The government originally promised that all the elections would take place by October, but the necessity of extensive preparations led many to believe that they would be delayed into 2005. The decision to proceed with elections this autumn follows talks in which UN representatives met with committee members supervising the election, the government’s specialist working team and international experts contracted by the Municipal & Rural Affairs Ministry. An electoral roll has been drawn up, and Municipal & Rural Affairs Minister Prince Miteb bin Abdulaziz has approved regulations for the election of council members, although details are yet to be announced.
Details on eligibility to vote are also awaited, but it seems certain that women will not be enfranchised. Given the novelty of the proceedings to those who will be voting, a media campaign to promote electoral awareness is to take place in September and October.
Since the decision to hold the polls was made in October last year, the kingdom has been dogged by terrorist activity, which by June had resulted in an estimated 90 deaths. The success of the government amnesty for militants, which came to an end on 22 July, was limited, with only four insurgents giving themselves up and another three said to be in negotiations.
The government has continued to make some progress since the expiry of the deadline. An Interior Ministry source announced on 31 July that security forces had found large quantities of weapons and explosives at a Riyadh residence. Included in the haul were two rocket-propelled grenades, nine explosive units, four hand-grenades, a machine gun, forged documents and more than 1,000 bullets.
The threat, however, is by no means extinguished. On 3 August, the kingdom suffered the first killing of a Westerner since US engineer Paul Johnson was beheaded on 12 June. Anthony Higgins, a civil engineer from Ireland, was shot at the office of Rocky for Trade & Construction in eastern Riyadh’s Al-Rawda neighbourhood. Higgins is the second Irishman to be killed in the kingdom in two months, following the murder of BBC cameraman Simon Cumbers on 6 June. According to the Irish press, about 1,200 Irish nationals work in Saudi Arabia, but, in line with advice from the UK government, Dublin has now advised against non-essential travel to the kingdom.
Riyadh has been at pains throughout the past year to show the international community that it is not soft on terrorism. This message was strengthened at the end of July with the publication of the findings of the US commission on the attacks of 11 September 2001, which included an examination of the Saudi role in the atrocity. A press release issued on 28 July quoted sections of the report saying that, ‘we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the [Al-Qaeda] organisation’, and referred to the kingdom’s success in disrupting cells in Saudi Arabia ‘that were planning to attack US forces with shoulder-fired missiles’.