Women in Saudi Arabia will be permitted to drive in the kingdom for the first time, according to a royal decree issued in Riyadh on Tuesday that overturned one of the most widely criticized restrictions on human rights.
The change may be the most visible sign yet of a modernizing Saudi Arabia, with reforms implemented by the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Signed by his father, King Salman, and broadcast on state television, the decree said that the "majority of senior scholars" had deemed the change legitimate under Islamic law and ordered the government ministries concerned to make whatever legal adjustments are required to implement it by June 24.
For much of the rest of the world, the prohibition on women driving has long symbolized the many restrictions on individual freedoms in Saudi Arabia, particularly those applying to women.
The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Khaled bin Salman, who spoke at a news conference in Washington, hailed the development as a "historic, big day in our kingdom." He said that female drivers would not need to travel with male "guardians" or seek permission to obtain driver's licenses, and that women's licenses from other countries in the region would be recognized.
The change aligns Saudi Arabia with other conservative monarchies in the Persian Gulf that have long allowed women to drive. It was unclear whether the lifting of requirements that male relatives accompany women or give permission for them to leave their homes, still implemented in much of the country, would apply to activities other than driving.
The Saudi government, which has long endured negative publicity over its restrictive domestic policies, was eager to broadcast the change. In addition to the news conference at the embassy in Washington, the Foreign Ministry contacted reporters offering to arrange calls with selected Saudi women to comment on the policy.
The ambassador said the decision was not based on religion but on social and economic considerations, and was part of the modernization reforms being implemented by the crown prince.
"There is no wrong time to do the right thing," the ebullient ambassador said. With more women entering the workplace, "they need to drive themselves to work." He said the implementation delay was needed to ensure that the legal and logistical environment was prepared for the change. "We have to make sure our streets are ready" for a potential doubling in traffic, he said.
Prominent female Saudi activists had spent years publicly protesting the ban, posting videos of themselves driving on Saudi roads or toward the country's borders. The videos garnered hundreds of thousands of views, and often landed the activists in jail.
Loujain al-Hathloul, who was detained for 73 days in 2014 after attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates, was rearrested this year and held for several days. "Praise be to God," Hathloul tweeted after the announcement.
"I am just happy that I no longer have to tell my 7-year-old to stop ogling at women driving in Europe because, yes, it's normal and okay for women to drive," said Loulwa Bakr, a senior financial adviser in Jiddah.
"One small pedal for Saudi women, one giant leap for womenkind," Bakr said in a telephone interview from Riyadh. She was one of several women independently contacted by The Washington Post.
Asma Siddiki, an educator at King Abdullah Economic City, said the issue was not the top priority for Saudi women but had become "symbolic."
"We enjoy some rights that other celebrated democracies do not enjoy and yet everything was brushed under the all-encompassing question of the right of women to drive," she said. "I feel ecstatic that it is about to become a moot topic."
"I am also quite relieved," she added, "that I, not my husband, may be the person who will teach my children how to drive, being a better driver, in my opinion."
Samid Hadid, the deputy Middle East director for Amnesty International, tweeted: "Huge congrats and credit to the brave women who fought for this. May this be the start of more freedoms for women in Saudi Arabia."
At the State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, "We're happy."
"This news just came to us moments ago," Nauert said at the department's regular afternoon briefing. "So I think we're just happy today with the steps that they are taking, and I think that that is a very positive sign."
The Trump administration has developed close relations with Saudi Arabia, which was President Trump's first stop on his maiden overseas trip in May. He has repeatedly praised its ruler, King Salman — the father of both the ambassador and the crown prince — as a "wise" ruler and the United States' closest partner in the gulf region.
Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute of Gulf Affairs, a group often critical of the Saudi leadership, said the decision "shows the stamp" of the crown prince. Over the past year, the government has restricted the powers of the religious police and decreed that women and men working for the government receive equal pay.
Last weekend, women were allowed for the first time into King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh for a special pageant celebrating the 87th anniversary of Saudi Arabia's founding. Women are largely barred from public events because of strict prohibitions against the mixing of the sexes.
The driving ban "was increasingly unpopular and difficult for the ruling family to justify," Ahmed said. "It was inevitable that it would be lifted someday. Now was the time, with the Saudi economy struggling with low oil prices and the monarchy facing some internal pressures."
Last year, the well-known Saudi investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud, a member of the royal family, declared that the kingdom's refusal to allow women to drive was draining billions of dollars from the sagging economy.
The government's reform plan, introduced last year by the crown prince, is designed to diversify the oil-dependent economy. It calls for increasing the role of Saudi women, including boosting their participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030.
Last month, a woman was appointed the chief executive of a major Saudi bank — a first in the country's history. That came a few days after Saudi Arabia's stock exchange appointed a woman as its chair.
Not everyone is likely to be pleased by the lifting of the driving ban. One cleric, Sheikh Saad al-
Hijri, the head of fatwas, or legal opinions, in Asir province, said in a recent lecture that women "don't deserve to drive because they only have a quarter of a brain."
Last Thursday, the BBC reported, Hijri was banned by the government from preaching, leading prayers and other religious activities.
Brian Murphy in Washington, Souad Mekhennet in London, Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo contributed to this report.