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What Riyadh's New Metro Will Mean for Women

Public transport is coming to the Saudi city, enhancing mobility for female riders, who are barred from driving.

Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

Saudi Arabia is infamous for being the only country in the world that does not issue driver’s licenses to women. Though Saudi women can own cars, and rural women often drive anyway, urban women commonly depend on rides from male relatives or hire men—usually foreign workers—to drive their vehicles.

When Uber and similar services began operating in the Kingdom a few years ago, they offered Saudi women another way of getting around. Uber reports that 80 percent of its users in the country are women. But to some, the arrangement feels exploitative, since women are a captive market. As Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi academic who teaches at Qatar University, says, “[Uber] shows the ugly practice of using women’s suffering to make money.”

When the Kingdom invested $3.5 billion in Uber last year, many Saudi women were incensed. They showed their anger in part on social media, posting photos of themselves deleting the Uber app from their phones, or crafting tweets announcing a boycott. “Saudi women are like cash cows for transport companies,” one tweet declared.

Soon, a less controversial means of transport will be available to women in cities across the country, beginning in the capital, Riyadh. The High Commission for the Development of Riyadh is implementing a six-line metro system and accompanying bus network. The project is about half complete and will be operational by 2019. Business Insider calls the undertaking “the biggest urban mass-transit system that’s ever been created from scratch.” Metro and bus lines are also on the docket for such cities as Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina.

Those planning Riyadh’s metro anticipate more than a million daily riders, out of the city’s 7 million residents. With 3 million of those residents women, a significant number are liable to employ the service. “For sure I will use the metro—it will be a major solution for women,” a female university student told Reuters. The planners expect ridership to rise to around 3.5 million after a decade.

The project aims to lessen the country’s dependence on oil and oil revenue by encouraging Riyadh’s residents to drive less, and by increasing foreign investment. As such, the metro will have lots of bells and whistles: ultra-modern stations conceived by famous architects—Zaha Hadid’s firm is designing one in the financial district—driverless trains, wi-fi, air conditioning, and solar cells that will power 20 percent of the system.

Yet the main benefit of the metro will likely go to women. The trains will have cars for exclusive use by single women and families, helping to maintain the segregation of the sexes and providing a reliable, socially acceptable way to travel. (A promotional video created by the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh, above, shows women matter-of-factly taking the envisioned trains and buses.) And because hiring drivers or constantly using Uber is expensive, the metro and bus system will provide a more feasible option for women of fewer means.

The question remains whether alternatives to driving, such as Uber or the metro, hinder the campaign to allow women behind the wheel. Saudi activists have been pushing authorities for years through such strategies as groups of women driving their cars in defiance or music videos that comment on the absurdity of the policy. Al-Fassi says that though change could happen at any time, for 25 years there have only been rumors that women will be granted licenses. “Until a new policy is put in place, we will put on the pressure as much as possible,” she says.

In the meantime, Al-Fassi feels that public transport will provide a welcome service. “The new metro and bus systems will show how much and how long women have lived in unjust conditions,” she says. “They will make women’s lives more humane, dignified, and affordable.”

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