- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia announced its first-ever democratic elections yesterday, to be held within a year in all 14 of its regions.

A council for each region will be selected as a step toward implementing reforms promised by King Fahd in May and long backed by the de facto leader, Crown Prince Abdullah.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, has an appointed advisory Shura Council instead of a national parliament, and it has never had elections for public office at any level.

Half the seats for the 14 regional councils will be elected, the Saudi Cabinet said in its announcement yesterday. The other half will presumably be appointed by the Saudi government.

Further details were not immediately available, including a specific date for the elections or whether women will be allowed to vote in this strict Islamic country.

Women here still are forbidden to drive and were issued identity cards only two years ago.

Saudis cannot legally hold public gatherings to discuss political or social issues, and press freedoms are limited.

The Cabinet statement said the decision had been made “to implement King Fahd’s speech about widening popular participation, 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.”

Since the September 11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi nationals, Riyadh has come under intense pressure from Washington to implement social and political reforms in hopes of curbing rising militancy here.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, is cracking down on militants, especially since a series of bomb attacks in Riyadh five months ago.

The nation’s first-ever human rights conference began yesterday in Riyadh, a three-day event that will examine the issue in the context of Islamic law.

Earlier this year, the kingdom announced establishment of two human rights organizations, one government-run and the other independent.

Pressure for change from the United States is a double-edged sword here.

Anti-U.S. sentiment is at an all-time high as a result of the invasion of Iraq and Israel’s handling of the Palestinian uprising.

Saudi reformers who have thrown their lot with American critics of the Saudi state have found themselves increasingly unpopular at home. Lists of such writers have appeared on Islamist Web sites under the heading “apostates.”

The announcement of local elections nevertheless follows increased demands by reformists, intellectuals and academics to allow wider political participation, elections and freedom of expression.

Reformers have recently made several petitions calling for an independent judiciary, constitutional reforms, elections to the Shura Council, freedom of expression and the creation of institutions of civil society and economic reform.

Last month, about 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.

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