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Last Updated: Friday, 17 October, 2003, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Saudi elections 'in three years'

By Roger Hardy
BBC, in Jeddah

A prominent human rights campaigner in Saudi Arabia has told the BBC the government plans to hold national elections in three years time.

Mohammed Said Tayeb says he has been told by Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan there will be a three-phase process culminating in partial elections for the country's consultative council, whose members are currently appointed.

Saudi men flee police during the rally in Riyadh
Saudi witnessed a rare political protest earlier this week

Mr Tayeb - who has helped organise a number of petitions calling for political reform -was one of the prime movers behind a petition signed last month by more than 300 Saudi intellectuals, including women as well as men, calling for far-reaching political reforms.

He and two of the other signatories were received by Prince Sultan, who told them the process would begin at grassroots level, with elections for 14 municipal councils next year.

The following year there would be elections at the city level and in the third year there would be nationwide elections for 30% of the members of the majlis al-shura, or consultative council, whose 120 members are currently appointed.

Popular pressure

So far, only the first phase of this process has been made public, but well-informed Saudis have confirmed the main thrust of Mr Tayeb's account while adding that important details remain to be worked out.

Mr Tayeb told the BBC he hoped women would take part in the proposed elections, but doubted they would.

If implemented, these would be the most important political reforms in Saudi Arabia's 70-year history.

The steps the government has already announced come at a time of unprecedented pressure for change from a population more vocal than ever in its criticism of unemployment, corruption and the absence of free speech.

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