RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) - Saudi Arabia decided Monday to hold its first elections, announcing a vote to create local councils in the conservative Persian Gulf monarchy.
The step comes at a time when the Saudi royal family is under pressure to bring democratic reform - especially since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States. Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, has an unelected national advisory body known as the Shura Council, and no parliament.
The Saudi Cabinet said in a statement, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, that it "has decided to expand the participation of citizens in running local affairs through elections, by empowering the roles of municipal councils."
Elections will be held in 14 municipalities throughout the country, with only half their members being elected, the statement said.
The Cabinet did not say when elections would take place. Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, ordered relevant government bodies to complete, within one year, all necessary procedures for the elections.
Political analyst Dawoud al-Sheryan praised the move, pointing out that "one year ago, just writing about elections was considered an offense." He said the elections should be free and fair, adding a vote should also be held for the Shura Council.
In 1975, Saudi authorities issued a law to form municipal councils, but it never happened.
Mohammed al-Masaari, head of the London-based Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights in Saudi Arabia, downplayed the significance of Monday's announcement, telling The Associated Press that it "will result in nothing."
"The law has been there (for decades) ... but there has never been any elections yet," said al-Masaari, whose group opposes the ruling Al Saud family and wants a popularly elected government.
Saudis cannot hold public gatherings to discuss political or social issues, and press freedoms are limited.
But the fear of domestic terrorism, which was brought home for Saudis after the May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh, initiated an unprecedented public debate, and some of the kingdom's rulers have discussed opening the society. Critics say a lack of democratic freedoms has made the kingdom a breeding ground for extremists.
Last month, some 300 Saudi men and women signed a petition, the third this year, urging Saudi rulers to speed promised reforms to ward off the influence of extremist Islam in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia adheres to the puritan Wahhabi sect of Islam, which enforces a strict moral code.
Economist and Shura Council member, Ihsan Bu Haliqa, said the creation of individual municipalities would have a great affect on efforts to decentralize Saudi government services.
Elected members "will be able to participate in decision making in matters that concern them and be involved with something that touches their daily lives," he told AP.
Appointing members to individual councils will also lead to better management of resources and projects throughout the barren, desert country, he added.
Governments throughout the Middle East have been making various efforts at reform, particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Of the six Gulf states, only Kuwait and Bahrain have elected legislative parliaments, but women are barred from voting or running for office in Kuwait. Qatar has said it will hold parliamentary elections in 2004 and both sexes will be able to vote.
Last month, the ruling party in Egypt launched a campaign of reforms aimed at lifting the country out of debt and stagnation.
While hailed by many as a step in the right direction, the National Democratic Party congress was seen by critics as offering Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a platform to display his leadership credentials ahead of taking over from his 79-year-old father, who has ruled the country since 1981.