And it was all going so well. Red carpets had been rolled out around the world for the reforming new Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman who, among other things, is being feted internationally for lifting the ban on women driving in his home Kingdom.

But news has now emerged of women activists being detained in the run up to Sunday’s historic moment. Some nine activists have been taken into custody, for, apparently, trying to undermine the security and social fabric of Saudi Arabia. It’s unclear how many are still detained – but does this show that despite all the slick media and photo-ops little has changed in the country of my birth?

Well, despite this spasm of authoritarian hypersensitivity I prefer to take the optimistic view. Sunday 24 June of 2018 will be a monumental moment in the history of Saudi Arabia and a triumphant achievement for the many courageous women and some men who defied law and tradition to fight for women’s right to drive.

Since news of the decree allowing women to drive for the first time was quietly announced at the United Nations by King Salman’s ambassador Ali Al-Moalmi in September 2017, it has grabbed international attention, and been celebrated by supporters worldwide.

But the battle to reach gender equality in Saudi Arabia is far more profound than the right to drive. For what Saudi women have achieved now in the lifting of the driving ban is a reflection of decades of assiduous work to prove their worth as equals.

Saudi women have historically been confined to the role of homemakers – serving their families and living under the guardianship of men – in a state of gentle subjugation that the rest of the western world left behind in the 1950s.

That’s not to say there was no formal education available for young girls. In the late 50s, the Dar Al Hanan, Saudi Arabia’s first private school for women was built. A major influence behind the project was King Faisal’s Turkish wife, Iffat, an educated woman who played a vital role for women’s education, and who wanted Saudi women to engage in a wider fight for equality. Although there was much opposition from Islamic clerics, King Faisal gently pushed female education – while making sure that it was not compulsory for those who objected to it.

Fast forward 20 years and the oil boom led to thousands of men – and a few women – being granted scholarships to study abroad, especially in the United States.

Gradually the number of women being given the opportunity to study abroad snowballed  – threefold in a decade – in what now seems a crucial moment in the equal right’s movement.

Suddenly Saudi women had an insight into a more liberal lifestyle and a world where inequality was not tolerated. The seed had been planted and women felt increasingly empowered allowing them to dream of ultimately a soft power revolution for their rights back in their homeland.

Brains buzzing, and excited by the freedoms of the West, Saudi women returned home to the same stifling world of their mother’s and grandmother’s. Worse still as the Gulf War approached they saw Western female troops driving on their streets when they were forbidden to do so.

A brave few Saudi women defied the law and took to the streets.

This angered religious clerics who issued a fatwa (a religious edict) banning women from driving. Some of the women lost their jobs. Others were taken into custody and released once their male guardians signed a pledge that the women would not attempt to drive again.

There were other more gruesome milestones. In 2002, fifteen girls were burned to death in a middle school for girls in the Makkah region. Firefighters were prevented from rescuing them by the Mutawa (Islamic Religious Police) because the girls might not have been wearing the mandatory Islamic dress (Abaya) when the blaze engulfed their dormitory in the early morning of the 11th March.

Such tragic incidents were once commonplace and dramatically underlined the practical consequences of enforced gender inequality and women’s rights.

The women’s movement has been aided hugely too by the Internet – made publicly available in 1999 in Saudi Arabia. Social media too in the last decade has helped illustrate the futility of denying women the same equalities at home that they’ve experienced elsewhere.

In 2011, a page called “Women2Drive” on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter was created to campaign against the religious fatwa on the women’s driving ban. One of the brains behind this campaign, Manal Al-Sharif, filmed herself driving a car in the city of Khobar and posted the video onto social media. The video went viral in Saudi Arabia. Al-Sharif was detained for nine days for inciting public disorder. Yet, she has inspired many more women to continue their fight for equal rights.

Since then the changes have been gaining momentum. In 2007, the Saudi Arabia granted women the right to work in retail, within stores that sell female-specific products; such as lingerie and cosmetics, work previously done by men or foreigners. Not only has this increased the employment rate of women, it has also abolished social conventions that imposed segregation between males and females in the work place.

Politically, women were finally allowed in 2011 to participate in municipal elections, and then appointed in 2013 to the influential Shura council – an advisory body linked directly to the King.

So for all the criticism of previous Saudi rulers this Sunday is the logical outcome for aspirational targets set in place by the authorities more than 30 years ago to prepare Saudi society for such a big shift.

Consider this. Approximately 60 percent of university graduates in Saudi Arabia are female. And the number of Saudi women who hold higher degrees are far larger compared to their male counterparts.

Back home – with the World Cup now running – how refreshing to see Princess Reema Bint Bandar as the first Saudi female to head a government multi-sports federation, covering sport for – shock horror – men as well!

Now in the run up to the lifting of the driving ban the first licenses are being issued in Riyadh and Jeddah to Saudi women. And it’s front-page news.

These women will probably cut their teeth on traditional family cars and 4 by 4s to start with. But I wonder, how many might already have their eye on the supercars driven by Saudi men in London. Surely, the streets of London next summer could be a whole lot busier.

Najah Al-Otaibi is a Senior Analyst at the Arabia Foundation