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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 August, 2004, 21:53 GMT 22:53 UK
Saudi to hold polls in November
Saudi men flee police during a rally in Riyadh
Rare political rallies have been held in Riyadh
Saudi Arabia has announced it will holds its first nationwide elections starting in November.

Council elections will be held in the capital Riyadh after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in mid-November, the official SPA news agency reports.

A second stage will take place in the east and south before the annual Hajj, which begins in January, and the rest of the country will vote after that.

The polls are being seen as a first step towards political reform.

Saudi Arabia - an absolute monarchy - has never had political elections at any level since its creation in 1932.

Criticism

The desert kingdom has come under pressure from the US and campaigners for change.

US politicians and commentators say the country's mixture of autocratic rule and puritanical Wahabi Islam has provided a fertile breeding ground for fanaticism and violence.

Domestic reformers have been more vocal than ever in their criticism of unemployment, corruption and the absence of free speech.

Saudi Arabia announced last October that it planned to hold elections.

Correspondents said at the time that the prospect of limited council elections may be too little for some in Saudi Arabia, who were calling for full national elections.

SPA news agency said Wednesday's announcement came after Saudi officials met UN experts to discuss the details of the poll.



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