah E. Needleman at

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Banned from driving, Saudi women turn to Uber and other ride-share apps

Article from the May 7, 2015 Los Angeles Times by Alexandra Zavis, who is reporting from Riyadh. The story is pasted below and a link to the story is here.

When Hala Radwan returned to Saudi Arabia after obtaining a business degree in France, she was eager to put her new skills to use.
She found a job in the marketing department of a big international company. There was just one problem: How would she get to and from work in the only country that does not allow women to drive?
The mass transit options are notoriously poor. The cost of hiring a chauffeur was prohibitive. And she didn’t want to deal with the negative comments she would face if she tried to hail a cab in the conservative kingdom, where a woman using public transportation on her own is often seen as lacking morals.
“It was a nightmare,” she said.
Friends tipped her off to a solution: Uber and a regional competitor called Careem.
Smartphone-based ride services are becoming increasingly popular in Saudi Arabia’s major cities, especially among the large number of tech-savvy young people. Customers include foreign businessmen who don’t want to deal with the country’s sometimes chaotic taxi system. But more than 80% of individual users are women, the app companies say.
The apps have increased the mobility of and given a measure of independence to women who would otherwise have to rely on a male relative to ferry them around in the country which enforces a strict form of Islam. But with prices starting at about $5 a ride, even proponents concede it is not a solution for the poor.
Radwan, 29, spends nearly $700 a month on rides from Careem, with which she has a standing order to get to and from work.
The cost is slightly higher than for a taxi, but she finds the apps safer and more reliable. Both Uber and Careem use GPS technology to track their cars. With a few taps, she can see who will be driving her, the type of vehicle he uses and his customer ratings.
Better still, no one can tell she isn’t using a private car.
At least four ride-booking apps are available for download in Saudi Arabia, with more launches said to be in the works. The technology is the same as that used in the U.S. or Europe, but there are some notable differences in approach.
None of the companies work with drivers who use their personal cars to convey passengers at a fraction of the cost of a taxi or limousine service, a practice that has stirred conflict with transportation operators and regulators elsewhere. In Saudi Arabia, they say, they get their cars and drivers from licensed companies and charge comparable rates.
“We recognize that disruption is not the right model for this market,” said Careem’s founder, Mudassir Sheikha. “We’re trying to be good citizens and stay within the rules and offer a better quality of service.”
 His company, which is headquartered in the United Arab Emirate of Dubai, was one of the first to enter the Saudi market in summer 2013. It now has nearly 100,000 users in the kingdom, a figure growing at about 40% per month, he said.
The service is available in five cities, including the capital, Riyadh, and the commercial hub of Jidda. Other options include the cab-hailing apps Easy Taxi and Mondo Taxi.
San Francisco-based Uber, which operates in more than 300 cities in 56 countries around the world, entered the fray a year ago. In that time, the number of users has increased twentyfold, one of the fastest growth rates in the Middle East or Europe, said Majed Abukhater, who serves as the company’s regional general manager.
“A lot of Saudis have used Uber globally and were really excited to see it launched here,” he said. Limo and car rental companies also like the arrangement because they are getting more business, he said.
Late last year, the transportation committee of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it was looking into the operations of several apps, which it accused of using drivers who were not authorized to carry customers in the kingdom – charges denied by Uber and Careem.
The companies say the response from government officials has been mostly positive. There were challenges getting started, however.
Many drivers needed training to provide the premium service touted by the apps. They weren’t used to opening doors for their passengers or helping them with luggage. Their cars weren’t well maintained, and punctuality was a problem.
“Drivers were not even wearing proper uniforms. They were wearing slippers,” Sheikha said. “So we ended up having to buy them uniforms. ... Then we had to start putting incentives in place for them to wear those uniforms.”
Although many Saudis own smartphones, credit card use is low. So Careem introduced a cash payment option. The company also operates a 24-hour call center, a reassuring feature for customers who may not be used to doing all their transactions online.
Customers say they appreciate the more professional and reliable service. There are few other transportation options, especially for women. Riyadh is building a metro system, but it is years from completion. Buses operate on limited routes and are mostly used by men.
“There are some [women] that take five to 10 trips with us every day,” Sheikha said. “We don’t see that kind of traffic anywhere.”
There is no law prohibiting women from driving in Saudi Arabia, but there are fatwas, or religious edicts issued by conservative Muslim clerics. As a result, the government won’t grant women licenses.
The effective ban, which is not enforced in other Muslim countries, is a product of the rigid segregation of the sexes in Saudi Arabia. Concerns have been raised here that allowing women to drive could put them into contact with male traffic officers, or in the case of an accident, male medics. One cleric even suggested that driving could harm a woman’s ovaries, a suggestion ridiculed by many Saudis on social media.
Female activists who have defied the ban, posting images of themselves behind the wheel on social media, have in some cases been arrested. Two women who were detained at the border when one of them attempted to drive from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia spent more than 70 days in custody before they were released in February.
Families with means will hire a chauffeur to take female members to work, to school, out shopping or to friends’ houses. But even that option has limitations.
“I have a driver, but sometimes he is too busy bringing my sisters from school,” said Gamar al-Douh, 24, who comes from a family of three girls with no brothers to help with the driving. “If I don’t have someone to take me, I use Uber.”
Radwan and her husband considered a chauffeur, but decided against it. The couple got married two years ago and are trying to save money to buy a house and raise a family.
Monthly salaries for a driver start around $400, but can be twice as high if the person is experienced and pays for his own accommodation.
Few Saudis are willing to do the work, so families typically face the additional expense of sponsoring a foreign driver for a work permit. Obtaining the visa and other documentation can cost between $4,000 and $7,000, Radwan said.
Even if the couple could afford a chauffeur, she doesn’t know where they would put him. They live in an apartment building in Jeddah that does not have rooms available for servants.
Her husband could give her a lift to work, but that would take him considerably out of his way.
Radwan used taxis while living abroad but avoids them in Saudi Arabia. Many cars are old and dirty, she said. In most cases, the meters don’t work, leaving passengers to haggle over the fare.
She and her friends used to be constantly swapping phone numbers for good drivers, but she said they weren’t always available.
“If you can’t find a driver, you have to wait for your husband. If not your husband, then your brother. And you know sometimes everyone is just so busy that going from point A to point B is really difficult,” she said. “You can’t even walk because [often] there’s no sidewalk, so you’re afraid of getting hit by a car.”
Now, the conversation with her friends has changed. If one of them needs a driver, they tell her, “Why don’t you take Uber or Careem?”
Follow @alexzavis on Twitter
Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times

