Saudi Arabia is set to allow women obtain driving licenses, overturning a cornerstone of Saudi conservatism that had been a cause célèbre for activists demanding reforms in the fundamentalist kingdom.

King Salman ordered the reform in a royal decree delivered on Tuesday night, requesting that drivers’ licences be issued to women who wanted them.

Following the decree, women will no longer need permission from a legal guardian to get a licence and will not need a guardian in the car when they drive, said the new Saudi ambassador to Washington DC, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

“I think our leadership understands our society is ready,” he told reporters.

Asked by reporters if Saudi Arabia planned to relax the guardianship laws, or take any other steps to expand women’s rights, Salman would not comment.

The decision comes amid a broad reform program that last week led to women being allowed into a sports stadium for the first time.

It is the most significant change yet to a rigidly conservative social order in Saudi Arabia that has strictly demarcated gender roles, and severely limits the role of women in public life.

The move had been widely anticipated amid a transformation of many aspects of Saudi society that has been branded by one senior minister as “cultural revolution disguised as economic reform”. Recent months have seen live concert performances in Riyadh – albeit to male-only audiences – while the powers of the once-omnipresent religious police have been curtailed.