In Saudis' first nationwide poll, candidates test limits

One campaigns to lift the ban on women drivers and movie theaters.

Salman al-Sulaiman, a candidate in Saudi Arabia's first nationwide municipal elections, tries to explain to a young man why he thinks women should finally be allowed to drive.

But the young man furrows his brow in concentration and says what many here think of Mr. Sulaiman's idea. "I will not vote for you unless you take that issue off your platform," he says.

Sulaiman has emerged as one of the most controversial of the 646 candidates vying for seven seats on Riyadh's municipal council. The first phase of voting starts Thursday. Nationwide, voters will select half the seats in 178 municipal councils for the first time since Saudi Arabia's inception more than 60 years ago. The second and third rounds will be in March and April.

The elections, seen by many as a very measured response to calls from inside and outside Saudi Arabia for reforms, have taken on a life of their own. Despite a ban by the election council on discussing issues unrelated to the municipal councils, a number of candidates are discussing corruption, women's rights, and unemployment, a growing problem in Saudi Arabia.

Over the past week four newspapers rejected Sulaiman's politi- cal advertisements because they mentioned women driving - a heated issue in this deeply segregated society.

Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, work alongside men, or travel without a male guardian. The conservative kingdom also does not allow cinemas and theaters - a ban that Sulaiman wants lifted.

Many conservatives say that allowing women to drive will lead to men and women mixing, which they believe is unIslamic. After Sulaiman's ad finally appeared in two newspapers Wednesday, he received a flood of phone calls and text messages asking him to repent and ask God for forgiveness.

"It's a very courageous program that could help move stagnant waters," says Khaled Mohammad, a high school teacher and supporter of Sulaiman. "What he's asking for is strange in Saudi Arabia, but normal in the rest of the world."

Political parties are banned in the kingdom and press freedoms are limited in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy ruled by the Al Saud family, after whom the country is named. Though public gatherings are also banned, an exception has been made for the elections.

On one of the capital's main roads a massive tent has been pitched as headquarters of candidate and real estate mogul Badr al-Saydan. Strobe lights are flashing and more than 500 people are seated on plastic chairs. Thursday night's draw is popular cleric Ayid al-Qurni. Men in white thobes and gold-embroidered black vests circulate with trays of steaming cups of tea, bitter Arabic coffee, and incense holders burning scented wood. A man walks up to the microphone and asks a question. "Is voting approved by Islam?"

"Yes," replies the cleric. "Participating in the elections is a national duty."

Beshr Bakheet's campaign slogan, "Every riyal in its proper place," has also attracted a lot of potential voters. At a recent rally at a hotel conference hall, Bakheet, a stock market consultant to local banks, gave a talk on Saudi Arabia's stock market, which has been doing exceptionally well over the past three years.

"It's a hot topic, a gimmick, a hook to get them in," says Bakheet, who got his first lessen in democracy as a student at Ohio Universitywhen he was voted international student president.

A bearded man comes up to Bakheet after the talk and asks, "How about the Saudi telecom stocks? Should I invest in those?"

Though Bakheet attracts crowds because of his financial expertise, he says his main issue is accountability. "I think it's time we hold our officials accountable," he says. "I don't want the wrong people to get in [the councils]. This is our first attempt at democracy, and it needs to succeed."

Lawyer and reformist Bassem Alem would like to see faster democratic reforms, but he says just the fact of holding elections is in itself historic.

"The word [elections] was taboo up until several years ago. It's the first time that Saudis can go around and discuss issues and make demands and ask questions and talk about our rights as citizens and what we want from the government," says Alem. "Once you get a bit of the sweet taste of freedom you cannot let it go."

Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz, a brother of King Fahd and an outspoken advocate for democratic reform and women's rights, says he knows from last year's meeting of senior princes that the ruling family has the intention and desire to make changes, but there's disagreement on the pace.

"There are different schools of thought. Some want to keep the status quo. Some want reform in stages. I'm one of those. And some want immediate changes. The [royal] family wants to balance between these three schools of thought," he says.

"The hope is that [we] the sons of Abdul-Aziz [the kingdom's founder] continue to meet and come up with our own reform project and agenda," he says.

Analysts say the decision not to allow women to vote or run for this year's elections is actually an attempt at moving forward slowly by appeasing the country's conservatives, a large and influential segment of the society.

Officials have said, though, that women will take part in 2009. Hatoon al-Fassi, a leading suffragette, has written numerous articles demanding that women be appointed to the municipal councils since they were excluded from voting or running.

"We would like to see all the appointees [by the government] be women. That's the only way it would be fair," she says.

In the meantime, the men whose names are most associated with Democratic reform, academics Matrouk al-Faleh and Abdullah al-Hamid, and poet Ali al-Domeini, remain behind bars after being arrested in March for making critical statements against the government. All three openly advocated speedier democratic reforms. Their lawyer, Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem, was arrested in November.

Khaled al-Mutairi, who represents the men, says their detention is illegal. "They have not committed any crime. They are prisoners of conscience. The fact that the government doesn't agree with their demands does not give them the right to arrest them," he says.

Mr. al-Faleh's son, Amer, a computer specialist, did not register to vote because he finds the whole issue of elections a paradox. "How can I vote when my father has been in prison for a year now because he was asking for elections?" he says.

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