Riyadh - Saudi Arabia on Monday began issuing its first driving licences to women in decades, authorities said, just weeks before the historic lifting of the conservative kingdom's ban on female motorists.
Ten Saudi women swapped their foreign licences for Saudi ones in multiple cities, including the capital Riyadh, as the kingdom prepares to end its ban on June 24.
The move, which follows a government crackdown on women activists, is part of a much-publicised liberalisation drive launched by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he seeks to modernise the petro-state.
"Ten Saudi women made history on Monday when they were issued driving licences," said the information ministry's Centre for International Communication (CIC).
"Expectations are that next week an additional 2000 women will join the ranks of licensed drivers in the kingdom."
The official Saudi Press Agency said the swap came after women applicants were made to undergo a "practical test", but it did not offer details.
"It's a dream come true that I am about to drive in the kingdom," Rema Jawdat, one of the women to receive a licence, was quoted as saying by the CIC.
"Driving to me represents having a choice - the choice of independent movement. Now we have that option," added Jawdat, an official at the ministry of economy and planning who has previous driving experience in Lebanon and Switzerland.
In preparation for the lifting of the ban, Saudi Arabia last week passed a landmark law to criminalise sexual harassment, introducing a prison term of up to five years and a maximum penalty of 300 000 riyals (R1-million).
Reforms and crackdown
Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive, has long faced global criticism for what is seen as oppression of women.
But Prince Mohammed, who recently undertook a global tour aimed at reshaping his kingdom's austere image, has sought to break with long-held restrictions on women.
The self-styled reformer has also ended a decades-long ban on cinemas, allowed mixed-gender concerts and clipped the powers of the long-feared religious police.
But casting a shadow on his 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 conservative Islamic country's male guardianship system.
"It's welcomed that the Saudi authorities have finally issued licences to women, but the very women who campaigned for this for years are now behind bars instead of behind wheel," tweeted Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's Middle East director of campaigns.
"The government must release them now."
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.
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 and the crackdown has sparked a torrent of global criticism.
The European Parliament last week approved a resolution calling for the unconditional release of the detained activists and other human rights defenders, while urging a more vocal response from EU nations.