Election time is near at hand. In this young state with its ancient traditions, many citizens will soon have a say in the running of their country for the first time. In comparison with the multi-billion-dollar spectacle of the US presidential campaign, it will be a tame affair. Only a small proportion of the population is considered eligible to vote. The stakes, which are for seats on local authorities with limited powers, are not high. But in the context of a hierarchcal, tribal society that has only ever known the chain of command to pull in one direction - from above - the event is highly significant.
Saudi Arabia's first municipal elections, originally scheduled for November 2004, will now be conducted in three phases, beginning in early 2005. The elections call for half of the members of the 178 municipal councils in the kingdom's 13 regions to be selected by popular mandate, while the rest will be nominated. The initial polling date was tentatively set for October this year, but logistical difficulties prevailed. According to the Municipal & Rural Affairs Ministry, the first round will not take place until early February. 'The registration of voters [in the Riyadh region] will start on 23 November,' ran a recent statement by the official Saudi Press Agency. 'Candidates can register between 26-30 December. Voting [in Riyadh] will be on Thursday, 10 February.' The voting in the second round of local elections, which covers the eastern and southwestern regions, will take place on 3 March, while electors in the western regions of Mecca and Medina, as well as the northern regions, will be casting their votes on 21 April at the earliest. The vague outlines of the original plan are taking shape as the big day approaches. 'The councils will have between a minimum of four members and [a maximum of] 14 in the big cities, such as Riyadh, Dammam, Jeddah, Mecca and Medina,' the head of the election committee, Prince Mansour bin Muteb bin Abdul-Aziz, announced in Riyadh on 18 October. Logistics has also provided an excuse to drop the principle of universal suffrage, which was widely alluded to when elections were first proposed last year. Prince Mansour has announced that women will not be able to participate in the elections because authorities do not have enough time to prepare for both sexes to run and vote. It is also unclear whether women will be allowed to take part in the next round of municipal elections in 2009; although, according to Prince Mansour, the electoral law has no provisions explicitly banning women. The authorities are no doubt hoping that the elections will act as a tightly regulated safety valve for internal social pressures. The security situation remains tense. Although no major terrorist incidents have been reported in recent months, the nationwide crackdown on militants continues and armed clashes remain a frequent occurrence - particularly in the capital. On 1 November, Saudi security arrested an alleged Al-Qaeda terrorist in Riyadh and confiscated a large number of explosives and weapons. Two other militants were arrested in a separate raid in the capital. Three weeks earlier, a top-ranking militant was among three people killed by Saudi security forces in a shoot-out in the city. According to the Interior Ministry, Abdelmajid bin Mohammad Abdallah al-Manaya was on a list of 26 fugitives wanted for alleged links to Al-Qaeda. The last serious incident involving a Western target occurred in late September, when an employee of French defence electronics company Thales was killed outside a shopping mall in Jeddah. The attack was the second on a European expatriate in a fortnight - 10 days earlier, a British national was killed, also outside a mall, in Riyadh. The US and German embassies have in the meantime issued fresh travel warnings about ongoing threats to Western interests. Despite the tense atmosph