Saudi Arabia has opened up membership of one of the country’s most senior political institutions to women for the first time, in one of the most significant changes to the role of females in society.

In appointing a new Shura Council, an unelected advisory body, King Abdullah issued a new decree on 11 January stipulating that 20 per cent of the 150 member council must be women. The king also named 30 women, the minimum number, that would take up a four year term on the council.

Although the council lacks the power to change or veto legislation, it can review it, and the appointment is considered a significant platform for women to take on a more prominent role in Saudi culture and politics.

The royal decree insists that female council members “strictly follow the Islamic Sharia regulations,” including covering their heads, and avoiding contact with men. It added that the council building will have an entrance just for women, and special working areas “guaranteeing complete isolation” from male council members. The announcement also made clear that the king had consulted with Islamic scholars to get their approval for the new members.

Of the 30 women appointed by King Abdullah to the Shura Council two are members of the royal family, Princess Sarah, a daugther of the late King Faisal, and Princess Modi, daughter of late King Khalid.

King Abdullah has been on the throne since 2005 and the latest announcement continues his cautious approach towards reform. Although the appointment of women to the council is significant, they remain unable to drive, mix with men they are not related to, and are legally subject to male guardians.