World

Let women drive, says Saudi princess

The most high-profile female member in the Saudi royal family says her country's wheels need a revolution or two — with women turning them.

The mosthigh-profilefemale memberin the Saudi royal family says her country's wheels need a revolution or two — with women turning them.

Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal, the daughter of a former Saudi king and sister of the current foreign minister, said Thursday that if she could change one thing about her country, she would let women drive.

Her candid remarksduring a public sessionof the World Economic Forum were a rare and direct challenge to the driving ban imposed by the kingdom's ruling male elite.

The gathering, held this year in Davos, Switzerland, is known for getting world leaders to engage in frank, often off-the-record dialogue without fear of criticism.

Al-Faisal's comments came at a publicsessionon promoting religious tolerance. Other attendees included former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, the prime minister of Malaysia, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and peace activist from Israel, and an American cleric.

The moderator, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, asked panelists at one point to "self-criticize" and say what they would change to promote greater interfaith understanding.

Turning to the princess, he quipped: "What would you do, princess, if you were 'queen' for a day? I won't tell anyone."

"First thing, I'd let women drive," Al-Faisal said dryly, as the audience erupted in applause and laughter. She added as the applause died down, "Or else have a great transportation system, which we don't have."

Women can drive in other Gulf states

Other Gulf countries, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab countries allow women to drive.

Women in Saudi Arabia now can work at many jobs that once were off-limits — a point the princess made.

But critics say their inability to drive holds them back from many jobs by forcing them to rely on hired drivers, or on male relatives, to get to work or to school.

Some critics say the driving ban particularly impacts poorer Saudi families who cannot afford to hire drivers. Because of that, some consider the driving ban not just as a women's rights issue, but also as a factor holding back the country's economic development.

Al-Faisal's comments also show that while Saudi Arabia often presents a united front to the outside world, different opinions and even vigorous debate exist in private.

The 59-year-old princess is the most publicly visible female member of the royal family and one of the highest-profile Saudi women.

She led a delegation of Saudi women business leaders to Hong Kong last year, has appeared at U.S. forums on interfaith dialogue and heads a prominent Saudi women's college.

But it is rare for her to speak in public or in front of the media. And she has never before publicly pushed for an end to the driving ban.

Reformsslowed

Her father, King Faisal, who ruled from 1964-1975, had a reputation for beingmore progressive on social issues than his successors.

When the current monarch, King Abdullah, assumed the throne in 2005, expectations were high that he would decisively and quickly lead the country toward more openness.

Indeed, for a while, Saudi Arabia made small but striking steps toward reform, such as instances where Saudi female journalists were allowed to interview men.

But the reform pace has slowed, partly because of reported differences within the royal family over the pace and direction of change and partly because of resistance by religious conservatives who fear reform will dilute their strong influence.

With files from the Associated Press

now