DAVOS, Switzerland - The most prominent princess in Saudi Arabia's royal family said yesterday that if she could change one thing about her country, she would let women drive - a rare and direct challenge to the driving ban imposed by the kingdom's ruling male elite.
The remarks by Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal, 59, daughter of a former Saudi king and sister of the current foreign minister, came at the World Economic Forum.
Faisal spoke at a public session on promoting religious tolerance. Other attendees included former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, the prime minister of Malaysia, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and peace activist from Israel, and an American cleric.
The moderator, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, asked panelists to "self-criticize" and say what they would change to promote greater interfaith understanding.
Turning to the princess, he quipped: "What would you do, Princess, if you were queen for a day? I won't tell anyone."
"First thing, I'd let women drive," she said dryly, as the audience erupted in applause and laughter. She added, "Or else have a great transportation system, which we don't have."
Women in Saudi Arabia can work at many jobs that once were off-limits - a point the princess made. But critics say their inability to drive holds them back from many jobs by forcing them to rely on hired drivers, or male relatives, to get to work or to school.
Some critics say the ban particularly affects poorer Saudi families who cannot afford to hire drivers. Because of that, some consider the ban not just as a women's-rights issue but also one holding back the country's economic development.
The princess is one of the highest-profile Saudi women, but for her to speak in public or before the media is rare.
Her father, King Faisal, who ruled from 1964 until he was assassinated in 1975, had a reputation as more progressive on social issues than his successors. He first instituted education for Saudi girls in the 1960s, and some have wondered if he might have pushed for more changes in the conservative kingdom had he lived longer.
The issue of female drivers has been mostly dormant from Saudi public debate in recent years. Conservatives are vocal in pushing to retain the ban - saying that allowing women to drive would inevitably lead to their moral corruption, by forcing them to interact with men who are not relatives in places such as gas stations.