Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has granted women the right to vote in municipal elections and serve in the Shura Council, a national consultative body, in a historic step for the ultra-conservative Sunni Islamic kingdom.
"In Islamic history, women have had roles that cannot be marginalized," King Abdullah told the Shura Council while announcing his decision.
On Thursday, 5,300 men will compete in municipal polls for the second time in Saudi Arabia's history. Women will first be eligible to compete four years from now as the nomination process for Thursday's contest has already closed.
Women will also have to wait another term before serving in the Shura Council. The body, which cannot pass or enforce laws, has 150 members appointed by the Saudi king.
"We have been waiting for these decisions for such a long time," Saudi rights activist Waleed Abul Khair told the news agency DPA. "We wish that women's right to drive was among those decisions."
Saudi women are currently required either to hire male chauffeurs or rely on male family members for transportation and are not allowed to travel unaccompanied if they are under 45 years old.
Manal al-Sharif, the 32-year-old icon of a movement in which Saudi women protested the ban by getting behind the steering wheel, called King Abdullah's decision on women's voting rights a "historic and courageous one."
"The king is a reformist," she told the news agency AFP.
The United States - a close ally of Saudi Arabia - praised the reforms, which come amid demands for greater freedom across the Middle East among the protest movements of the so-called "Arab Spring."
"The announcements made today represent an important step forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia," White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
"We support King Abdullah and the people of Saudi Arabia as they undertake these reforms and others."
Author: Spencer Kimball (dpa, AFP)
Editor: Nancy Isenson