Car makers target Saudi women despite driving ban

RIYADH (Reuters) - If Saudi Arabia ever lets women drive, it will be a windfall for the automobile industry which has already seen sales to women rise, executives said at a motor show this week.

Saudi Arabia, which imposes a strict version of Islamic law, is the only country in the world where women are banned from driving. Religious authorities say allowing women to drive would lead to gender-mixing and take women away from their role as child-rearers.

But industry figures at the Riyadh Motor Show 2008 this week said they are already reaping the benefits from women owning cars, even if they need chauffeurs to drive them. The economy is booming in Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter with a population of 24 million.

More and more Saudi women are buying cars and manufacturers are responding to the trend, said Ali Alshihri of Toyota, citing the Camry, Aurion and Avalon as women’s favorites.

“Older women and single mothers are the main buyers from our showrooms,” he said, adding manufacturers are producing colors seen as more appealing to women such as pink and purple.

Car ownership by women rose 60 percent from 2003 to 2006, according to figures published by state oil firm Saudi Aramco this year. It said 75,522 women owned 120,334 vehicles by the end of 2006.

Some residents believe the rising sales could create more pressure on the authorities to sanction women driving.

King Abdullah has said such a change could happen when society is ready to accept it. The ban on women’s driving has been a hot topic of debate since the king came to power in 2005 promising reforms.

“If women can drive, then the car industry will be booming,” said a sales executive with a major car manufacturer.

“There is increasing demand to buy cars, especially from working women. The women’s workforce in Saudi Arabia is becoming powerful and influential. You find business women everywhere and business geared towards women is growing rapidly.”

Wednesday, the last day of the four-day show, is reserved for “families”, as is Saudi custom -- the only day when women are allowed to visit the exhibition.

An executive from Nissan said the Japanese firm would target Saudi women with its Infiniti model.

Yann Lassade of General Motors in Dubai said its new Cadillac was being marketed in Saudi Arabia for the first time with female buyers in mind -- but not those who drive.

The Cadillac comes with special control mechanisms in the rear seat for everything but the steering wheel.

“The new design is perfect for a chauffeur-driven car, with all the space and controls at the back seat,” Lassade said.

Editing by Caroline Drees