Saudi Arabian royal decree allows women to drive for first time

Saudi Arabia has said women will be allowed to drive for the first time.

The ultra-conservative kingdom, which announced the change, was the only the country in the world to bar women from driving and for years had garnered negative world publicity 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 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.

The United States welcomed Saudi Arabia's announcement, with State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert saying the US was "happy" with the move.

Ms Nauert called it "a great step in the right direction for that country" but would not comment on whether Saudi still needed to do more to ensure full rights for its women citizens.

The move comes as Saudi Arabia works to improve its image and the perception of its human rights record in the United States and the West.

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 like 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.

- AP

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