Saudi students at a job exhibition in Riyadh in October last year. (Faisal Nasser/Reuters)

Saudi Arabia said Friday that it would allow women to travel without the permission of a male relative, loosening a system that rights advocates say has long relegated Saudi women to second-class citizenship, dependent on male approval for their most important life decisions. 

A royal decree published Friday said any citizen would be allowed to obtain a passport. Separately, Saudi Arabia’s new ambassador to the United States, as well as a Saudi media office, suggested that women would no longer be required to obtain a male guardian’s permission to travel.

“I am elated to confirm that KSA will be enacting amendments to its labor and civil laws that are designed to elevate the status of Saudi women within our society, including granting them the right to apply for passports and travel independently,” the ambassador, Princess Reema bint Bandar, wrote on Twitter. A Saudi government fact sheet on the changes said they grant freedom of travel to women 21 and older.   

The shift comes as Saudi Arabia faces growing international scrutiny for its human rights record, including its treatment of women. The kingdom’s leadership has been embarrassed in recent years by the testimony of Saudi women who have fled the country and called attention to what they said were restrictive or abusive conditions imposed by male relatives.  

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who serves as Saudi Arabia’s effective ruler, has reduced social restrictions, allowing more gender mixing in public spaces and lifting a ban on women driving. Such measures have sometimes angered Saudi Arabia’s influential religious ultraconservatives. 


Saudi women at Abha airport in Saudi Arabia on June 13. Changes announced Friday will allow women to travel without permission from a male relative. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

 At the same time, Mohammed has sharply narrowed the space for public dissent in the kingdom, notably by arresting prominent clerics and women’s rights advocates. 

 Some of those advocates, over decades, had pushed for removal of the ban on women driving, as well the repeal of the guardianship system. As the new regulations were announced Friday, several of the women’s rights advocates remained imprisoned or on temporary release as they face trial on charges almost solely related to their activism. 

“Butterfly effect produces big changes,” Alia al-Hathloul, the sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the detained activists, wrote on Twitter of the new travel rules. Her message was both congratulatory and rueful as it hailed the contributions of Saudis who have “raised the awareness of state institutions.”   

The changes announced Friday, which included legal amendments that granted women more rights in family matters, had been rumored for weeks and produced an outpouring of joy on social media, as well as praise for the conservative kingdom’s rulers.  

Lifting the restrictions was a “powerful step in empowering women and giving them their rights to equality with men,” Maha al-Muneef, a professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases, wrote on Twitter.

The new travel regulations, which were approved by King Salman this week, will take effect at the end of August, according to an information sheet released by the Saudi Embassy in Washington. 

In addition, the measures allow women to register marriages, divorces and the birth of a child and to be legal guardians of minors.  

The decrees also entitle citizens to employment without discrimination, including on the basis of gender — a measure aimed at expanding opportunities for women as Saudi Arabia tries to increase their workforce participation.   

The changes, though, do not allow women to marry or to leave prison without the permission of a male relative. 

“This is a huge step forward but much remains for women’s equality,” Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter

“Divorce laws, child custody laws and inheritance laws still harshly discriminate against women,” she added. “Hope these are next to go, in stride with other Muslim countries that have made amendments.”  

Zakaria Zakaria contributed to this report.