RIYADH - Saudi Arabia's government should end the kingdom's ban on women driving and reform the male guardianship system, a United Nations independent expert said on Thursday.
Philip Alston spoke at the end of a 12-day visit during which he met cabinet ministers, people living in poverty, activists, Islamic experts and others.
"My concern is that the government is in fact deferring to a relatively small portion of conservative voices," Alston told a news conference.
This is obstructing the economic and social progress which the oil-rich kingdom aims to achieve under its Vision 2030 wide-ranging reform programme, said Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
"So I feel very strongly that the kingdom should move to enable women to drive cars," said Alston, an independent expert who reports to the UN's Human Rights Council.
He said features of the guardianship system which hinder women's ability to work and travel "need to be reformed."
Under that system a male family member, normally the father, husband or brother, must grant permission for a woman's study, travel and other activities.
Officials have argued that society is not ready for women driving but Alston says the government must take an activist role.
"The role of the government is to work out how it can change the policy and how it can change attitudes," he said, calling for an educational campaign.
Alston, an Australian legal expert, said driving and guardianship are very much related to poverty. Women in low-paying retail jobs, for example, cannot afford to hire drivers.
- 'Ambivalent' on rights -
He said he visited Jazan, in the kingdom's southwest, because it is the poorest part of the country, although there are "major problems" in the east as well.
In Jazan he found conditions "that I think would shock Saudi citizens." Most of those people in "extraordinarily poor conditions" there are Yemenis who arrived 50 years ago and -- like other foreigners -- do not have Saudi citizenship.
"There needs to be a plan to more systematically address their situation," Alston said, but most people he met in Saudi Arabia did not acknowledge that poverty exists in the world's biggest oil exporter.
He added that, although the government was very cooperative with his visit, he was given no data on the number of people considered poor.
"That is either an act of concealing the information that is available, or it's a serious indictment of the system."
Alston also called on the government to "liberalise" its approach to social media, after he received reports of "instances in which it has cracked down on certain people" communicating over the internet.
"I think the kingdom has long had an ambivalent relationship to human rights," but Vision 2030 is a chance for rights to be "a key part" of the progress which Saudi Arabia has embraced in so many areas, he said.
As part of its economic reforms the kingdom is reducing fuel and electricity subsidies, supplemented by compensation for the needy.
But Alston said in a written statement that there is no "coherent or comprehensive plan to achieve social protection for all those in need."