Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, announced on Monday it would hold its first elections to choose municipal councils in what is widely seen as the first concrete political reform in the Gulf Arab state.
The announcement by the cabinet followed increased demands by reformists, intellectuals and academics on de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah to allow wider political participation, elections and freedom of expression in the conservative kingdom.
“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 news agency SPA said.
It did not give further details but seemed to imply that other members would be appointed by the government.
“(This decision comes) to implement King Fahd’s speech about widening popular participation and confirming the country’s progress toward political and administrative reform and reviewing regulations and orders and to monitor performance of government institutions and accountability in all internal affairs,” SPA quoted a cabinet statement as saying.
The king pledged in a speech in May to expand reforms following suicide bombings on Western compounds in Riyadh. He said the government would “expand public participation and open up wider horizons for women’s employment.”
The kingdom, under the dynastic rule of the house of Saud since its foundation some seven decades ago, has an appointed advisory Shura Council but has had never had elections for public office at any level.
U.S. PRESSURE FOLLOWS 9/11 ATTACKS
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities — in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis — Riyadh has come under intense pressure by key ally Washington to implement social and political reform which analysts say could curb rising militancy in the birthplace of Islam and the world’s largest oil exporter.
Saudi Arabia, also birthplace of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, mounted a robust crackdown on militants since May suicide bombings in Riyadh which killed 35 people, but analysts say wide-ranging reforms are needed to tackle a plethora of domestic issues such as unemployment and falling standards of living.
Liberals, encouraged by the crown prince’s call in January for Arab reform, have since made several petitions for an independent judiciary, constitutional reforms, elections to the consultative Shura Council, freedom of expression and the creation of institutions of civil society and economic reform.
The 120-member Shura Council, introduced in 1993, has no legislative powers and limited advisory powers.
The kingdom rules by a strict form of Sunni Islam in alliance with a powerful religious establishment.