Saudi Arabia ~ History in the making

A big thank you to this week’s contributor, my friend Malinda Quartel Coupe, who lives in Riyadh and is sharing her experience driving in the kingdom. 

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On the streets of Riyadh, women are finally allowed to drive.

June 24, 2018 marked the first day that females were allowed behind the wheel for the very first time (legally) in the history of this country. As a Dutch national living here, the no-driving policy was one of the hardest things I had to accept when moving here. I have always been very used to just jumping in the car and start exploring, and that love of exploring was severely curtailed when I moved to Riyadh. You just don’t get into a taxi, no matter how friendly the driver, and say: “Just show me around!” And drivers soon start grumbling if you make them stop on the drop of a hat 5 times in a row just because the store you just passed looks interesting. (This counts as well for overworked husbands…). So, once the news was out back in 2017, I joined the legions of ladies who were anxiously trying to find out what we needed to do to get on the road legally. At first, we were told all we needed was an International drivers license. “Piece of cake” I thought, as I dug out my Dutch drivers license from the depths of my wallet, not having had to use it for several years by then. Imagine my horror when I looked at it and saw that it had expired 18 months prior! Eeeeek! So, began a scramble to get my Dutch license renewed, not the easiest when you don’t have a permanent address in the country anymore. Luckily, I was able to send in my expired license along with an original signed document and a recent passport photo during my recent visit to The Netherlands. However, the process of renewal takes, of course, 6 weeks…. SO, I had to wait till my next visit to The Netherlands before I could pick it up, as they will only send it to a Dutch address, not an address in another country (not that I would have trusted the Saudi postal system -is there such a thing? – to deliver official documents… So, in hindsight it was good that we had such a long lead-time from the news breaking, before it being put into action. I was able to use this time to get all my paperwork in order, and the Saudi government was able to use the time to set up rules and regulations for women driving.

Imagine my frustration when the day finally came, that also the news broke that foreign residents in Saudi Arabia were NOT entitled to drive with just an international license. Only women on a visitor’s visa were good to go. Anyone with a permanent residency had to jump through the hoops of obtaining a Saudi license….
One little caveat they had not mentioned and once again, we had to find out the hard way, that any woman in The Kingdom dependant on their husband’s residency (called an iqama) is unable to open an online account on the governments’ portal. So, here we have the infamous Catch-22. I can drive, but only if I have a Saudi license, but since my iqama doesn’t allow me to create an account that would allow me to make an appointment at the Driving License office, I was caught in an ever-increasingly frustrating vicious circle…
One thing I do have to say about bureaucracy in Saudi Arabia: everything is done online, and it all works superbly well. Normally you only must give your cell phone number and/or iqama number and they can pull up anything, anywhere, and fix it, immediately, online. From hospital appointments, to visa and re-entry expiry and renewal to, apparently, driver license appointments! Contrary to normal expectations and thinking it would take another year before they would fix this glitch in the system, I was amazed to hear that after only 1 month I was able to apply for my very own license!
There had been ugly rumours going around that all examination centres were fully booked for the next 3 months, but that did not deter me from going online anyway. When I walked through the process of completing my application (uploading copies of my iqama, Dutch drivers license and a translation of that license) I could easily make an appointment for the next day if I wanted! But I needed so extra time, since the department also requires you to do a medical test before you can obtain your license. And of course, only certain places in the city were accredited to do this medical, and the list they provided was not in any sensical order that I could figure out, and only provided a name and telephone number, no addresses. Luckily a Finnish lady had gone through all this pain before me, since she was able to apply for a license immediately, being married to a Saudi national. I just followed in her exact footsteps, not bothering to re-invent any wheels of my own (excuse the pun). I went to the medical centre she used, provided a very old blood-donor card to indicate my blood type so I didn’t have to tap off any more of that precious liquid, checked I was not colour blind and that I could read letters on a wall, and I was good to go!

Several days later my appointment at the test centre came up. Unsurprisingly there were only women there waiting to get their licenses. After I submitted all the paperwork in person, I was told to go out this door. I ended up in some little car park but was waved on to walk further on. There I entered a repurposed container with one side opened up to fit a window looking out over a small driving circuit. The “examiner” was sat on a chair behind a computer, supposedly watching the woman in the car out there doing the required manoeuvres. There was no examiner in the car with the driver. There were about 6 women in front of me, so I had a good long wait and could observe the skills of the other ladies. It was easy to tell which ones had driven before in other countries, and which ones were going at it for the first time. The circuit consisted of getting into the car, taking a left turn, going straight till you hit (not literally of course) the next wall where you had to make another left turn. Then you entered the centre area via 2 roundabouts, which were NOT taken as you would a normal roundabout (going around the roundabout anti-clockwise…) You went around the first one anticlockwise, only to then complete the first part of a figure 8 (meaning the second roundabout was taken clock-wise…???). Then you had to perform two reverses to get back into that figure 8 and go back the way you came, turn left again at the top of the second roundabout, turn left again at the corner, scale a speed bump, left at the last turn and parallel park in front of the large window, putting the car back in its start position for the next woman. We were strictly instructed to “use your indicator at every turn!”. I was debating whether to make a smart-ass comment about it, something like I thought that was against the rules because none of the make drivers in this country seem to bother, but I thought better of it and kept my thoughts to myself. After the test (test… really??) I went back into the reception area and was awarded the coveted license. Done! I am now the proud owner of a bona fide female Saudi license!!!! Who would have thought the day would ever come??