Thursday, February 26, 2015

How can we lift the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia?

Opinion piece by Neaz Rooqaf printed in the English daily, the Saudi Gazette, on February 27, 2015. You can link to the story here,  and the text is pasted down below.

Like all progress in our conservative society, if women are ever going to be permitted to drive in the Kingdom, we must focus on modest steps to satisfy those on all sides of the debate.
In no realistic version of the future will women suddenly start driving the next day, even if a law is passed that allows them to do so. Progressing to that point will require the establishment of a framework and a process of several stages:
Stage 1: Establishing a framework
Driving schools will be set up for women, where licenses will be provided with the permission of the woman’s male guardian.
A police training academy will be established for female police officers who will monitor traffic violations and be called to scenes of accidents involving women drivers. In addition, ambulances called to the scenes of an accident must have both male and female paramedics.
Stage 2: Easing into it
Once the framework is set up, it will be time to test it. But like the implementation of all new programs, it will start with a limited “soft launch”.
Women in this stage will be permitted to drive; however, only in the presence of a male guardian. Due to the framework requirements, this will be rolled out city by city; for example, Jeddah or Riyadh to begin with.
 There will also be restrictions on the time that women can drive, say between 5:30 a.m. and 9 p.m., because of the relatively small number of female police that will at that time be in the police force. However, there will be an exemption for medical or other emergencies. This stage will ensure that all the initial problems with the roll out are resolved and that the results are satisfactory.
Stage 3: More cities involved in the roll out
This stage will involve removing the requirement that a male guardian be present when a woman is driving. Timings can be restricted to between  5:30 a.m. and 9 p.m., based once again on the availability of female police officers, although by now the number of such officers should have increased. There will now be many cities involved in the roll out of the program, although women will not be permitted to drive between cities.
Stage 4: The final stage
The final stage will go into effect when all major cities have set up the framework for women driving and have satisfactorily  completed the previous stages and have a sizable female police force. After this has been accomplished, the timing restrictions can be lifted.
 There are a number of different ways to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia while satisfying all of those who are for and against them doing so.  No matter what route we take to get there, I believe that if we work together we can.
Neaz Rooqaf

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What is the relation between Saudi women driving and rape?!

This opinion piece appeared in the Saudi English language daily, The Saudi Gazette on February 15, 2015. The writer is Faisal J. Abbas, Editor in Chief of al-Arabiyah English. You can link to the story here, or read it below.

What is the relation between Saudi women driving and rape?!

Faisal J. Abbas

Media outlets should always remember that they have a responsibility to inform the public and as such must always strive to adhere to the highest possible standards of professionalism and journalistic ethics.

