As Jaded Autojournos Wearily Flock to NAIAS, Saudi Women Delighted With Their First Auto Show
Every year about 5,000 people are credentialed as media to cover the big NAIAS, better known outside the industry as the Detroit auto show, and every year there are articles written about whether or not auto shows are a relic of the pre-internet past of printed magazines and their lead times.
When new product information can be instantly transmitted directly to potential customers, who needs to cater to jaded journosaurs, soon to be extinct? When new product information can be teased and leaked to build buzz on social media months ahead of any physical reveal, who needs an actual physical car show? Even for the automotive journalists, there is less excitement with each big auto show, a sense of deja vu.
Women in Saudi Arabia haven’t yet had a chance to become jaded about car shows. That’s because as the automotive (and other) journalists were starting to arrive in Detroit, the first car show ever for Saudi women was being held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Despite the fact that women have only been legally allowed to drive in the kingdom since September, and none will actually be permitted to drive before June, abaya-clad ladies, some with their faces veiled in niqabs, browsed Range Rover SUVs, Chevy sedans, Toyota HiLux trucks, and other vehicles. “I cannot wait to drive!” a young woman told ABC News from behind a niqab, “I want [my husband] to buy me a Range Rover!”
While there were luxury vehicles on display, most of the cars in the show were fuel-efficient models, reflecting the Saudi goverment’s recent raising of gasoline prices and newly introduced value-added taxes.
“I’ve always been interested in cars, but we didn’t have the ability to drive,” Ghada al-Ali, a yound Saudi woman told Reuters at the show, “And now I‘m very interested in buying a car but I would like the payments and prices to not be very high.”
If I was an importer of vehicles to Saudi Arabia, I’d be anticipating a spike in sales.
Saudi Arabia was the last country in the world to extend driving suffrage to the distaff side of its population. The religiously conservative monarchy is currently undergoing what the regime characterizes as “reforms” under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Bin Salman, the power behind his father Salman bin Abdulaziz’s throne, believes that his country will benefit economically by bringing women into its labor force, and the right to drive will make it easier for them to get to their jobs. The delay from changing the law in September to women being allowed to drive nearly a year later has to do with logistics, not religious conservatism. Driver’s ed courses must be set up and women trained before letting them loose on the roads.
Whether religious authorities, also under some pressure from the crown prince to reform, will allow women to drive unaccompanied by a male relative is not known. Any reforms will likely be introduced slowly. Only last June, Saudi woman’s rights and driving activist Loujain al Hathloul was taken in for questioning by Saudi police. The Jeddah auto show was held at LeMall, a shopping center staffed almost entirely by women. Saleswomen offered product information and helped educate women not used to sitting behind the steering wheel.
The Jeddah women’s auto show’s slogan was “Drive and Shop,” a play on words in Arabic, using female gendered verbs.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.
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