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First Saudi women get driving licences

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia on Monday began issuing its first driving licences to women in decades, authorities said, just weeks before the historic lifting of the kingdom’s ban on female motorists.

Ten Saudi women swapped their foreign licences for Saudi ones in multiple cities, including the capital Riyadh, as the kingdom prepares to end its ban on June 24.

The move, which follows a government crackdown on women activists, is part of a much-publicised ‘liberalisation’ drive launched by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he seeks to “modernise” the petro-state.

“Ten Saudi women made history on Monday when they were issued driving licences,” said the information ministry’s Centre for International Communication (CIC).

“Expectations are that next week an additional 2,000 women will join the ranks of licensed drivers in the kingdom.”

The official Saudi Press Agency said the swap came after women applicants were made to undergo a “practical test”, but it did not offer details.

“It’s a dream come true that I am about to drive in the kingdom,” Rema Jawdat, one of the women to receive a licence, was quoted as saying by the CIC.

“Driving to me represents having a choice — the choice of independent movement. Now we have that option,” added Jawdat, an official at the ministry of economy and planning who has previous driving experience in Lebanon and Switzerland.

In preparation for the lifting of the ban, Saudi Arabia last week passed a landmark law to criminalise sexual harassment, introducing a prison term of up to five years and a maximum penalty of 300,000 riyals ($80,000).

Reforms and crackdown

Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive, has long faced global criticism for what is seen as “oppression of women”.

But Prince Mohammed, who recently undertook a global tour aimed at ‘reshaping’ his kingdom’s image, has sought to break with long-held restrictions on women.

Campaigners have dismissed the reports as a “smear” campaign and the crackdown has sparked a torrent of global criticism.

The European Parliament last week approved a resolution calling for the unconditional release of the detained activists and other human rights defenders, while urging a more vocal response from EU nations.

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