Many might find it strange that one has to repeat what is - without doubt - the very soul and essential cornerstone of our profession.

However, when reputable Arab television channels are being used as a platform for the ideas of people like Saudi historian Saleh Al-Sadoon, one wonders whether our job is to inform, stimulate minds and raise questions or simply to serve as meaningless, yet somewhat entertaining, optical chewing gum for the masses.

If you haven’t heard yet, Mr. Sadoon recently raised a few eyebrows when he appeared on Rotana Khalijia TV and defended Saudi Arabia’s much-disputed ban on women driving by saying that it was meant to protect women from rape in case their cars break down.

When the show’s female presenter pointed out that women drive in the US, Europe and the Arab world, he replied: “They don’t care if they are raped on the roadside, but we do.”

Mr. Sadoon also added that he was concerned by the idea that some women may be raped by their male chauffeurs, but proposed a solution to that potential problem. “The solution is to bring in female foreign chauffeurs to drive our wives,” he suggested, at which point the presenter couldn’t prevent herself from laughing.

Existing preposterous views

Of course, nobody is suggesting that this Saudi historian should not have the right to say what he wishes; clearly, such preposterous views do exist among ultra-conservatives in the Kingdom and there is no point in hiding or being shy about this fact.

However, we can’t keep throwing stones at Western media for exclusively giving airtime and column inches to radical Muslims - given that we believe Islam shouldn’t be solely represented by the likes of hate cleric Abu Hamza just because a newspaper wants to sell more copies - only for us to make the same mistake in our own backyard.

Yes, the Rotana Khalijia TV presenter had every right to laugh, as Mr. Sadoon’s opinion certainly can’t be taken seriously. However, it is no longer a laughing matter when tens of newspapers and TV channels around the world are now reporting this story, which may lead to more misunderstanding of our religion, culture and conflicting views within Saudi society.

No counterargument

My issue with the whole matter is that there was no counterargument. Yes, the TV host did put Mr. Sadoon under the spotlight and appeared to be ridiculing him on air, but there should have been another historian, female Shoura Council member, advocate or any other party who could have demonstrated that not all Saudis, Arabs or Muslims share such views.

For the record, this same TV channel did a brilliant job two years ago when they brought on a medical doctor to challenge a Saudi cleric who infamously said that driving can damage women’s ovaries.

Obviously, it didn’t take much for the doctor to win the argument. However, as one would expect, very little has been reported about this discussion while clerics with radical points of view continue to generate headlines globally.

As for the ban on women driving, like the issue with cinema in Saudi Arabia, I don’t think a clear explanation exists as to why there is a de facto, unjustified ban on both. However, the debate continues within society, local media, government and the Shoura Council.

Now, you may wonder what drives a supposedly educated historian or a member of the clergy to make outrageous presuppositions against women driving. The answer lies in Abdulrahman Al-Rashed’s must-read Al-Arabiya column “Poor education, the mother of all problems!"

Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al-Arabiya English. Follow him on Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Saudi women's rights campaigners 'freed from prison'

The western media are picking up reports that two Saudi women who were jailed for driving, have been released from prison. This story from AFP was posted on the UK's Daily Mail site on February 12, 2015. A link to the site is here, and the text is pasted below. This is just a preliminary report - to confirm rumors of their release.

Two Saudi women's rights activists, one of whom tried to defy a ban on female driving, have been freed after more than two months in jail, a campaigner said on Friday.

"Yes, Loujain is free," said the campaigner who spoke with Loujain Hathloul after she left prison.

Hathloul "just said that she's released and she's happy," said the activist, who did not give a name.

Maysaa Alamoudi, detained at the same time as Hathloul, has also been let out of jail, her family confirmed, according to the activist who spoke with AFP.

"Peace be upon you, good people," Hathloul tweeted late on Thursday.

She and Alamoudi had been held since December 1, after Hathloul tried to drive into the kingdom from neighbouring United Arab Emirates in defiance of the ban.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world which does not allow women to drive.

Alamoudi, a UAE-based Saudi journalist, arrived at the border to support Hathloul and was also arrested.

In December, activists said a court in Eastern Province had transferred the two women to a special tribunal for "terrorism" cases.

At the time, campaigners did not provide full details of the allegations against the pair but said investigations appeared to focus on the women's social media activities rather than the driving.

The activist who spoke to AFP on Friday did not know whether the two women were facing charges or what conditions were placed on their release.

Hathloul has 232,000 followers on Twitter. Before her arrest she tweeted, sometimes with humour, details of the 24 hours she spent waiting to cross into Saudi Arabia after border officers stopped her.

Alamoudi has 136,000 followers and has also hosted a programme on YouTube discussing the driving ban.