(Adds detail, analyst comments, U.S. response, background)
By Asma Alsharif
JEDDAH, Sept 25 Saudi Arabia's king announced on
Sunday women would be given the right to vote and stand in
elections, a bold shift in the ultra-conservative absolute
monarchy as pressure for social and democratic reform sweeps the
It was by far the biggest change in Saudi Arabia's
tightly-controlled society yet ordered by the 88-year-old
Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who took power six years ago
with a reformer's reputation but has ruled as a cautious
In practice, the measure will do little to change how the
country is run: Saudi Arabia's rulers allow elections only for
half of the seats on municipal councils which have few powers.
Only men will vote at the next elections which will take place
next week; women will be allowed to vote in 2015.
The king did not address broader issues of women's rights in
a country where women are not allowed to drive and require a
male relative's permission to work or leave the country.
But the announcement was hailed by liberals and activists
who said it raised hopes that other demands for greater
democratic and social rights might one day be met.
"This is great news," said Saudi writer and women's rights
activist Wajeha al-Huwaider. "Women's voices will finally be
heard. Now it is time to remove other barriers like not allowing
women to drive cars and not being able to function, to live a
normal life without male guardians."
In his five-minute speech, Abdullah said women would be
permitted join the unelected advisory Shura Council, which vets
legislation although it has no binding powers.
"Because we refuse to marginalise women in society in all
roles that comply with sharia (Islamic law), we have decided,
after deliberation with our senior ulama (clerics) and others...
to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from
the next term," he said.
"Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal
election and will even have a right to vote."
Washington, Saudi Arabia's ally, praised the measures,
saying they offered women "new ways to participate in the
decisions that affect their lives and communities".
"The announcements made today represent an important step
forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia," said
a White House statement. "We support King Abdullah and the
people of Saudi Arabia as they undertake these and other
Robert Lacey, author of two books about the kingdom,
described the change as the first positive response to a pent-up
demand for reform that has begun to emerge in Saudi Arabia as
popular democracy movements spread elsewhere in the Middle East.
During the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests, Saudi
activists called for demonstrations, but only tiny numbers of
people responded by taking to the streets, apart from members of
the Shi'ite minority in the country's Eastern Province.
Saudi Arabia responded by barring demonstrations and by
announcing nearly $130 billion in social spending in March.
"This is the first positive, progressive speech out of the
government since the Arab Spring," said Lacey. "First the
warnings, then the payments, now the beginnings of solid
In a country where even cautious change is bitterly opposed
by conservative clerics and some members of the ruling family,
women's rights have drawn scrutiny at home and from abroad.
The king did not address broader issues of women's social
rights, such as the ban on issuing driving licenses to women,
which prompted small protests this summer by women who defied
the authorities and drove.
Women in Saudi Arabia must also have written approval from a
male guardian -- a father, husband, brother or son -- to leave
the country, work or even undergo certain medical operations.
In 2002, the Saudi religious police shocked the nation and
the world when they prevented schoolgirls from evacuating a
burning building because they were not wearing full Islamic
attire. Fifteen died.
King Abdullah has earned a reputation as a cautious reformer
since he started to run the kingdom as de facto regent during
the illness of his predecessor, King Fahd.
He built a new university for students of both sexes and
encouraged women to participate more in the labour market. But
he did little to alter the political system, which placed
absolute power in the hands of a single generation of brothers
since his father, state founder Abdulaziz, died in 1953.
After entering the Shura Council chamber leaning heavily on
a cane on Sunday, Abdullah read only a section of a prepared
statement that was later released in full by the authorities.
Tarek Fadaak, a member of the Shura Council and former
chairman of the Jeddah city council, said: "The royal decision
will not be challenged... but what remains to be seen is how
these directives will be applied."
Naila Attar, who organised a campaign for women to be
allowed to participate in the municipal council elections, said
the move marked the beginning of progress.
"Despite the issue of the effectiveness of these councils,
women's involvement in them was necessary. Maybe after women
join there will be other changes," she said. "It is the top of
the pyramid and a step in the direction for more decisions
(Writing by Angus McDowall and Reed Stevenson; Editing by Peter