Aziza Yousef drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. Image Credit: AP

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia on Tuesday announced that it would allow women to drive, state media reported.

King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz ordered the reform in a royal decree issued on Tuesday night. In the decree, King Salman requested that driving licences be issued to women who wanted them.

State-run Saudi Press Agency and state TV reported that a committee will be formed to look into how to implement the new order.

Human rights groups have long campaigned for the kingdom to overturn the ban on women driving on Saudi roads.

Some women have been arrested and jailed for defying the ban. Last month, Saudi police arrested an Arab woman after video circulated showing her driving a car in the Eastern Province. 

The ban has been at times challenged by women who were then accused of “stirring up public opinion” and the debate over allowing women to drive has been exceptionally heated on social media.

The presence of thousands of male drivers to drive mainly Saudi women and girls has been regularly used by supporters of allowing women to drive to highlight negative social and economic problems.

The arguments have also been boosted by “grave concerns” felt by several women when riding with taxi drivers.

In April 2013, Saudi billionaire Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal ignited the debate by tweeting in favour of allowing women to drive.

“Allowing women to drive will result in saving at least 500,000 jobs held by foreign drivers and subsequent economic and social benefits for the nation,” Al Waleed posted.

The United States welcomed Saudi Arabia's announcement. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the US was "happy" with the move. Nauert called it "a great step in the right direction for that country."

An hour after the official announcement in Saudi Arabia, a jubilant Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Khalid Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, said it was “an historic and big day in our kingdom”.

“I think our leadership understands that our society is ready. I think it’s the right decision at the right time,” the ambassador said.

For more than 25 years, women activists have campaigned to be allowed to drive, defiantly taking to the road, petitioning the king and posting videos of themselves behind the wheel on social media. The protests brought them arrest and harassment.

Activist Manal Al Sherif, who was arrested in 2011 after a driving protest, took to Twitter following the king’s announcement to express her relief. “Today, the last country on earth to allow women to drive... we did it”, she wrote.

Latifa Al Shaalan, a member of the Shura Council, said the decision would strengthen women’s employment in the private sector.

“This is an historic day and I cannot find the words to express my feelings and the feelings of thousands of Saudi women,” she said on Arabiya TV.

Conservative pushback

In Saudi Arabia, a top Arab ally of the United States, women are legally subject to a male guardian, who must give approval to basic decisions they make in fields including education, employment, marriage, travel plans and even medical treatment.

Women in the kingdom are also bound by law to wear long robes and a headscarf and require the consent of a male guardian for most legal actions.

Prince Khalid, the ambassador, said women would not need permission from their guardians to get a license or have a guardian in the car and would be allowed to drive anywhere in the kingdom, including the Islamic holy cities of Makkah and Medina.

Women with a license from any of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries would be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, he added. He said the Interior Ministry would have to decide whether they could be professional drivers.

“In terms of international PR, this is the biggest overnight win that Saudi Arabia — and particularly MBS — could possibly have,” said Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at Chatham House.

The position of Saudi women gradually improved under late King Abdullah and since King Salman took over in 2015, the kingdom has been opening more areas for women through the government’s modernising reforms.

That has sparked tensions with influential clerics upon whose support the ruling family relies.

Some reactions to Tuesday’s announcement reflected that.

Critics took to Twitter to denounce the decision, accusing the government of “bending the verses of Sharia”.

“As far as I remember, Sharia scholars have said it was haram (forbidden) for women to drive. How come it has suddenly become halal (permissible)?” another user wrote.

Asked whether he was worried about a conservative backlash, the ambassador said: “On these changes some people will be in the drivers’ seat... some people will be in the back seat, but we’re all going to move forward.” He added: “It’s not women must drive, it’s women can drive.

So if any women do not want to drive in Saudi Arabia, that’s her choice.”

The decision could also have broad economic impacts, making it possible for women to get to work without a driver but also curbing the popularity of car hailing apps like Uber and Kareem.

Prince Khalid, a son of the king, said the decision was as much about economic reform as social change.

His older brother, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad, has become the face of reform in the kingdom in the past few years.

Many younger Saudis regard his ascent as evidence that their generation is taking a central place in running a country whose patriarchal traditions have for decades made power the province of the old and blocked women’s progress.

“Oh my God, this is amazing. Ever since Mohammad Bin Salman’s rise, he has fast-tracked all the changes that are needed for our country,” said Marwa Afandi, a 35-year-old event planner in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

“Congratulations to all my ladies, this is a real victory.”

With inputs from Habib Toumi, Bureau Chief