Saudi Arabia’s billionaire prince al-Waleed Bin Talal says the kingdom’s ban on women driving is draining billions of dollars from the country’s struggling economy.
Waleed made the remarks in a statement released by his office on Wednesday after he tweeted that the time has come to lift the ban on women driving.
"Stop the debate: Time for women to drive," said the tweet on his official Twitter account in English and Arabic.
Despite not holding any political posts in the country, Waleed, an influential member of the Saudi royal family, heads the Riyadh-based investment firm Kingdom Holding Company, which has stakes in several Western companies, including Twitter, Citigroup and the Euro Disney theme park.
His statement went on to stress that the ban should be removed as it is not only a matter of rights but of economic necessity to the kingdom.
He singled out the "economic costs" of women being forced to use drivers and taxis due to the lack a viable public transit system as a factor deeply affecting the country's economy.
"Public transport is not, at least at present, a fully viable means for them, for even Saudi men do not as a whole use it," he stressed.
"Preventing a woman from driving a car is today an issue of rights similar to the one that forbade her from receiving an education or having an independent identity," he said.
Riyadh is currently dealing with economic struggles brought on by a budget deficit of nearly $100 billion caused by a sharp slump in oil prices as well as Riyadh’s rising army expenditure, a large amount of which is being funneled into a military campaign against Yemen, where thousands of people have been killed and many more injured.
The Saudis have also been forced to introduce a series of austerity measures that include canceling of some bonuses offered to state employees and increasing of entry visa fees for residents and foreigners.
The Saudi prince noted that the driving ban results in families spending an average of $1,000 a month on drivers, an amount which otherwise could be used in the household at a time when many are forced to make do with less.
"Having women drive has become an urgent social demand predicated upon current economic circumstances," he said.
The billionaire prince noted that the only solution is to let women drive with an “element of moderation" such as mandating them to always carry smartphones in case of emergencies and prohibiting them from driving out of the city limits.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. The ban stems from a religious fatwa imposed by Wahhabi clerics. If women get behind the wheel in the kingdom, they may be arrested, sent to court and even flogged.
"They are all unjust acts by a traditional society, far more restrictive than what is lawfully allowed by the precepts of religion," he added.
Saudi authorities have defied calls by international rights groups to end what has been described as a violation of women’s rights.
In April, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, defended the ban, saying permitting women to drive was a “dangerous matter” as it exposes them to “evil.”