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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 August, 2004, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK
Saudi women left in dark on vote

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Newspapers in Saudi Arabia have published an election law ahead of the country's first nationwide polls.

A women talks on a mobile phone in a Saudi shopping centre
Women are waiting to see if they will be allowed to take part
Citizens will be able to choose half the members of municipal councils.

The law says voters should be over 21 but does not specify whether women will be allowed to take part.

The Saudi authorities had initially said the elections would be held by October this year.

But the lack of any sign of preparation led many observers to conclude they had been postponed.

It looked as if the government's preoccupation was with security rather than reform.

Since May last year, the security forces have been locked in confrontation with Islamic militants suspected of having links to al-Qaeda.

About 100 people have been killed, most of them foreigners, in a string of attacks in different parts of the country.

Conservatives

Now officials have said the municipal elections will go ahead in three phases, beginning in the capital, Riyadh, and then spreading to the rest of the country.

Armoured personnel carrier in Riyadh
The government's preoccupation has been with security
Saudi women have been waiting to see whether they will be allowed to take part.

The election law specifies only the age limit and Saudi commentators tend to think that, despite the ambiguity, women are unlikely to get the vote.

They suspect the government is nervous of provoking a backlash from religious conservatives.

The election law says public-awareness campaigns will take place in September and October.

On the whole, Saudi liberals have welcomed the decision to go ahead with the elections as a small step in the right direction.

But partial elections fall well short of the far-reaching political, economic and social reforms they have been calling for in a series of petitions to the ruling House of Saud.

On Monday, three well-known Saudi reformists were put on trial for, among other things, calling for a constitutional monarchy.

The trial is widely seen as a warning to reformists not to push for faster and more radical change.



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