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Saudis Plan to Hold First Elections

October 14, 2003|From Reuters

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The Saudi kingdom, an absolute monarchy, announced Monday that it would hold its first elections, a vote for municipal councils.

The announcement by the Cabinet followed growing demands by reformists on de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah to allow wider political participation, elections and freedom of expression in the conservative Islamic country.

The statement did not say whether women, who are forbidden to drive, would be allowed to vote.

"The council of ministers decided to widen participation of citizens in running local affairs through elections by activating municipal councils, with half the members of each council being elected," the state-run news agency SPA said.

It suggested that the rest would be named by the state, and said preparations for polls should not take more than a year.

"Our happiness will be complete when there are 100% elections," said 38-year-old Saudi citizen Sultan Abdulaziz.

Since the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, Riyadh has come under intense pressure from Washington, a key political ally, to implement social and political reform in the kingdom, which is the cradle of Islam and the world's largest oil exporter.

King Fahd pledged in a speech in May to expand reforms after suicide bombings on Western compounds in Riyadh. He said the government would "expand public participation and open up wider horizons for women's employment."

Riyadh has responded to Western disquiet about its restrictive political, social and religious culture by scrapping school teachings that promoted hatred of Christians and Jews.

The kingdom has an appointed advisory council but has never had elections for public office.

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