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Saudi Arabia to allow women to join military for first time

The move is the latest in a series of policy changes designed to change the image of the ultra-conservative kingdom
Saudi women watch golfers compete in the Saudi Ladies International golf tournament (AFP)

Saudi Arabia has announced it will allow women to apply for the military for the first time in its history.

A decree issued in the kingdom at the weekend said the army, navy, air force, missile defence and medical corps would be opening up recruitment for women up to non-commissioned officer level.

There will be seperate age and height restrictions imposed - women will have to be a minimum of 1.55m tall compared to 1.6m for men, and will have to be between the ages of 21 and 40, compared with 17 to 40 for men.

'These are not gifts to the Saudi people. They are rights to which they are entitled'

- Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of DAWN

Wives with foreign husbands will not be eligible.

The move is the latest in a series of policy changes brought forward by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in a bid to try and change the image of the ultra-conservative kingdom, which included allowing women to drive in 2018.

The policies, lauded by supporters as steps forward for women's rights in the country, have been treated with scepticism by human rights campaigners, however, who say they have whitewashed a widespread crackdown on dissent, including against women's rights activists.

Earlier in February, the kingdom provisionally released feminist activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was arrested in May 2018 with around a dozen other women activists, weeks before the lifting of the driving ban.

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During her incarceration, her family said she was subjected to torture and sexual abuse. Despite being released, she is banned from travelling or giving media interviews, and is on a three-year probation.

Numerous other women's right activists still remain in jail.

“The decision to allow the recruitment of women into the military is a welcome sign of reform and change but overwhelmingly tailored to serve as a counter to Mohammed bin Salman's disastrous record of oppression in the country," Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for Arab World Now (DAWN), told Middle East Eye.

"The measures of social liberalisation that MBS has implemented come on the backs of activists who for decades have championed these changes and are continuing to pay the price with oppression, torture and jail time," she added.

"These are not gifts to the Saudi people. They are rights to which they are entitled.”