Yet the king's decision to let women vote and even run for office in such elections is a welcome crack in his society's stony indifference to the rights of women, who should at least be no more unfree than Saudi men.
Such doleful equality is still far off; the new policy doesn't take effect until 2015. Meanwhile Saudi women are among the world's most oppressed. They aren't allowed to drive a car and need the approval of a male guardian for marriage, divorce, education or to leave the country. The requirement that they cover their hair and body in the presence of unrelated men means that they go around even on the hottest days fully cloaked except for an eye-slit. A kind of Jim Crow prevails, but based on gender, with women relegated to separate entrances and secondary facilities.
What motivated the king's new policy? Fear. The Arab spring has all Middle Eastern tyrants worried; in March the king announced plans to spend $130 billion on affordable housing and other initiatives aimed at mollifying his subjects. Saudi women, meanwhile, have been demanding change, and will no doubt make the most of their right to vote.
But this is only a beginning. Saudi women are entitled to join the 21st century. First their rulers must let them emerge from the dark ages.