Pan-Arab and local newspapers welcomed yesterday the landmark decision announced by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia granting women the right to run for municipal office and become members of the Shura Council, the Saudi advisory body.
Salman Al Dawsari, the assistant editor of the London-based newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, wrote in a column: "It's hard to say it was a surprise. Any careful observer of developments on Saudi streets and the trajectory of King Abdullah's reforms could see this kind of step coming.
"It was just a matter of time. Perhaps society might not have taken it too well five years ago, and it would be considered too late five years from now."
In an editorial, which also covered recent parliamentary elections in the UAE and run-off elections in Bahrain, the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi said the new Saudi measure had long been stalled by "the hard-line religious institution" of the kingdom, which says that the mingling of men and women in public places violates Sharia.
King Abdullah said his decision was taken "after consultation with numerous scholars from the Council of Senior Ulemas" - the country's religious authority.
While deploring the fact that the Shura Council has very limited prerogatives and cannot hold the executive body accountable, the usually critical Al Quds Al Arabi conceded that the king's move was "an important, if significantly overdue, step".
Khaled Al Suleiman, a columnist with the Jeddah-based newspaper Okaz, wrote: "Finally, Saudi women will become members of the Shura Council … This is a new historic milestone in women's progression in Saudi society."
Washington and London applauded the decision.
The US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said it recognised the "significant contributions" women have been making in Saudi Arabia. The move, Mr Vietor said, would give Saudi women more ways to participate "in the decisions that affect their lives and communities".
In Britain, the foreign secretary William Hague said in a statement: "This would be a significant step forward for the people of Saudi Arabia. The UK strongly supports moves to increase the political and economic participation of women across the Arab world."