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First Saudi women get driving licences

RIYADH (AFP): Saudi Arabia on Monday began issuing its first driving licences to women in decades, state media reported.

“The first group of women today received their Saudi driving licences,” the official Saudi Press Agency said. “The general directorate of traffic started replacing international driving licences recognised in the kingdom with Saudi licences,” it added.

The move comes as Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive, prepares to lift its decades-long ban on female drivers on June 24. SPA said authorities started swapping international licences for Saudi ones in multiple locations across the kingdom, with women applicants made to undergo a “practical test”.

It did not specify the number of licences issued. The move is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s far-reaching liberalisation drive as he seeks to modernise the petro-state.

The self-styled reformer, who recently undertook a global tour aimed at reshaping his kingdom’s austere image, has sought to break with long-held restrictions on women and the mixing of the genders.

But casting a shadow on the reforms, Saudi Arabia last week said it detained 17 people for “undermining” the kingdom’s security, in what campaigners have dubbed a sweeping crackdown against activists.

Rights groups have identified many of the detainees as women campaigners for the right to drive and to end the Islamic country’s male guardianship system.

Authorities said eight of the detainees had been “temporarily released” until their investigation is completed.

Nine suspects, including four women, remain in custody after they “confessed” to a slew of charges such as suspicious contact with “hostile” organisations and recruiting people in sensitive government positions, according to SPA.

Authorities accused the detainees of “coordinated activity undermining the security and stability of the kingdom”. Previous reports in state-backed media branded some of the detainees traitors and “agents of embassies”.

Campaigners have dismissed the reports as a “smear” campaign. The crackdown has also sparked a torrent of global criticism.

According to a Twitter post, the first Saudi woman is being awarded her driving licence on Monday.

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