Ms. Gruber, you are training driving instructors in Saudi Arabia. How did that happen?
I work for Test and Training International (TTI). The company plans driving training facilities and racetracks all over the world. We already had several racetrack projects in Saudi Arabia. After women were allowed to drive a car in Saudi Arabia in 2018, we developed a concept for the training of driving instructors for our partners there, the consultants. We did that together with the Austrian driving school chain Easy Drivers, where I myself am a driving school teacher.
You shouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia at first.
That’s right, originally women from Saudi Arabia were supposed to come to Austria to be trained as driving instructors. But that didn’t work because they weren’t allowed to travel alone. They should have brought their families with them.
So you flew to Saudi Arabia for the first time at the end of 2018?
The apprenticeship should start quickly, so that was the only way.
How many times have you been there?
Eight times if I counted correctly. Most recently almost all of January and February.
It is not easy to imagine working there: the language barrier, cultural differences, especially for women.
The requirements are actually high, even if the clothing regulations have now relaxed. First of all, we have to work properly. Then the English has to be good. That is the language of instruction; it is then translated into Arabic because a majority of the women only speak Arabic. But when it wobbles in English, nothing arrives in Arabic. Our teams must also be prepared to work and live with each other in a very familiar manner for several weeks. You’re already squatting closely together. If someone can’t do it, then it won’t work.
How many driving instructors have you trained so far?
That will be around 250. But the need is huge and the interest of the state is great. As part of the “Vision 2030”, they want to create many new jobs for the young population. This year alone, the training of at least 5000 driving instructors is being promoted.
What distinguishes driving school education in Saudi Arabia from that in Europe?
Perhaps the biggest difference is that the training does not take place on the street, but on a practice area that we also design. The complete practical training is completed there: driving, accelerating, braking, threading, overtaking, turning, reverse parking and so on.
How does the training work?
Clearly structured and strictly regulated. It starts with eight hours of theory, one double hour each for four days in a row. Then the theoretical test on the computer follows. This is followed by two hours on the driving simulator and ten double hours in the car on ten consecutive days including the final exam. In a little more than two weeks, the women will have their driving license.
Do you emphasize “the women”?
It is different with Saudi men. Men also have to go to a driving school, but the training period is determined individually and is usually much shorter than for women. Even if I as a woman cannot get a precise insight into the men’s driving school, you can say that men get a driver’s license much easier than women. But that should change.
In what way?
The men’s driving schools should be based on the same curriculum as that of the women. However, implementation has been postponed because most driving schools for men have not yet been able to understand this. However, we expect that we will soon be able to start training coaches for men.
Do you also train for trucks, buses and motorbikes?
At the moment it’s only about cars, with women anyway. But we have already developed a curriculum for buses and trucks for the traffic authorities. A motorcycle is also being planned. Let’s see when it happens. There is currently no provision for women to drive trucks. It is different with buses. There is already a demand for drivers, especially for school buses, with which girls are transported.
What does the driving license mean for women in Saudi Arabia?
This is something very special. They are enthusiastic and grateful for the increase in autonomy.
Are you allowed to drive alone?
Are these wealthy women who come to you?
I have the impression that it is often well-off women who have had a good education, sometimes abroad, as a doctor or microbiologist. Some already have a foreign driver’s license. A driver’s license is also a prerequisite for being included in a trainer course with us. It would be quite difficult to train a driving instructor who doesn’t have a driving license.
Is there a special Saudi Arabian driving style?
The roads are often very extensive, with several lanes in each direction. In general, driving is very fast. 80 kilometers per hour are allowed in urban areas. The traffic is heavy, there is a lot of traffic. A minimum and safety distance, as we know it from us, is usually not maintained. Not to the side either. There is always sheet metal damage and worse. Driving there is very different from what you are used to in Central Europe.
Will all this change because you are now exporting the Austrian driving style to Saudi Arabia?
It will take some time before that changes. But our goal is, of course, to develop an awareness of safety and anticipatory driving with safety distances, as it has been in the Saudi Arabian road traffic regulations since 2018.
When are you going back there?
It depends on the development of the corona pandemic. First of all, everything is canceled.