RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The wife of one of Saudi Arabia's most high profile and richest men said she's ready to get behind the wheel if women are ever permitted to drive, highlighting again a contentious issue authorities in this conservative desert kingdom prefer to play down.
Princess Amira al-Taweel, who is one global tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's wives, told the Saudi daily Al-Watan that she already drives when she travels abroad.
"Certainly I'm ready to drive a car," said al-Taweel, whose husband is a nephew of Saudi King Abdallah and is ranked as the world's 13th-richest person by Forbes magazine. "I have an international driver's license, and I drive a car in all the countries I travel to."
Her answer came after the interviewer noted that her husband had said in a previous interview he would be the first to let his wife and daughter drive if the ban was lifted.
Women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive. Saudi officials usually sidestep the question by saying the issue is a social and not religious one, but over the years a handful of princesses have spoken out in support of driving, including Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal, daughter of the late King Faisal, at the World Economic Forum two years ago.
"I prefer driving a car with my sister or friend next to me instead of being with a driver who is not (related to me)," al-Taweel said in her interview, referring to the drivers women are forced to employ.
The attention the issue receives from Saudi newspapers, which are government-guided, is intermittent. Readers and columnists have over the years debated the pros and cons of women's driving with no progress being made on the ground.
This kingdom is the only country in the world to ban women — Saudi and foreign — from driving. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers, and those who cannot afford the $300-$400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor.
But change will be difficult in this ultraconservative society, where many believe that women at the wheel create situations for sinful temptation. They argue that women drivers will be free to leave home alone, will unduly expose their eyes while driving and will interact with male strangers, such as traffic police and mechanics.