But a look inside the women's universities that have sprung up over the past decade illustrates how change only goes so far.
Within the campus grounds — a world of strictly female students, teachers and staff — women have some greater freedoms. But outside, women remain bound by a web of customs and religious strictures. Women are kept segregated from men, are barred from simple rights like driving and required to adhere to strict dress codes that often require them to cover their hair and face with a black veil. They are ruled by the whim of male relatives whose permission is required for a woman to work, get an education or travel under "guardianship laws."
With those restrictions in place, women's rights advocates say, the king's drive to modernize the oil-rich nation will always hit a wall.
"No matter what happens, women are still bound by male guardianship laws and strict cultural norms," said Aziza Yousef, a professor at the women's college of King Saud University. "If you are lucky and your male guardian is good, you will move ahead in life fine. If you are in a family where the male guardian is strict, your life will be paralyzed."
Women also face limited job opportunities once they leave the university. Women's participation in the workplace is minimal, in part due to segregation requirements and traditions that encourage women to focus on marriage and children. Although girls make up almost 58 percent of undergraduates, or around 474,000 students, women hold only a third of the jobs in the public sector, and in the private sector the percentage of working women is in the low single digits.
The education push fuels young Saudi women's ambitions, but they still struggle to navigate the limited possibilities.
"I want to be independent and work before I get married," said Shaden el-Hamdan, a 22-year-old studying an English degree at Riyadh's Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University. She's lucky in that her family is not pressing her to get married — her father tells to wait another six years before thinking about it.
But she said she knows getting a job is difficult. She doesn't want to be a teacher, the job of an estimated 78 percent of the women who work. So she talks about trying to find a position at one of the multinational corporations operating in the kingdom. If she can't, she'll stay in school for a Master's.
The overhaul of women's education over the past decade has been significant. Previously, women's colleges were overseen by the Department of Religious Guidance, putting female students under the direct power of clerics. In 2002, they were put under the Education Ministry, which oversees male education. Five years later, the first full women's university was created, the Princess Nora University in Riyadh.
In 2009, the country's first gender-mixed university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, was opened. It was a show of defiance by the king against the country's ultraconservatives, on whose support his power is partly based. When one prominent government cleric criticized the university, the king fired him. Still, it remains the only university where men and women attend lectures together.
Princess Nora University represents the kingdom's focus on beefing up separate women's schooling — and it provides the most visible contrast between campus and street life.
In 2011, a gleaming new PNU campus was inaugurated, able to accommodate 50,000 students. Along with a brand new hospital and an architecturally stunning library, it boasts a state-of-the-art sports complex with a swimming pool, gym, indoor running track and sprawling outdoor soccer fields, a major shift for a country where female athletics have long been frowned upon.
Arabesque latticework, known as mashrabiyas, over the windows provide privacy, and enclosed pedestrian bridges and four metro lines ferry girls around the 800 hectare (nearly 2,000 acre) campus, ensuring that will never be seen by male drivers and campus police outside the buildings.
Several young women on campus quietly described it as a "golden cage."
"The campus itself and the buildings are great, but the faculty is not very strong," 20-year-old Nada el-Agmy said. "I feel like I'm learning things I already know."