Aziza Yousef drives a car on a highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. Saudi Arabia says it will allow women to drive for the first time next year. File picture: Hasan Jamali/AP

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia -  Women will be allowed to drive for the first time next summer in Saudi Arabia, the ultra-conservative kingdom announced on Tuesday, marking a significant expansion of women's rights in the only the country that barred them from getting behind the wheel.

While women in other Muslim countries drove freely, the kingdom's blanket ban attracted negative publicity for years. Neither Islamic law nor Saudi traffic law explicitly prohibited women from driving, but they were not issued licenses and were detained if they attempted to drive.

Prince Khaled bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington and the king's son, said letting women drive is a "huge step forward" and that "society is ready."

"This is the right time to do the right thing," he told reporters in the US. Women will be allowed to obtain licenses without the permission of a male relative.

The announcement came in the form of a royal decree that was reported late Tuesday by the state-run Saudi Press Agency and state TV.

"I am really excited. This is a good step forward for women's rights," said Aziza Youssef, a professor at King Saud University and one of Saudi Arabia's most vocal women's rights activists. Speaking to The Associated Press from Riyadh, she said women were "happy" but also that the change was "the first step in a lot of rights we are waiting for."

Saudi history offers many examples of women being punished simply for operating a vehicle.

In 1990, 50 women were arrested for driving and lost their passports and their jobs. More than 20 years later, a woman was sentenced in 2011 to 10 lashes for driving, though the late King Abdullah overturned the sentence.

As recently as late 2014, two Saudi women were detained for more than two months for defying the ban on driving when one of them attempted to cross the Saudi border with a license from neighboring United Arab Emirates in an act of defiance.

Youssef took part in numerous driving campaigns, including a

The decree indicated that women will not be allowed to drive immediately. A committee will be formed to look into how to implement the new order, which is slated to take effect in June 2018.

Women in Saudi Arabia have long had to rely on male relatives to get to work or run errands, complicating government efforts to boost household incomes as lower oil prices force austerity measures. The more affluent have male drivers. In major cities, women can access ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Careem.

To celebrate Tuesday's decree, several Saudi women posted images on social media deleting their ride sharing apps.

President Donald Trump commended the order in a White House press office statement that called the change "a positive step toward promoting the rights and opportunities of women in Saudi Arabia." U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the move "a great step in the right direction." She did not comment on whether Saudi Arabia still needs to do more to ensure full rights for its female citizens.

Lori Boghardt, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the change is yet another sign that the crown prince is intent on adopting social reforms that will transform the kingdom.

"Today it's especially clear that this includes moves that've long been thought of by Saudis as politically risky," she said.

AP