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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Saudi decision to allow women to drive welcomed at home and abroad

King Salman's announcement that women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to drive from next June was welcomed on Wednesday by Saudi women and world leaders alike.

It comes just days after women were allowed into a sports stadium for the first time and amid a drive for economic and social reforms led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Arwa, a 30-year-old Saudi business consultant, said the decision was not just a step in the right direction, but a “leap” for women in her country.

“It’s … a complete shift for us not to need a driver or a man to take us everywhere,” she told The National. “Great things are coming and people are more optimistic than ever, you can almost feel it in the air."

Shura Council member Latifah Al Shaalan, meanwhile, could not hold back tears during an interview with Al Arabiya news channel.

“To tell you the truth, I can’t find the words to express my feelings and that of thousands of other women in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

“Today is an exceptional day, a historical day, a great day.”

Outside of Saudi Arabia, the decision was welcomed by UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, as well as US president Donald Trump and his daughter, Ivanka.

Mr Trump said the move was “a positive step towards promoting the rights and opportunities of women in Saudi Arabia”, according to the White House, while Ivanka tweeted that it was an "important step in the right direction".

The decision was announced on Tuesday night with a royal decree due to go into force on June 24 next year. Government ministries and departments now have 30 days to come up with policies and procedures for the decree's implementation.

Lina Al Maeena, another member of the Shura Council, told The National that the exact rules and regulations surrounding the decision are still to be determined but that the move is likely to lead to women’s freedom being promoted more than ever before.

The official Saudi Press Agency reported that the king took the decision after weighing both the negatives of maintaining the ban and the positives of allowing women to drive. Senior scholars were also consulted, with the majority being in favour of the move.

The Council of Senior Scholars — Saudi Arabia's top council of clerics — commended the royal order, but expressed reservations about the need to abide by Islamic requirements, Bloomberg reported. Meanwhile, the news organisation said some young men interviewed in Riyadh described the decision as a mistake.

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Read more on the lifting of the women driving ban:

Saudi women overjoyed to be hitting the road soon

Emiratis and UAE expats congratulate Saudi women on driving decree

Saudi women drivers set to boost Toyota, Hyundai and Uber

Editorial: Riyadh's driving decree is a sign of positive change to come

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Saudi official Sara Almaeena acknowledged there were "elements that will be concerned about how [the decision to let women drive] will impact Saudi society" but said "the positive [response] outweighs the negative".

The decision "will increase the visibility of women in the Saudi polity and will generate further debates about the nature of Saudi society in the direction going forward”, she added.

Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House and deputy head of the British think tank's Middle East and North Africa programme said the decision would be widely welcomed "around the world" but that the response at home would be more mixed: "This will be seen not just as an issue of equality, but as a statement about the role of religious clerics in making policy … There will be opponents of the move."

Despite this, she said she expected the media and most of the public discourse to be "strongly supportive" of the decision.

"The recent arrests of various high-profile clerics and activists has sent a message to the wider public that criticism of key decisions will not be tolerated in the current climate," she added.

Tuesday's announcement came after women were allowed into a sports stadium on Saturday for the first time as part of the kingdom's National Day celebrations. Sitting alongside men in a family section of the King Fahd stadium, the event also marked a departure from previous such celebrations in Saudi Arabia where rules were in place on public segregation of the sexes.

King Salman also issued an order easing the country's male guardianship rules this year, allowing women to benefit from government services such as education and health care. Previously they needed male consent to access such services.

The changes come as Crown Prince Mohammed rolls out his "Vision 2030" plan for economic and social reforms, which aims to increase women's participation to 30 per cent from about 22 per cent now.