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Last Updated: Monday, 13 October, 2003, 20:51 GMT 21:51 UK
Saudis announce first elections
Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler
Pressure is great on the Gulf monarchy to reform
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, has announced it will hold its first council elections, in a move seen as the kingdom's first real political reform.

The government decided to "widen the participation of citizens in running local affairs through elections", the state news agency SPA reported.

Half the members of future councils will be elected under the reform.

The desert kingdom has never had political elections at any level since its creation in 1932.

The council elections are to be held within a year, SPA said, quoting from a statement by the Council of Ministers.

"[This decision comes] to implement King Fahd's speech about widening popular participation and confirming the country's progress towards political and administrative reform," the statement added.

The Saudi city of Mecca during the pilgrimage
Saudi Arabia's holy sites make it the centre of the Islamic world
The announcement came as a conference on human rights - the first ever in Saudi Arabia - got under way in the capital, Riyadh.

Academics and human rights activists from around the world are attending the two-day event.

The BBC's Middle East analyst, Roger Hardy, reports from Riyadh that the conference, entitled "Human rights in peace and war", is being prominently reported in the country.

Among the issues on the agenda will be the rights of women and children.

Opening the conference, the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz, referred to the millions of people around the world whose rights were threatened by war and terrorism.

He singled out the plight of the Palestinians, and our correspondent says his remarks indicate that the Saudi authorities want the conference to be broadly rather than narrowly focused.

Pressure

Our correspondent says the prospect of limited council elections may be too little for some in Saudi Arabia, who have been calling for full national elections.

Observers report that Saudi Arabia has been under mounting pressure to reform its institutions.

The issue has gained urgency since the wave of suicide bombings in Riyadh on 12 May which left 35 people dead, including the nine bombers.

Saudi citizens were also extensively involved in the 11 September attacks on America. US politicians and commentators have accused Saudi Arabia's mixture of autocratic rule and puritanical Wahabi Islam of providing a fertile breeding ground for fanaticism and violence.

Within the country, the attacks have spurred liberals and moderate Islamists to openly express their dismay at what they consider an expanding "culture of violence" promoted by religious radicals.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Frank Gardner
"Saudi women have far fewer rights than men"



SEE ALSO:
Saudi women join reform call
30 Sep 03  |  Middle East
Saudis unveil surprise reform plans
13 Jan 03  |  Americas
Saudis open door to rights group
27 Jan 03  |  Middle East
Saudi 'torture' condemned by UN
16 May 02  |  Middle East
Analysis: Saudi Arabia under fire
13 May 03  |  Middle East
Country profile: Saudi Arabia
15 Sep 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Saudi Arabia
13 May 03  |  Country profiles


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