- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2005

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A candidate in groundbreaking elections beginning here today has a plan to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on foreign labor, but it may be too radical for most of his countrymen: letting women drive.

If Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive their own cars, Suleiman Abdullah Omar Al-Suleiman told The Washington Times yesterday, it could do away with a quarter-million foreign drivers, whom he sees as a drain on the nation’s wealth and resources.

The argument seems sensible enough, but since he listed his cell-phone number in a campaign ad, he has been deluged with calls from potential voters angered at the idea. “The women-driving issue is making people nuts,” he said.

“You’re trying to turn us into Westerners,” said one caller, his anger reverberating through the speakerphone of Mr. Al-Suleiman’s car.

“Look, my friend,” the candidate replied in Arabic. “I’m just trying to solve our problem of having too many foreign drivers. If our wives, sisters and daughters could drive themselves to work and to school, we wouldn’t need the army of drivers we depend upon now.”

If the callers suspect there is a hidden agenda behind Mr. Al-Suleiman’s proposal, they are not entirely wrong.

The 45-year-old businessman, who is seeking municipal office in the kingdom’s first elections in more than 40 years, is running on a social-reform platform that, besides letting women drive, would permit the opening of theaters and playhouses to help keep Saudi youth off the streets.

But, he explained between phone calls as he drove through Riyadh, so great is the resistance to such ideas in Saudi Arabia that he finds the best way to promote social change is to emphasize the economic benefits.

Thus, he speaks not about the rights of women, but rather of the need to reduce the traffic jams that daily clog the streets of the capital.

It has been 40 years since Saudis were able to debate such issues in an election campaign, and at that time, they could vote only on the municipal level in a few major cities.

The elections today — seen at least in part as a response to U.S. demands for more democracy — still are limited to municipal councils, but will be held nationwide in three stages and will run through April.

And although women are prohibited from running or voting until 2009, the elections for the first time will meet other international standards, such as using registration cards, privacy curtains and ballot boxes.

Even so, many issues remain highly sensitive, and Mr. Al-Suleiman has hit upon several of them in his campaign. As a result, several Saudi newspapers refused even to print an ad that laid out his platform and provided his cell-phone number.

It was not until yesterday that he managed to get the ad published in the newspaper Al-Watan and the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat — even then after much hesitation and hand-wringing.

Social change — even of the modest sort advocated by Mr. Al-Suleiman — has always been an uphill battle in Saudi Arabia.

Religious hard-liners objected to the introduction of television in the late 1960s, calling it the work of the devil, and 40 Saudi women were arrested in November 1990 when they took part in a protest for women’s rights by driving through the streets of Riyadh.

“Riyadh has to change,” Mr. Al-Suleiman said. “We used to have cinemas here until the early 1980s, when the introduction of the videocassette recorder helped give religious conservatives a reason to ban them.

“But many of us would like to be able to go watch a movie or play at a theater. Their version of Islam is extreme and negative, and we have to change that.”

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