How nice it would be to praise one of the world's richest but most backward countries for finally taking a step to elevate the status of its women.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has issued an important decree permitting women to vote and to seek local elective office and seats on the king's advisory council as of 2015. But the action puts the kingdom nowhere close to where it should be, here in the 21st century.

Saudi Arabia still doesn't allow women to drive, reportedly the only country on the planet with such a restriction (although women may legally fly aircraft as long as a man drives them to the airport). Women risk being beaten if they appear in public without covering everything but their hands and eyes.

Saudi democracy remains in its infancy. Last week's male-only elections in the kingdom marked only the second time in the kingdom's history in which a popular vote has been held. All elective offices carry minimal power since the king is the ultimate arbiter of everything under his domain.

What weight should we give to the king's decision on women? According to some reports, women who seek election may do so only with the consent of their closest male guardian. In order to campaign, they will have to ask a male to drive them around.

A Saudi woman was sentenced to 10 lashes last week for driving herself on the streets of Jeddah, along the Red Sea. Two other women are slated for trial later this year for the same offense. It is an absurd state of affairs, based more on insular, outdated Saudi traditions than on written Islamic stricture.

Around the Muslim world, laws permit women to dress, worship and run their lives as they please, although domestic mores typically put a brake on many freedoms.

Women's powers vary greatly, from rural Afghanistan, where their status often ranks only slightly above that of farm animals, to the freewheeling bikini beaches of Muslim-dominated west Beirut and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Women helped lead the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square that ended half a century of dictatorship. The three most populous Muslim countries -- Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh -- all have had women prime ministers or presidents.

It's a shame that Saudi Arabia ranks far closer to the most illiterate, remote corners of Afghanistan than its modern Muslim counterparts on gender equality.

So, sadly, this is not a time to praise King Abdullah for his bold steps to nudge his people out of the dark ages -- even though bold steps they are.

We can only hope that the women elected to advise his government in the future will keep pressing for bigger changes. With their male relatives' permission, of course.