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Saudi monarchy to hold first-ever polls

Riyadh, Oct. 13 (Reuters): Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, announced today it would hold its first elections to vote for municipal councils, seen as the first concrete political reform in the Gulf Arab state.

The announcement by the cabinet followed growing demands by reformists on de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah to allow wider political participation, elections and freedom of expression in the conservative Muslim kingdom.

In taking this action, Saudi Arabia has joined a growing trend towards experiments in democracy in other Gulf Arab countries. The decision also coincided with the opening of the first human rights conference in Riyadh. “The council of ministers decided to widen participation of citizens in running local affairs through elections by activating municipal councils, with half the members of each council being elected,” the state news agency SPA said.

It did not give further details but seemed to imply that other members would be appointed by the government. It said preparations for the polls should not take more than one year.

“Our happiness will be complete when there are 100 per cent elections,” said 38-year-old Saudi citizen Sultan Abdul-Aziz.

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on US cities — in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis — Riyadh has come under intense pressure by key ally Washington to implement social and political reform in the kingdom which is the cradle of Islam and the world’s largest oil exporter.

Mohammed al-Harfy, a columnist in al-Watan daily, said he hoped the decision was not a one off move to appease reform calls. “I think this is a positive step because many people in our society have been calling for comprehensive elections, including municipal,” he said.

“But this is not enough. We hope these elections are a beginning and would lead to elections in the Shura Council, in universities and the right to form syndicates,” he added.

The cabinet statement said the decision “comes to implement King Fahd’s speech about widening popular participation and confirming the country’s progress towards political and administrative reform... and accountability”. The king pledged in a speech in May to expand reforms following suicide bombings on Western compounds in Riyadh. He said the government would “expand public participation and open up wider horizons for women’s employment”.

The cabinet statement did not make clear whether women will be allowed to vote. Until now women are forbidden to drive and were only issued with identity cards in 2001.

Riyadh has already responded to international disquiet about its restrictive political, social and religious culture by radically reforming what it teaches at its schools by scrapping offensive teachings that promote hatred of Christians and Jews.

The kingdom, under the dynastic rule of the house of Saud since its foundation in the 1930s, has an appointed advisory council but has never had elections for public office.

Foreign and domestic pressure has been mounting on Saudi Arabia, birthplace of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, to speed up democratic reform and crack down on the country's powerful religious establishment to quash rising Muslim militancy.

Saudi analyst Dawoud al-Shiryan said the decision underlined the seriousness of the Saudi government to reform.

”It was expected that the government would have started with small reforms such as administrative, bureaucratic and some economic, but to start with political reforms came as a surprise to many,” he said. (Additional reporting by Fahd Frayyan and Heba Kandil in Dubai)

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