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My Saudi driver’s license!

So… how is the driving I hear you ask. Well, nothing like the test circuit they had us perform our skills on, I can tell you that!!! Riyadh is a huge sprawling city that mostly looks like it is half-built. This goes for the roads as well. There are huge swathes of empty lots, which in any other country would be covered in some type of grass, shrubs, or tarmacs, but here is just loose rubble and sand… lots and lots of sand… When there is just a little wind, sand sweeps across the roads, collecting in corners and piling up, really giving the place a derelict feel. The roads themselves are just huge strips of tarmac, many with no clear lane indicators, which makes it easy for all drivers to just pick a spot on the road to drive on, regardless if it halfway between one lane or another, because you can’t tell! And as everyone goes at their own desired speed ranging between a crawl to supersonic, it can make for a frustrating drive if you get stuck behind one, or the other is racing up behind you. The speed devils have a nasty habit as well of swerving in and out between all the empty areas of the road just to get ahead, so he could be racing past you on the right side, swerve all the way over to the left, then dart in between some other cars in the middle, only to then suddenly stop over on the right to get a shawarma…

I find that I am spending a lot of time looking in my rear-view mirror just to make sure I know who is around me at all times. When I enter into a main thoroughfare, I find myself just injecting myself into a random spot and then speeding up like mad so I can create more distance between myself and the drivers that are coming up behind me, and then settle into a cruise on the spot of the road that has the least potholes (a challenge in itself). The situation is not helped by the fact that Riyadh has a lot of U-turns built into their infrastructure. You could be entering a road at one point, only to have to manoeuvre yourself all the way over to the left side to make that U-turn you need to go back the other way to take another right turn to get where you need to go. A bit like dodge-um cars… Driving is certainly not for the faint-hearted here. Or the meek. If you are a meek driver, chances are you will never get to where you are going… unless it is Friday morning while the roads are empty while everyone is at prayer…

So far, I have not encountered any negative reactions from my fellow drivers. I was expecting catcalls and horn blasts at stop lights, but it seems they don’t even seem to notice that there is a female in the car next to them. They never look over. Maybe that explains the chaos on the roads here, they never seem to notice any other car, let alone who is driving it… I also don’t see other women drivers out there as of yet. I have only seen 2 since the 2 months that have passed that allowed us behind the wheel. I am sure that number will increase, but for now it seems that no woman is flocking to the roads yet. On the rare occasion that I have had to stop for a checkpoint, the men react either a bit dumbfounded, staring with open mouths, or with joy, thinking it is one of the funniest things they’ve seen all day, a woman behind the wheel.
Invariably you are greeted with a “Hello, sir” when you frequent a drive-thru, quickly hurried by a “Hello, ma’am” as soon as I give my order. The security guys at the compounds seem to like it that we are now driving around, and have never given me any hassle.
I have had great fun driving my girlfriends around town so far. It is such a novelty for us to be able to just get into a car and go where we need to go! We are giddy like teenagers! No more waiting for a driver to turn up, waiting for them when they can’t find (supposedly) our home location, no more badly maintained and smelly cars to get into, no more white-knuckle rides when saddled with a lousy driver! And no more good times curtailed short because the driver is waiting for you!! Such freedom! You never knew you had it until it is taken away from you…

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Driving my girlfriends around

Certainly, the ability to drive here is enhancing my experience of living in Saudi Arabia. The freedom to go where I want, when I want, where to stop and when to stop when I want is something that I struggled with immensely. Now I can finally explore those little obscure shops that race by when driving around with my husband. Now we ladies can finally do something a bit more interesting than go to coffee-mornings and pool-days on compounds during the week to pass our time. Once the summer is over and the heat abates a bit, we can drive out-of-town, have picnics in the desert, explore little towns in the province etc. All the stuff we have been wanting to do, but could only do in the weekends, and then only if our husbands were obliging! Work for the men here is often no picnic and it seems to be a common theme among most of the ladies here that their husbands prefer to hole up inside the sanctuary of their homes when they are free rather than brace the traffic, heat and people out there.
It really is an amazing place to be, but it can be tiring and draining, so I think it is only fair that we women are taking over the share of one of the burdens, that driving surely can be, here in Saudi Arabia.

By Malinda Quartel Coupe

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