The announcement was made in a speech to the Riyadh-based Shura Council, or consultative assembly, whose 150 members are appointed by the king.
“Since we reject any marginalization of women in Saudi society in every domain, in accordance with shari’a guidelines and following consultations with many of our scholars, especially those in the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars, we have decided the following,” Abdullah said.
“First, women will be allowed to participate in the Shura Council as members from the next session onwards; secondly, as of the next session, women will have the right to nominate themselves for membership of municipal councils and also have the right to participate in the electoral process.”
Saudi Arabia is due to hold municipal elections – only the second ever – later this week, so women will have to wait until the next one, scheduled for 2015, to benefit from the new policy.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor in a brief statement welcomed the announcement.
“These reforms recognize the significant contributions women in Saudi Arabia make to their society and will offer them new ways to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and communities,” he said.
“The announcements made today represent an important step forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia, and we support King Abdullah and the people of Saudi Arabia as they undertake these and other reforms.”
A recent Economic Forum report assessing how successfully countries have closed gaps between women and men across a range of sectors placed Saudi Arabia in 129th place out of 134 countries rated. (That record did not prevent the election of the kingdom late last year onto the board of the new U.N. body for gender equality and women’s empowerment, U.N. Women.)
The treatment of women in Saudi Arabia – an important U.S. ally – has caused headaches for the Obama administration, particularly given Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s high-profile advocacy for women’s rights around the world.
When over the summer the ban on women’s driving in Saudi Arabia emerged as an issue it took several weeks before Clinton spoke out – and then only after Saudi women activists and journalists had questioned her public silence.
Sunday’s announcement came less than a week after Clinton addressed a U.N. event in New York on expanding women’s political participation, an issue she called “one of the great pieces of unfinished business in the 21st century.”
Clinton addressed her remarks especially to Arab countries that have undergone political change this year, referring to Egyptians, Libyans and Tunisinsa – but not Saudis.
The U.N. meeting ended with a statement declaring that “women’s political participation is fundamental to democracy and essential to the achievement of sustainable development and peace.” It urged all countries to “promote women’s equal right to participate in all areas and at all levels of political life.”
Abdullah’s announcement is seen as part of a broader effort by the 87-year-old monarch to defuse “Arab spring”-type protests in the oil-rich kingdom. In the spring he announced a spending package worth billions of dollars that included financial help for first-time home buyers, assistance for unemployed citizens and a pledge of tens of thousands of new jobs in the armed forces.
The Saudi daily, Arab News, said in an editorial Monday that the decision was “a momentous step that could change the social and political fabric of the Kingdom.”
“The sagacious king has bided his time in bringing about these changes, thus highlighting his vision with clarity and determination,” it said.
Meanwhile, apart from the initiative challenging the driving ban, a campaign is underway to urge the International Olympic Committee and other international sporting bodies to deny entry to countries that bar women athletes from participating.
Saudi Arabia is one of just three countries that have never included women athletes in their national teams for the Olympic Games. Qatar and Brunei are the other two.