RIYADH • Women in Saudi Arabia took to the roads early yesterday, marking the end of the world's last ban on female drivers, long seen as an emblem of women's repression in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom.
"It's a beautiful day," said businesswoman Samah al-Qusaibi as she cruised the eastern city of Khobar just after midnight with police looking on. "Today, we are here," she said from the driver's seat. "Yesterday, we sat there," she added, pointing to the back.
The end of the ban, ordered last September by King Salman, is part of sweeping reforms pushed through by his powerful young son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a bid to transform the economy of the world's top oil exporter and open up its cloistered society.
The lifting of the prohibition, which for years drew international condemnation and comparisons to the Taleban's rule in Afghanistan, was welcomed by Western allies as proof of a new progressive trend in Saudi Arabia.
But it has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including against some of the very activists who had previously campaigned against the ban. They now sit in jail as their peers take to the road legally for the first time.
The number of new drivers remains low, as women with foreign permits began converting them only earlier this month. Others are training at new state-run schools, with three million women expected to drive by 2020.
The decision to lift the ban in the kingdom - where once-forbidden cinemas and concerts have also returned - is expected to boost the economy, with industries from car sales to insurance set to reap returns.
Saudi stocks rose more than 1 per cent yesterday and insurance firms made solid gains, as demand from women is expected to boost the automotive sector.