Manal Al Sharif behind the wheel in 2011. Image Credit: AFP

Saudi Arabia’s announcement on Tuesday night reversing a ban on women from driving has been met with astounding fanfare.

“It is amazing,” said Fawziah Al Bakr, a Saudi university professor who was among 47 women who participated in the kingdom’s first protest against the ban - in 1990. After driving around the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the women were arrested, and some lost their jobs.

“Since that day, Saudi women have been asking for the right to drive, and finally it arrived,” she said by phone. “We have been waiting for a very long time.”

In the royal decree read live on state television, June 2018 was set as the official date where the reversal would take effect.

Saudi leaders hope the new policy will help the economy by increasing women’s participation in the workplace.

Many working Saudi women spend much of their salaries on drivers or must be driven to work by male relatives.

There has never been a law in Saudi Arabia probiting women from driving but more of an unofficial ban was in place which restricted women from obtaining drivers licences.

Many of the kingdom’s professionals and young people will welcome the change, viewing it as a step to making life in the country a bit more like life elsewhere.

Manal Al Sharif, a Saudi women’s rights advocate who filmed herself driving in 2011 and posted the footage to YouTube to protest the law, celebrated the announcement Tuesday.

Sharif was instrumental in organising groups of women for collective protests to demand an end to the ban on female drivers. She was arrested at the time for taking part in the actions and later wrote a book about her experience. She now lives in Australia.

“Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop” #Women2Drive, she tweeted. ❤️ Saudi officials and clerics have provided numerous explanations for the ban over the years.

Some said that it was inappropriate in Saudi culture for women to drive, or that male drivers would not know how to handle having women in cars next to them. Others argued that allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity and the collapse of the Saudi family. One cleric claimed - with no evidence - that driving harmed women’s ovaries.

Rights groups and Saudi activists have long campaigned for the ban to be overturned, and some women have been arrested and jailed for defying the prohibition and taking the wheel.

In 2014, Loujain Hathloul was arrested after trying to cross the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia and detained for 73 days.

“@LoujainHathloul I’m so proud of you,” Fahad Al Buteiri, her husband and a well-known Saudi comedian, wrote on Twitter.

Hathloul tweeted a simple reaction to the news: “Thank god.”

The decision won near universal praise in Washington.

Heather Nauert, the State Department’s spokeswoman, called it “a great step in the right direction for that country.”

The momentum to change the policy picked up in recent years with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son, who has laid out a far-reaching plan to overhaul the kingdom’s economy and society.

Increasing numbers of women are working in a growing number of professions, and in 2015, women were allowed to vote and to run for seats on the kingdom’s local councils.But at a small news conference at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, an exuberant Prince Khalid Bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador, said women would be able to obtain driver’s licenses without having to ask permission of their husbands, fathers or any male guardian - despite so-called guardianship laws that give men power over their female relatives.

Under these laws, women cannot travel abroad, work or undergo some medical procedures without the consent of their male “guardian,” often a father, a husband or even a son. While the enforcement of guardianship laws has loosened in recent years, there is little to stop Saudi men from greatly limiting the movements of their wives or daughters.

The ambassador, who is a son of the king, said that women would be able to drive alone but that the Interior Ministry would decide whether they could work as professional drivers.

He said he did not expect the change in policy to face significant resistance.

“I think our society is ready,” he said.

At the news conference, the ambassador insisted that the decision would not be reversed or seriously opposed.

Beyond the effects it could have on Saudi Arabia’s image abroad, letting women drive could help the Saudi economy.

Low oil prices have limited the government jobs that many Saudis have long relied on, and the kingdom is trying to push more citizens, including women, into private sector employment. But some working Saudi women say hiring private drivers to get them to and from work eats up much of their pay, diminishing the incentive to work.

In recent years, many women have come to rely on ride-sharing apps like Uber and Careem to gain some freedom of movement.

What does the decree say?

The royal decree, read by an announcer of state television and signed by Salman, said traffic laws would be amended, including to allow the government to issue driver’s licenses “to men and women alike.”

The decree said a high-level ministerial committee was being formed to study other issues that needed to be addressed for the change to take place. For example, the police will have to be trained to interact with women in a way that they rarely do in Saudi Arabia, a society where men and women who are not related have little contact.

The committee has 30 days to provide its recommendations, the decree said, so that the new policy can be carried out starting June 24, 2018.

The decree said that the majority of the Council of Senior Scholars - the kingdom’s top clerical body, whose members are appointed by the king - had agreed that the government could allow women to drive if done in accordance with Shariah law.