In January, 2018, I joined the Global Electric Vehicle Road Trip (EVRT). We drove for 9 days, starting in Madinat Zayed, heading to Sohar in Oman, and on to Muscat with 8 electric vehicles, including a Tesla Model S, Chevy Bolt, and BMW i3. Members of the public were encouraged to test drive an EV as our convoy stopped in different local areas, which offered many people their first opportunity to experience electric transportation and charging personally. About the time I was in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia announced that its state-controlled Saudi Electricity Company (SEC) had signed a deal with Japanese Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), Nissan Motor, and Takaoka Toko for its first EV pilot project. It wasn’t just the UAE and Oman — a slow Saudi Arabia shift to electric transportation had begun.
While the idea of electric cars in the oil-rich kingdom may seem surprising, Tepco acknowledges, Saudi Arabia wants to cut domestic consumption of oil, making more available for export, as well as to cut its carbon emissions. Temperatures in the desert Kingdom can exceed 40 degrees Celsius in the summer, so the effects of heat, sand, and dust are to be monitored through the EV pilot project.
The Saudi Electricity Company Vision Statement speaks to the varied influences that guide such transitional research.
“Integration of the environmental, economical, and community issues into the Company’s cultural and economic values, and its operations and decisions in all levels of administration in order to achieve the objectives of sustainable development.”
With the Saudi Standards, Metrology, and Quality Organization’s official permission to allow EVs in the Kingdom, agents starting to import EVs, and regulations for the use of EVs pending, Saudi Arabia is on the cusp of the all-electric transportation era.
A Saudi Arabia Shift & Driving Revolution
Other changes — with even more likely social consequences than the introduction of EVs — have also taken place recently in Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom began issuing driving licenses to women in June, 2018. At 830,000 square miles, Saudi Arabia is more than 3 times the size of Texas and depends on cars for travel. It was the last nation on the planet to officially allow women drivers. Previously, women had supported a robust labor force of almost 800,000 men, mostly from Southeast Asia, solely to drive Saudi women to work, school, and other places.
“For Saudi women, lifting the ban symbolizes victory,” said Ola Salem, head of communications at the Arabia Foundation, an independent nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “It’s not only that they’ll be able to drive, it’s also about freedom, equality, and a responsive government to their rights. Many were left in tears after the announcement. Saudi Arabia faces a number of domestic challenges due to the existence of opposing views and creeping westernization in the country.”
CNN reported that more than 120,000 women applied for a driver’s license during the first week alone. The lifting of the decades-old ban also represents the culmination of years of campaigning by rights activists who have sometimes been arrested and imprisoned for their efforts.
“You can’t modernize society without the full participation of women,” notes Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton and director of the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. “Economic reform necessitates social reform.”
Saudi Shift to EVs Consistent with Cultural and Economic Values
The New York Times has reported that the lifting of the driving ban was championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a son of the Saudi king. Prince Mohammed has ordered a number of changes that seek to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and improve life for Saudis. When the announcement was made in September, 2017, a number of auto advertisers quickly jumped on the news, clearly delighted to envision a spike in potential users of their product — women in Saudi Arabia.
Muhammad Razeen, technology consultant for Deloitte Middle East, described in a white paper how Saudi Arabia needed to invest in the electric vehicles industry, as its “benefits are far more than the traditional gasoline-based industry.” Razeen outlined how, in a typical energy efficiency framework, an effective management of demand and supply results in lower energy consumption and cost, improved citizen comfort, and enhanced productivity.
Many women in Saudi Arabia already have access to finance, enabling them to participate fully in the economy, including as businesswomen and entrepreneurs, which drives innovation and helps the Kingdom society to prosper.
In April, 2018, Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, forecast how Saudi Arabia is reconciling itself to higher oil prices in the window of 2018-2024. As such, these will be the last six years when gasoline cars will be less expensive to purchase than EVs, which will offset the most persuasive advantage of internal combustion engines. The EV industry in the Kingdom, he says, is “essentially moving up to parity several years if you figure in fuel costs. (The Saudis) know that their oil will likely be worthless in as little as 15 years.”
To diversify its economy and reinvigorate growth, Saudi Arabia is investing significant amounts of money into renewable energy. The government wants not just to reshape its energy mix at home but also to emerge as a global force in clean power. The Saudi market’s sheer size means that it merits the attention of the world’s renewable energy companies. Symbolic of the new visibility of EVs in Saudi Arabia, Formula E’s 20th host city in 2018 will be Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia – the first location the championship will visit in the Middle East.
How Women May Accelerate a Saudi Arabia Shift to EVs
Saudi Arabia is the most profoundly gender-segregated nation on Earth, and, amid the tenuous, difficult, and amazing changes under way in the daily lives of the its citizens, women are now debating what it means to be both truly modern and a Saudi. The impetus comes from new labor policies and the encouragements of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.
Although most labor continues to be gender-segregated, some Saudi companies are “mixing” managerial offices so that men and women, unrelated by blood or marriage, are in close proximity every day. That slight Saudi Arabia shift to gender integration could have great meaning for the EV industry.
In the western world, women control most household consumer buying decisions. When considering an automotive purchase, they are less likely to associate themselves with a particular brand or model but, instead, focus on the value and features of the car itself. They also give preference to important elements like design, safety, reliability, spaciousness, and quality of materials with an emphasis on smaller vehicles that are easier to maneuver.
Highly educated women are an untapped but potentially lucrative market for electric vehicle sales because they have greater environmental and fuel efficiency awareness than men, says a new study by researchers at the University of Sussex and Aarhus University in Denmark. More focused marketing of EVs to women around the world — especially in Saudi Arabia — could be quite effective in creating the required move away from more polluting vehicles than universal government intervention.
“The decisions people make about the forms of transport they use or purchase can transcend purely economic self-interest and logic. They can be shaped by a diverse range of factors ranging from gender, education, occupation, age and family size. The sooner that electric vehicle manufacturers and policymakers understand how these factors influence the decisions people make about their transport choices, the quicker people will switch to more sustainable modes of transport and hopefully long before legislation leaves them with no petrol or diesel alternative come 2040.”
The report cites 2017 research from Arranz, who analyzed 44 research studies about socio-technical transitions across electricity, heat, and transport. She noted that “societal factors” such as lifestyle or ideals played a significant role in many of the transport transitions analyzed. Perceptions of pollution, notions of hygiene, attitudes towards inconvenience, and changes in tastes all affected preferences for safety or lifestyle, or strengthened beliefs about progress, quality, or national prestige.
Dominant perspectives are ill equipped to deal with the required Saudi Arabia shift needed to transition to electric mobility. Instead, the Saudi Arabia shift to electric mobility will arise more quickly and efficaciously when women are part of technological, regulatory, institutional, economic, cultural and behavioral changes that, together, transform sociotechnical systems. Women are a necessary factor for the transition to EVs in the Kingdom.