BEIRUT, Lebanon — Some Saudi women joked about rushing to the airport — alone. Others breathed a sigh of relief that the men in their lives — whether fathers, brothers or husbands — could no longer dictate their movements. Social media crackled with ecstatic posts: memes of women praising the crown prince and ululating in celebration.
The jubilation came Friday as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman extended a passel of new rights to women: the right to travel without a male relative’s permission, to receive equal treatment in the workplace and to obtain family documents from the government. Together, they were a significant blow against a system that has long treated women as second-class citizens.
“This change means women are in a way in full control of their legal destiny,” Muna AbuSulayman, a well-known Saudi media personality, wrote on Twitter. She said she was so elated that she could not sleep.
The new regulations were the most significant weakening yet of Saudi Arabia’s so-called guardianship system, a longstanding tangle of laws, regulations and social customs that subjected many women’s rights to the whims of their male relatives. Coming after new regulations allowing women to drive and attend entertainment and sporting events, the changes have the potential to be a game changer, not only for women but for Saudi society.
“It is a great breakthrough,” Hoda al-Helaissi, a member of the kingdom’s advisory Shura Council, said on Friday. “It was bound to happen, but these changes are always done at a time when the people are more apt to accept the changes, otherwise they will fail.”
The advances for women are a key piece of Prince Mohammed’s vision for reforming the kingdom by diversifying the economy and loosening social restrictions. Since his father ascended the throne in 2015, Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler, has won plaudits for taming the kingdom’s religious police, allowing movie theaters and music concerts, and lifting the ban on women driving.
But along with that social opening have come riskier moves that have raised questions about his brash leadership style, including his catastrophic war in Yemen, the jailing of dissidents at home, and the effort to silence them abroad, including the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Even as Prince Mohammed opened new doors for Saudi women, critics pointed out, some women who had campaigned for those rights remained in jail or on trial for their activism.
At least some of the changes to the guardianship laws are to take effect by the end of the month, the government said in a statement. But they will likely take longer to trickle down through the Saudi bureaucracy to individual households, and some women said they would only be truly equal once they received other rights they still lack, such as the ability to marry or live on their own without a male relative’s permission.
Even so, the changes were pivotal.
“These new regulations are history in the making,” Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, the kingdom’s ambassador to the United States and Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador, wrote on Twitter. “They call for the equal engagement of women and men in our society.”
She added: “Our leadership has proved its unequivocal commitment to gender equality.”
In recent years, Prince Mohammed has loosened restrictions on women’s dress and pushed for more women to enter the work force, billing the social opening as essential to build the insular Islamic kingdom’s economy.
It was not clear why the new regulations were announced now, but the news was likely to draw some attention from the mounting foreign criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
The murder of Mr. Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year drew global condemnation. Saudi forces are bogged down and accused of war crimes in Yemen, leading to growing calls by American lawmakers to cut support for the Saudi war effort. And waves of arrests have scooped up clerics, intellectuals, royals, businessmen and activists who had campaigned for an end to the guardianship system.
A number of young Saudi women have fled abroad in recent years, seeking refuge from abusive family members and a legal system they do not trust to protect them, drawing unwanted attention to the guardianship system.
The arrests, and the wider intolerance of dissent under Prince Mohammed, made it hard to fully gauge public reaction to the changes, but many Saudi women cheered them as liberating.
Ms. al-Helaissi, the Shura Council member, said she did not expect the changes to have a great immediate effect on most families, but said the biggest beneficiaries would be divorced or widowed women who could now run their family affairs more easily.
The regulations allowing women to register births, marriages and divorces will make an enormous difference for women who are separated from their husbands and those who need to navigate the bureaucracy on behalf of their children, said Adam Coogle, a Saudi expert at Human Rights Watch.
In the past, he said, separated women have reported being punished or extorted by husbands who would not help obtain birth certificates or other bureaucratic records for children.
The ban on employment discrimination will also prevent private employers from telling women that they need a guardian’s permission to be hired, a common practice even though current law does not require women to obtain consent to work.
The new regulations are unlikely to produce instant changes across Saudi society, especially in conservative homes, where men may retain power over female relatives regardless of what the laws say.
Absent some kind of government intervention to enforce the regulations, Mr. Coogle said, employers and officials may continue to require guardians’ involvement.
“That’s the trick,” he said. “We have to see what kind of infrastructure they put in place to implement these changes.”
But about two-thirds of the kingdom’s 22 million citizens are under age 30, and many lack their elders’ attachment to the kingdom’s traditional social strictures. They are already used to seeing women working as supermarket cashiers and driving themselves to and from work.
Ms. AbuSulayman said on Twitter that while her father never put obstacles in her path, she had gone so far as to consider moving abroad to avoid being subject to the guardianship of her brothers.
Now, she said, her eldest daughter — who, under the current system, would have had to obtain her father’s permission to renew her passport this year — will grow up without restrictions on her right to travel.
“She will never know about this episode in our nation’s life,” Ms. AbuSulayman wrote. “A generation growing up completely free and equal to their brothers.”
But Saudi women’s experiences of guardianship can vary drastically according to their class and education, as well as their male guardians’ attitudes.
If “some women’s dreams were aborted” by the travel barriers, Ms. AbuSulayman wrote, they were “a minor nuisance for most.” Still, she said, they were “a symbolic indignity for a wider concept of adulthood, accountability and meaning of personhood.”
Saudi social codes have long been driven by an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam and by traditional Arabian practices that kept women not only out of public life but also out of sight in many cases.
Girls’ education was introduced only in the 1960s, and even then it caused trouble in conservative cities. For decades, top state clerics have promoted strict segregation between women and men and have preached that it would be better if women stayed at home.
Most of those clerics have now been silenced and some of their old teachings expunged from government websites. While many likely oppose Prince Mohammed’s social reforms, they have kept quiet, either out of deference to the monarchy or because they fear arrest for speaking out.
Critics of the guardianship laws hailed the changes but they called on the kingdom to push further by allowing women to marry, live on their own and exit state facilities like domestic violence shelters without consent from their guardians.
And they noted a distinct irony in the announcement. Even as the kingdom loosens the cuffs of guardianship, about a dozen female Saudi activists who spoke out about reforming the system remain imprisoned on charges related to their activism on women’s issues.
Some have been detained for more than a year, undergoing court proceedings wrapped in secrecy, and rights groups have said that they have reported being tortured and sexually harassed while in prison.
“As long as the women activists are still being tried and charged for calling for these same reforms, well, we’re still within the same social contract,” said Lynn Maalouf, the director of Middle East research for Amnesty International.