Saudi Arabia to let women drive at last

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(CNN) — Saudi Arabia is easing restrictions on women driving, finally allowing almost half its population to get behind the wheel.

A royal decree has been issued that will allow women in the country to drive, the Saudi Foreign ministry said Tuesday on its official Twitter account.

A committee has been formed to implement the ruling and it will present recommendations within 30 days. Then the government will have until June 24, 2018, to implement the new decree.

"This is a historic big day in our kingdom," Prince Khaled bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the US, said Tuesday in a briefing with reporters.

State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said the U.S. "would certainly welcome that" news, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote on his official Twitter it was "an important step in the right direction."

Manal al-Sharif, one of the women behind the Women2Drive campaign, celebrated the victory by posting a photo on Twitter of herself behind the wheel of a car.

Sharif, who now lives in Australia, was jailed in Saudi Arabia 2011 after posting a video on YouTube of herself, wearing a black headscarf and sunglasses, driving a car.

The act provoked death threats and spurred her to start the campaign.

In another tweet the campaigner commented, "Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop."

Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, told CNN while it was a "very important step" there was still a long way to go for Saudi women.

"This prohibition on driving is just one in a vast series of laws and policies which prevent women from doing many things," she said.

"The guardianship rule stops women from making every decision in her life without the assistance of a male relative, even if that relative is her 7-year-old son."

The move to ease restrictions on women has huge implications for the Saudi economy and women's ability to work. It is just the latest in a series of changes that have been rippling through Saudi Arabia since the rise of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The crown prince, known casually as "MBS," is spearheading an ambitious plan to reform and transform the Saudi economy by 2030 and, in line with that goal, increase the number of women in the workforce.

'A huge step'

Ambassador bin Salman described the step as "part of Vision 2030, which is a huge step toward a brighter future."

That plan for the country's economic reinvention rests on a number of pillars, including youth empowerment, social organization, and women's empowerment, "which is an extremely important element of the changes happening in Saudi Arabia," the ambassador said.

"We are trying to increase women's participation in the workforce," bin Salman said.

"In order to change women's participation in the workforce we need them to be able to drive to work," said bin Salman, who is a son of the current king and a brother of the crown prince. "We need them to move forward, we need them to improve our economy."

The crown prince, who was appointed by his father to the position in June, is seen as a major power in the country and is expected by many to be named king before too long.

Marwa Abdelghani, media fellow at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told CNN the new laws wouldn't take effect for another year.

"Saudi Arabian women are going to continue fighting and are going to continue running these campaigns to try to overturn these laws," she said.

"At the end of the day these laws are showing how Saudi Arabia has been resisting overturning or relinquishing power to over 50 percent of the population."

Asked by CNN why the announcement was made now, ambassador bin Salman said, "there is no wrong time to do the right thing." He added that "it's not religious nor a cultural issue" and said women "used to use transportation means during my grandfather's era."

He said that women will not have to get permission from their male guardians to take driving lessons.

"Legally there's nothing that can prevent it," the ambassador said, but he acknowledged that "there might be social issues."

He said that the choice will be up to women. "It's not 'women must drive,' it's 'women can drive.' "

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia follows a strict form of Wahhabi Islam that bans the mixing of sexes at public events and places numerous curbs on women. These restrictions are enforced by religious police whose powers the crown prince has successfully lobbied to curtail since coming to power.

His success on that front is evident in the way Saudi Arabia, which is celebrating the 87th anniversary of its creation this month, has recently been easing some restrictions on women.

Women were allowed to enter a sports stadium for the first time on September 23, for a special pageant.

In May, King Salman decreed that government agencies should list services women can seek without permission from their husbands, fathers, or other male guardian. He also ordered organizations to provide transportation for female employees – a step that eased one hurdle to women's employment given that public transportation is virtually non-existent.

Before May, women weren't able to access government services without getting permission from a male guardian or having him present.

There have also been some easing of restrictions on women's ability to work in the fields of law and education. In 2015, women were elected to municipal councils for the first time.

Members of the Saudi royal family have been signaling an easing on women's ability to drive for months now. In May, Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah, a former education minister, told a privately owned TV channel that he had "no doubt" women would one day be able to drive in his country.

When Saudi women first defied the driving ban

"Let me tell you about our leadership's view on women," he said. "Never mind driving a car, which is coming, no doubt ... I want her to drive society."

Another prominent prince, Alwaleed bin Talal, wrote a December blog post that pushed for authorities to allow women to drive, saying that the ban curtailed their rights and hurt the economy because it made it harder for women to work.

In 2013, a campaign to defy the government ban on women driving saw dozens get behind the wheel and post photos of themselves driving on social media. They were quickly cut short by authorities and several spoke to CNN about their fear of retaliation in the aftermath.

Ambassador bin Salman said the decree is part of a historical arc. "We have a young and dynamic society that is young and more open." He added that the decision is "part of a process that's happening since 1932" when the country was founded.

This story was first published on CNN.com, "Saudi Arabia to let women drive at last."