Saudi Arabia to Hold First Local-Level Elections

The Saudi Cabinet said in a statement that it “has decided to expand the participation of citizens in running local affairs through elections, by empowering the roles of municipal councils,” the Saudi Press Agency reported.

The Cabinet did not say when the elections would take place, but Crown Prince Abdullah, who has been Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler since his half brother King Fahd became ill, directed government bodies to complete necessary procedures for the elections within one year, according to the Associated Press.

Elections will be held in 14 municipalities throughout the country, with half of the members elected, the statement said, and presumably the other half appointed by the government, Reuters reported.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, has an appointed Shura Council — a 120-member body with no legislative authorities and some advisory powers — but has never held public elections at any level.

Political analyst Dawoud al-Sheryan praised the move, according to the AP. “One year ago, just writing about elections was considered an offense,” he said, adding that a vote should also be held for the Shura Council.

In 1975, Saudi authorities issued a law to form municipal councils, but it never took effect.

Last month, about 300 Saudi men and women signed a petition, the third this year, calling for promised reforms to curb extremist Islam movements. Critics have said the lack of democratic freedoms have created a breeding ground for extremists.

Fahd pledged to expand reforms in May, following the suicide bombings in Riyadh that killed 35 people. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — in which the majority of the hijackers were Saudis — also prompted U.S. officials to urge more democratic reforms.