Saudi King's Photo with Women with Uncovered Faces

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King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is not normally associated with radical moves but the 85-year-old monarch is making waves with signals encouraging greater tolerance of women's rights.

In recent days Abdullah's appearance in an unusual group photograph has become a talking point across his realm and the wider Arab world. The king and his brother Crown Prince Sultan were flanked by 40 women dressed in modest abayas but mostly with their faces bare, a novelty that is seen as evidence of rare liberalism at the top.

The king's pose, at a conference in the southern city of Najran last month, is big news because it appears to challenge the norm in a country where unrelated men and women are kept strictly apart, women are covered from head to toe and alcohol and women's driving are banned. Under Saudi law a woman must not leave home without a male "guardian" (her father, husband or brother) to whom she is legally subordinated.

"I think this is a great picture and everyone is talking about it," said Dr Maha Muneef, a prominent physician and government adviser. "This is a picture that sent a message that it is OK to work with women ... and that there's nothing wrong with that."