Saudi Arabia is set to lift its ban on women cycling, and while the decree comes with a few strings attached, it might also help lead the way to a new future for Saudi cities.
The Saudi newspaper Al-Yawm, which first reported the story, cites an unnamed source from the country’s morality police as saying that women will soon be allowed to ride bicycles and motorcycles inside the country. But they can only do so for recreational purposes — visiting parks, for instance. While riding, women must also wear an abaya, a loose-fitting Islamic dress that covers the entire body, and be accompanied by a male relative.
While this announcement does not address transportation concerns (Saudi women do not have the right to drive within the state), what does it mean for cycling in Saudi Arabia?
Amy Newell, a visiting lecturer at Princess Noura University and a former resident of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, laughs at the question of who bikes in the city. In the two years that she lived in there, she says, she never once saw a local resident on a bike.
“There just is no place to,” Newell explains. Car culture dominates Saudi Arabia, and the only exception seems to come from children, who ride bikes in local parks, or the country’s foreign laborers.
“The lack of public transportation forces everyone to get around by car,” journalist Thomas W. Lippan notes in his book, Saudi Arabia on the Edge. “There are no bicycle paths and in many places no sidewalks; even when the weather is pleasant, considerations of status inhibit walking or bicycle riding. Children ride bicycles in parks, but otherwise the only people who ride bicycles are South Asian laborers.”
But it appears that the Saudi Arabia is increasingly making space for urban cyclists. In a country where the sole venues for leisure are shopping malls and parks, continuous investment in public spaces is important for residents’ quality of life. One of the most notable public recreation areas in the country is Wadi Hanifah, a $1.5 billion dollar project that was the recipient of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2010. BBC News dubbed the site an “oasis” for Riyadh.
Newell describes the site as a park with plenty of space for fishing, picnicking, barbecuing and cycling, with a surplus of bike paths. “The site really encompasses the region’s value for family life,” she says. “Family is seen as the ideal social group, and they are clearly investing these values into these parks so families can be active and spend more time together.”
If Wadi Hanifah is any indication, biking may be the new trend for public spaces in Saudi Arabia — with women and their families at the forefront.