Today marks an historic event in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Thousands of men are taking part in the country’s first nationwide municipal elections. More than 1,800 candidates are competing for 104 seats in the Riyadh area. They include businessmen, tribal figures, security chiefs, academics and officials. After Riyadh, the next two phases of the polls will see the south and east of the country voting in early March and the north and west casting their ballots in late April.
Critics say the elections are a cosmetic response to internal and external demands for reform. Only 148,000 of 400,000 eligible men have registered to vote in Riyadh. Women are not taking part at all. For the mayor of Riyadh, Prince Abdel Aziz ben Ayyaf al-Moqrin, it is still a major step.
He told reporters: “I am satisfied with the process of opening up in the kingdom.” He added that the authorities would recommend allowing women to vote in the next elections in 2009. The polls are part of a cautious reform programme introduced by de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah, who has faced pressure from domestic activists and his main ally, the United States. Just half the members of municipal councils are being elected. The rest will continue to be appointed.