RIYADH: Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday it would allow women to drive, the last country in the world to do so, sparking euphoria and disbelief among activists in the kingdom.
The longstanding driving ban was seen internationally as a symbol of repression of women in the Gulf kingdom and its repeal comes after years of resistance from female activists.
“King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud has issued a decree authorising the issuance of drivers’ licences for women in the kingdom,” Saudi state TV said.
“The decree will take effect in June 2018.”
Saudi Arabia will use the ‘preparatory period’ until then to expand licensing facilities and develop the infrastructure to accommodate millions of new drivers, the announcement added.
Many women’s rights activists have been jailed for flouting the ban. The surprise announcement was widely welcomed, both at home and abroad.
“A glorious day. Can’t hold back my tears,” tweeted Saudi shura council member Latifah Alshaalan. “Congratulations to the women of my homeland.”
Activist Manal al-Sharif, who led the 2011 ‘Women2Drive’ protest movement, tweeted: “Today, the last country on earth to allow women to drive… we did it.”
“It is a testimony to the bravery of women activists who have been campaigning for years that… Saudi Arabia has finally relented and decided to permit women to drive,” rights watchdog Amnesty International said.
It was unclear whether women would require their guardian’s permission to apply for a driving licence.
After Tuesday’s historic announcement, the hashtags ‘I am my own guardian’ and ‘Saudi Women Can Drive’ began gaining traction on social media.
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 drive despite a backlash from religious conservatives.
Men and women danced in the streets to drums and electronic music, in scenes that are a stunning anomaly in a country known for its tight gender segregation.
Women were also allowed into a sports stadium – previously a male-only arena – to watch a concert, a move that chimes with the government’s Vision 2030 plan for social and economic reform.
US President Donald Trump welcomed the decision as “a positive step toward promoting the rights and opportunities of women in Saudi Arabia”, according to a White House statement.
The US State Department called it a “great step in the right direction”, echoing a similar comment from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Tuesday’s announcement comes at a crucial time for Saudi Arabia.
The oil kingpin is in a battle for regional influence with arch-rival Iran, bogged down in a controversial military intervention in neighbouring Yemen and at loggerheads with fellow US Gulf ally Qatar.
“Allowing women to drive is the biggest PR win that Saudi Arabia – and Prince Mohammed– could have in a single swoop,” said Jane Kinninmont, from London’s Chatham House.