The ultraconservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia has issued an order allowing women to drive, ending a long-standing policy that's cast an unflattering light on the country's treatment of women. It's also a royal opportunity for global automakers eager to make further inroads into the Middle East's biggest economy.
Saudi Arabia's move to open up its auto market to about half of its 32 million total population will have a profound impact on vehicle demand, driving habits and even immigration patterns in a country where low-wage immigrants from Bangladesh and the Philippines often work as hired drivers.
Market leaders such as Toyota Motor and Hyundai Motor, whose hulking SUVs are a fixture on Saudi roadways, may need to boost inventory of smaller models such as compacts and sedans for single working women and female students, analysts say. On the flip side, app-driven ride-hailing services such as Uber could experience a drop in demand, as more women buy their own cars and get behind the wheel.
The change by King Salman bin Abdulaziz to issue driver's licenses to women starting June is the latest twist in a far larger effort to modernize and economically diversify the kingdom and lessen the economy's dependence on oil.
Activists have repeatedly defied the ban, launching campaigns in which women have been filmed getting behind the wheel illegally. Saudi Arabia is the last country in the world to be lifting such restrictions.
"This is very exciting," said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with car-shopping website Kelley Blue Book, who worked in Saudi Arabia for more than two years. "It's not going to be without obstacles, but it's a huge step forward in terms of Saudi Arabia recognizing the contributions that women can make to the economy."