[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 10 February, 2005, 01:45 GMT
Saudis' first exercise in democracy
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Riyadh

A Saudi man reads a newspaper with pictures of municipal election candidates in Riyadh
Some 650 candidates are fighting for just seven seats in Riyadh
The absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia is having its first ever exercise in democracy as it holds nationwide elections at the municipal level.

The elections are in three rounds, with Riyadh kicking off the vote.

For the past two weeks, there has been frantic campaigning all over the city.

Posters of candidates have gone up, flyers have been distributed, and some mobile phone text messages have even been offering to help candidates buy votes.

But the Western-style campaigning has also been accompanied by tradition.

Supporters of a municipal election candidate gather outside his campaign tent in Riyadh
Campaign tents have sprung up around the capital
Everywhere, large Bedouin tents were put up, sometimes in the shadow of the capital's skyscrapers.

Just outside, fires were burning with people huddling around and drinking strong black coffee.

Several thousand sheep have been slaughtered every evening to feed guests attending campaign rallies held inside the multitude of tents set up by some 650 candidates vying for just seven seats in Riyadh.

"As a Saudi citizen I believe that this is the first step towards full democracy," said Sulaiman al-Enezi, a media manager for one of the candidates.

"Ask someone 10 years ago and he will tell you, you are crazy, you are dreaming, but now we can see the dream come true and I don't see it stopping here."

Women banned

But he pointed out that the dream has not come true for everybody.

Saudi men at an election campaign meeting in Riyadh
Only men are taking part in the poll
Women, who make up more than 50% of the population, are banned from participating in the polls.

This is despite neutral rules that say citizens over 21 years of age - except military personnel - have the right to vote.

Officials cited logistical reasons behind the exclusion of women.

Recently, women were allowed to have their ID cards but only 6% of Saudi women requested them.

Phase 1 - 10 Feb (Riyadh reg)
Phase 2 - 3 Mar (5 regions)
Phase 3 - 21 Apr (7 regions)
Total number of councils - 178
Total contested seats - 592
Councils in phase 1 - 38
Seats in phase 1 - 104
Candidates in phase 1 - 1,818
Without ID cards, voters cannot register and officials say it was not possible to issue ID cards for all women before the vote.

But they have promised that women will be part of the next elections in 2009.

"I understand the logistical problem but still we are very depressed that we have not been allowed to vote, this is our right," said 25-year-old Iman Qahtani, a journalist.

"Another major reason behind our exclusion is the fact that this is still a conservative society and it would not have been acceptable for many to see women cast their votes, let alone be part of the municipal council."

'Turning point'

Voters will also be electing only half of the municipal council. The other half will still be appointed.

Still, the elections have been described as an important turning point for the country.

The poll is part of Saudi Arabia's measured response to domestic and international pressure to bring about reform in the kingdom and introduce some political participation.

"Although such a step appears small and humble, it carries many indications because it's the first time that basic preparations for elections are held," said Labour Minister Ghazi Algosaibi.

According to officials, the next step might involve giving more powers to the Majlis al-Shura, the appointed consultative council.

There has also been talk about holding elections for the next term of the council in four years.

"The problem is that the government is giving this right to the people but the people are not really getting involved," said Riyadh council candidate Badr Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Saidan, referring to the fact that only about 25% of eligible voters registered.

"It's not a bad percentage, but since we have been fighting for this... we thought it would be 100%," he said.

"But maybe it's ignorance, people don't know how to register and they didn't realise it would come to this, having people campaigning, and I'm sure we have more and more people who regret not having registered."

Women will not be voting in the Saudi elections

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific