Saudis to hold municipal elections in rare vote

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia will begin holding long-delayed municipal elections in April, a ministry said on Wednesday, in a limited political move apparently aimed at helping insulate the US-allied kingdom against a wave of Arab unrest.The Saudi Municipal and Rural Affairs Ministry did not say if women would be able to vote in the elections, which it said would start on an Islamic date likely to correspond to April 23.

Saudi Arabia held phased elections for half the seats on municipal councils in 2005 for the first time in over 40 years, in what was then seen as heralding a political reform process under King Abdullah. But political openings have since withered.Rights campaigners dismissed the move to hold the municipal polls, which were originally scheduled for 2009.“The elections will not have an effect or bring stability to the kingdom because people understand that it’s a political gimmick,” said political activist Muhammed al Qahtani. The king announced $93 billion in social handouts last week, including for security forces and clerics, seemingly seeking to mollify the population and strengthen pillars of Saudi family rule.

There was no mention of political reform, although the king did decree a new body with a large budget to fight corruption. Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, is trying to stave off protests such as those that ousted the rulers of Egypt and Tunisia and spread to neighbouring Yemen, Bahrain and Oman.This month Riyadh sent 1,000 troops to help Bahrain suppress protesters, many of whom had demanded a constitutional monarchy – anathema to the Saudi royals.Women were excluded from the 2005 municipal polls. Since then an already glacial reform process has slowed, although the king has continued to liberalise bits of the economy and outflank hardliner clerics seen as sympathetic to al Qaeda.“My personal view is that women should vote because they represent more than 50 percent of the population,” said Tarek Fadaak, a member of Jeddah city council. “It is hard to say if women will vote. I don’t have any indications.”The Saudi ministry said on its website preparations for the polls, which must be held by October, had begun months ago. A Western diplomat said that April 23 might just be a date in the organising process, rather than when voting would actually take place.Other analysts said the announcement on municipal elections came as no surprise. Nor did it attract any local media fanfare. Instead, newspapers focused on an appeal by King Abdullah not to call him “king of humanity” or “king of hearts” – tags often used by Saudi officials, but which offend some clerics. – Dailytimes