In the smoke-filled back office of a landscape architect, Ahmad Oweiss discusses election strategies with five potential political candidates seated in a circle around him.
Mr. Oweiss, a chemistry professor, is grooming the men for the country's first nationwide polls since Saudi Arabia's inception more than 60 years ago. "We're trying to educate them about the election process. This is a new experience for all of us. I'm learning along with them," he says.
The group, composed of the chemist, a lawyer, a retired Air Force colonel, a primary school teacher, a businessman, and a journalist, call themselves the Progressives. They hope to field 14 candidates for the municipal elections, which start in Riyadh Feb. 10.
The elections are part of the Saudi government's measured response to insistent calls for reform from both outside and inside the kingdom. While many welcome the chance to finally participate in local government, others say this is a meager beginning to democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy where political parties are banned, press freedom is limited, and government critics often end up in jail.
Women will not be allowed to participate in the vote. According to the government, women are not taking part because of the logistics involved in setting up separate facilities for them in this conservative and segregated society.
The polls are intended to fill half the seats in 178 municipal councils spread out across the country. The other council members will be appointed by the government. In Riyadh, where registration for the three-stage polls started in November, turnout has been low. Voter registration ended with only 150,000 of an eligible 600,000 voters registered.
Ultraconservative Islamists see the election as an undesirable imported Western concept, while many liberals are boycotting the elections in protest over the limited scope of reform they represent. But Mansour al-Bakr, a landscape architect who heads the Progressives' support committee and provides the group with meeting space, says participation is necessary.
"We've been asking for reforms for years. If we don't participate in these elections, however minor they are, the government will think all our demands were just blah blah blah," he says.
Mr. Bakr spends his evenings on the phone persuading nephews and friends to register. He writes surveys to hand out to potential voters, asking what they're looking for in their candidates, and has compiled a list of more than 1,500 registered voters who the group will try to get to the polls in February.
It's worth all the hard work, he says, because the success of these elections is crucial for those who seek greater political participation. "It will encourage the government to open other avenues for elections, like the Shura [appointed council that advises the royal cabinet]," says Bakr.
Mohsen al-Awaji, a bearded liberal Islamist boycotting the elections, sips cardamom-flavored coffee in his office and watches a muted Al-Jazeera satellite channel. Mr. Awaji, who has been jailed several times for his activism and is currently banned from traveling outside the country because he criticized a senior prince, says he believes the ruling Al Saud family feels threatened by reforms.
"They are afraid of Saudi society. [They believe] if they share power with Saudi society their future is on the line. But it's the opposite," he says. "In order for them to guarantee their preservation, they have to make concessions."
Awaji did not register to vote for what he called mock elections. "We should be choosing our leaders from top to bottom," he says. "Not voting for a council that has no powers and whose main job in most people's minds is collecting garbage."
Awaji says Saudis have cast their vote by not registering to vote. "They're expressing their rejection [of the elections] by refusing to register."
But architect Bakr believes the government is serious about reform. "They have no choice. It might be slow, but after Sept. 11, there is no other way," he says.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on Washington and New York, the kingdom came under pressure from the US to democratize as a way of combating extremism. Calls for reform increased from within Saudi Arabia after a violent campaign was launched in 2003 by Al-Qaeda-linked militants. This wave of violence included a bombing at a housing complex in Riyadh, killing at least 40, and the December attack on the American consulate in Jeddah.
Many liberal critics say that violence is a direct result of the absence of reform. Ultraconservatives counter that excessive modernity in Saudi Arabia has led to the violence. In a recent interview at his home, Prince Mansour bin Miteb, head of the election committee, said that not everyone in Saudi Arabia is in a hurry for change.
"When we talk about reform, it requires not just government will," says Prince Mansour, who teaches local government at King Saud University. "There's a spectrum where on the far right people want minor, slow, incremental changes and on the far left they want a big jump. The challenge is how to deal with these differences."
The Progressives have jumped at the chance of political participation, however small. With no political experience, Bakr and Oweiss have turned for advice to a Bahraini public relations firm. The group has also hosted a meeting with several hundred intellectuals and businessmen and even lobbied a women's group to get the message across to their menfolk that participating in the elections is a must.
In the backroom in Bakr's office, they discuss how to finance campaigns, how to reach as many voters as possible, and ways to combat the tribal influence and the lure of big businessmen. Tribal ties in Saudi Arabia remain strong despite fast-paced modernization in the kingdom.
Many Saudi suffragettes said they would vote for the Progressives if the could.
"I'm going to push all my cousins to vote for them," says Dallal al-Dughaither, a student. "I like the idea of voting for an idea, not just for a person," she says.
But for some Saudis, the debate around the meaning and significance of the elections was insignificant. At a registration center in Riyadh, Bandar al-Najjar says he would take part in the election to only get better municipal services in his neighborhood.
"Where I live, we used to have water shortages and potholes, and the streets were not all paved. Then a government official moved into the neighborhood and all those problems disappeared. We need to vote people into office who can be held accountable. That way I won't need a VIP on my street to get good services," he says.