Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive for the first time

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Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif, who helped spark the 2011 driving protest, behind the wheel in Dubai. (AFP Photo)
Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif, who helped spark the 2011 driving protest, behind the wheel in Dubai. (AFP Photo)

Saudi King Salman on Tuesday ordered that women be allowed to drive cars, state media said, ending the conservative kingdom's status as the only country where that is forbidden.

The royal decree ordered the formation of a ministerial body to give advice within 30 days and then implement the order by June 2018, according to state news agency SPA.

The kingdom, which announced the change on Tuesday, was the only the country in the world to bar women from driving and for years had garnered negative publicity internationally for detaining women who defied the ban.

Women's rights activists since the 1990s have been pushing for the right to drive, saying it represents their larger struggle for equal rights under the law.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency and state TV reported the news late Tuesday evening, saying a royal order was issued for both men and women to be issued drivers' licenses. A committee will be formed to look into how to implement the new order.

The announcement follows a dazzling gender-mixed celebration of Saudi national day at the weekend, the first of its kind, which aimed to spotlight the kingdom's reform push, analysts say, despite a backlash from religious conservatives.

Men and women danced in the streets to drums and thumping electronic music, in scenes that are a stunning anomaly in a country known for its tight gender segregation and an austere vision of Islam.

Women were also allowed into a sports stadium -- previously a male-only arena -- to watch a musical concert, a move that chimes with the government's "Vision 2030" plan for social and economic reform as the kingdom prepares for a post-oil era.

With more than half the country aged under 25, Prince Mohammed, the architect of Vision 2030, is seen as catering to the aspiration of the youth with an array of entertainment options and promoting more women in the workforce.

Tight restrictions

The gambit to loosen social restrictions, which had so far not translated into more political and civil rights, seeks to push criticism over a recent political crackdown out of the public eye, some analysts say.

Authorities this month arrested more than two dozen people, including influential clerics and activists, in what critics decried as a coordinated crackdown.

Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, despite ambitious government reforms aimed at boosting female employment.

Under the country's guardianship system, a male family member -- normally the father, husband or brother -- must grant permission for a woman's study, travel and other activities.

But the kingdom appears to be relaxing some norms as part of the Vision 2030 plan.

Tuesday's announcement comes at a crucial time for Saudi Arabia.

The OPEC kingpin is in a battle for regional influence with arch-rival Iran, bogged down in a controversial military intervention in neighboring Yemen and at loggerheads with fellow U.S. Gulf ally Qatar.

The 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed is set to be the first millennial to occupy the throne in a country where half the population is under 25, although the timing of his ascension remains unknown.

Already viewed as the de facto ruler controlling all the major levers of government, from defense to the economy, the heir apparent is seen as stamping out traces of internal dissent before any formal transfer of power from his 81-year-old father King Salman.

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