RIADH - Saudi Arabia is to allow women to drive for the first time.
It had been the only the country in the world to prohibit women from driving and for years had garnered negative world publicity for detaining those who defied the ban.
Women’s rights activists have been pushing for the right to drive since the 1990s, 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 on Tuesday evening, saying a royal order was issued for both men and women to be issued driving licences.
A committee will be formed to look into how to implement the new order.
It represents a significant opening for women in Saudi Arabia, whose rights have steadily and slowly gained ground over the years.
Saudi women remain largely under the whim of male relatives because of guardianship laws.
But King Salman and his young son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have tested the waters, allowing women into the country’s main stadium in the capital, Riyadh, for national day celebrations this month.
The stadium had previously been reserved for all-male crowds to watch sporting events.
The king and his son have also opened the country to more entertainment and fun.
Some ultra-conservative clerics in Saudi Arabia, who wield power and influence in the judiciary and education sectors, had warned against allowing women to drive, arguing it would corrupt society and lead to sin.
Women have long had to rely on male relatives to get to work, run errands and simply move around.
The more affluent have male drivers and more recently, in major cities, women could access ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Careem.
Women, however, will not be allowed to obtain licences immediately – the committee is not due to come into effect until June 2018.
The kingdom had held out on allowing women to drive, despite a number of social openings and gains for women, including granting women the right to vote and run in elections for the first time in late 2015.
Prince Khaled bin Salman, the new Saudi ambassador to Washington, said letting women drive was a ‘huge step forward’ for his country.
He said it was the right time for Saudi Arabia to do the right thing and said his government viewed women driving as a social issue, not a religious or cultural matter.
The prince said women would not need permission legally from a male guardian to obtain a driving licence, nor a guardian in the vehicle with them.
He said Saudi Arabia would recognise driver’s licences issued to women in other Gulf Co-operation Council countries.
Saudi Arabia is not taking the step at the request of the US and that the issue did not come up during US president Donald Trump’s recent visit to the kingdom, he added.