When the website for Saudi Arabia’s first driving school for women opened for online registration last month, it attracted more than 165,000 applicants in just three days. The rush to sign up to the Saudi Driving School — set up at an all-women’s university in Riyadh — underscores the pent-up demand among women in the conservative kingdom to get behind the wheel after a ban on women drivers is finally lifted in June.
Buying a car for the first time has traditionally been considered a coming of age moment for men in Saudi Arabia and now women are eagerly anticipating a similar rite of passage.
The result is a whole new market opening up for car manufacturers in the oil-rich country of 33m people. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” says Raneen Bukhari, an art curator who is looking forward to buying a car. “I was just thinking about: what’s my budget? What am I going be using it for? How much space do I need?”
The big auto companies and their local dealers are already ramping up their advertising and marketing efforts in the hope of luring female customers in the Middle East’s largest car market for new sales.
Toyota plans to dedicate areas of its showrooms to all-female staff and set up call centres run by women to handle inquiries and financing details, says Abdul Latif Jameel Motors, the Japanese group’s authorised distributor in Saudi Arabia.
General Motors, which sells the Chevrolet and GMC brands in the country, has promoted a Saudi-born female advertising executive to be the region’s chief copywriter to help the group craft adverts and campaigns that are sensitive to the local culture and avoid offending potential customers.
A Twitter campaign by Ford aimed at Saudi women drivers “We have to make sure that any communications are not done through a western lens,” says Molly Peck, chief marketing officer for GM in the Middle East.
In a nod to social norms in the kingdom, where unrelated men and women are often segregated in public, the company is also planning dedicated times at its dealerships that will be reserved for women only. Ford, however, has ruled out launching female-only dealerships. “What this is supposed to be doing, and what government has said is the goal, is more integration of society, not necessarily more separation,” says Crystal Worthem, Ford’s marketing director for the Middle East and Africa region.
The decision to allow women to drive is often considered to be part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s push for social liberalisation that includes relaxing restrictions on entertainment and introducing cinemas. But the move is also part of his efforts to get more women in the workplace as the powerful heir apparent seeks to wean the country off its dependence on oil by stimulating growth in the private sector.
Prince Mohammed’s economic reform plan, dubbed Vision 2030, targets increasing women’s participation in the workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent by 2030. Giving women more freedom to move is expected to improve their chances of getting jobs and help reduce the female unemployment rate of 33 per cent.
Ford, which also sells the Lincoln brand in the country, says Saudi women have been purchasing cars since Riyadh announced in September that the ban would be lifted. “People think women will buy low-end small cars with low margin but I don’t think that’s right,” says Ms Worthem. “We expect to see a big rise in the smaller end of luxury vehicles as well.”