Women in Saudi Arabia will be granted the right to vote for the first time, King Abdullah announced on Sunday, in a huge shift toward liberalization and reform in one of the world's most conservative countries. The king announced the change in a speech opening the newest term of the country's Shura Council, an all-appointed legislative body on which women will now also be allowed to serve.

The move is “extraordinary,” the BBC reported, noting that Saudi Arabia continues to maintain serious restrictions on the rights of women. They cannot legally drive cars or leave the country unaccompanied by a man.

Saudi writer Nimah Ismail Nawwab told the BBC: "This is something we have long waited for and long worked towards."

She said activists had been campaigning for 20 years on driving, guardianship and voting issues.

Another campaigner, Wajeha al-Huwaider, said the king's announcement was "great news".

There was no word from Abdullah about changing the driving restrictions, and the new voting rights in municipal elections will not take effect until after the voting that is scheduled to take place on Thursday. That vote is itself unusual, as Al Arabiya noted. The voting for seats on municipal councils is only the second such election “in recent memory,” the news service said. The move toward greater rights for women is in keeping with a trend of gestures toward reform by the king.

King Abdullah has long been pushing cautious political reforms, but in a country where conservative clerics and senior members of the ruling family oppose even minor changes, liberalization has been very gradual.

He built a new university for students of both sexes and encouraged women to participate more in the labor market.

Saudi Arabia will hold only its second nationwide elections in recent memory on Thursday for seats on municipal councils, but critics of the ruling al-Saud family say the poll, in which voting is limited to men, is a charade.

Supporters of the absolute monarchy say the elections are designed to give Saudis a greater say in politics, but critics point out that the elections are for only half the seats on councils that have few powers.

A group of more than 60 Saudi intellectuals and activists had already called for a boycott of Thursday's election because it would exclude women from voting.