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October 25, 2017

Volume 17 Issue 52

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Saudi Arabia to End Driving Ban on Women

Last month Saudi Arabia lifted its longstanding ban on women drivers, fuelling speculation the landmark decision will trigger a surge in vehicle sales and, by implication, finished lubricant consumption. Superficially, the numbers looking compelling – Saudi Arabia has a female population around 14 million – but hopes that the ending of the ban next June will stoke the kingdom’s lackluster automotive-market may be overstated, analysts say.

According to recent research by IHS Markit, new vehicle sales are likely to be less than might be expected following the announcement. The research firm forecasts the market for automakers in Saudi Arabia will be limited to 6.5 million women in the 20–49 age group – still a high number, but with many families already owning more than one car, one that weakens the case for new vehicle purchases. Meanwhile, despite gloomy predictions for taxi services and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Dubai-based Careem, IHS Markit says the ready availability of these solutions and uncertainty over patriarchal laws that control many aspects of women's lives – notably, their movements outside the house – may also curtail demand.

Still, it estimates the ending of the ban will add around 60,000 units per year from 2019 to 2030 and lift light-vehicle sales to more than 850,000 units by 2021-2022. But Mouyad Nashar, senior consultant for Kline & Co., says ignoring cultural implications discounts the fact that Saudi Arabia was until last month the only country in the world to prohibit women from driving. “Lifting the ban legally doesn’t mean lifting the social barriers and completely changing well-rooted social norms – this might happen only among the progressive-minded segment.”

Samir Nawar, CEO of Petromin in Saudi Arabia, said the development was positive but agrees the impact for the lubricants sector will be limited. “The decision has been made, and we welcome it – but for us it will have a modest effect on profits.” Speaking on the sidelines of the 14th ICIS Middle Eastern Base Oils & Lubricants conference in Dubai held earlier this month, he revealed Petromin is considering tailoring part of the company’s quick lube network – Petromin Express – to cater to female drivers.

Yet euphoria over King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s royal decree, which nullifies the religious fatwa issued by clerics in 1990, masks broader questions about the perilous state of the Saudi economy. IHS Markit says the convergence of reduced government subsidies, high cost of living and backdrop of low oil prices has resulted in a decline in consumer confidence and a slump in auto sales.

Light-vehicle sales declined 12.2 percent to 706,100 units last year under difficult market conditions, and automotive sales totaled just 300,000 units in the first seven months of 2017 – a 28 percent decline from the year-earlier period, according to IHS Markit. More worryingly, the kingdom’s economy is expected to contract 1.3 percent this year, despite a reversal in cuts to civil service benefits, Capital Economics forecast. Nevertheless, the removal of the ban is likely to benefit all car segments and brands. Sedans and sport utility vehicles will gain the most, as these body types are traditionally favored by Saudi buyers – segments dominated by Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan and Ford.

Analysts say that if the move leads to greater female empowerment in Saudi Arabia, it will have wider implications for the economic and business landscape, which could positively benefit the automotive sector in the short to medium term.