Saudi Arabia announced Wednesday it will allow women in the ultra-conservative kingdom to serve in the armed forces as it embarks on a broad program of economic and social reforms.

The move is the latest in a series of measures aimed at increasing the rights of women in the kingdom, even as rights groups accuse Riyadh of cracking down on women activists.

“Another step to empowerment,” the Foreign Ministry wrote on Twitter, adding that women would be able to serve as private first class, corporal or sergeant.

Last year, Saudi Arabia authorized women to join its security forces.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has approved a handful of reforms aimed at widening women’s rights, including allowing them to drive and to travel abroad without consent from a male “guardian.”

But he has at the same time overseen the arrest of several prominent women’s rights campaigners, including activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude exporter, is pushing to improve its image and attract tourists as part of a plan to diversify its economy away from oil.

Meanwhile, thousands of Iranian women fans are to attend a soccer match freely Thursday for the first time in decades, after FIFA threatened to suspend the country over its controversial male-only policy.

The Islamic republic has barred female spectators from soccer and other stadiums for around 40 years, with clerics arguing they must be shielded from the masculine atmosphere and sight of semi-clad men.

World soccer’s governing body FIFA ordered Iran last month to allow women access to stadiums without restriction and in numbers determined by demand for tickets.

The directive came after a fan dubbed “Blue Girl” died after setting herself on fire in fear of being jailed for dressing up as a boy to attend a match.

Women were quick to get their hands on tickets to attend Iran’s 2022 World Cup qualifier against Cambodia at Tehran’s 100,000-capacity Azadi Stadium on Thursday.

The first batch sold out in less than an hour, and additional seats were also snapped up in short order, state media said.

One of the 3,500 women to have secured a ticket was Raha Poorbakhsh, a soccer journalist.

“I still can’t believe this is going to happen because after all these years of working in this field, watching everything on television, now I can experience everything in person,” she told AFP.

But Poorbakhsh said she was aware of many other women enthusiasts left without tickets.

There have been rare occasions in recent years when Iranian women have been allowed to watch matches, but this time they were free to buy their own tickets, albeit a set number.

Using the hashtag #WakeUpFifa, women have taken to social media to demand more tickets.

While women have already taken up their entire allocation, only 2,500 men have so far purchased electronic tickets for the more than 70,000 seats available to them, ISNA news agency said.

Those lucky enough to attend will be segregated from men and watched over by 150 female police officers.

– AFP