Reporters on the Job

Democratic Spring in Saudi: If you've never been to Saudi Arabia, it's hard to convey how strikingly out of the ordinary are Thursday's municipal elections (page 4).

Correspondent Faiza Saleh Ambah says she has never seen anything like the campaigning of the past week. "Normally, the only portraits you see in public are those of King Fahd. In public office buildings, you see King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdullah, and Prince Sultan, the defense minister. But this week in Riyadh, you're suddenly seeing billboards and banners and newspapers ads of the candidates. They're holding meetings in restaurants, wedding halls, and tents on the main streets of Riyadh. It's the first time I've ever seen ordinary people who are not members of the Saudi royal family appearing prominently and addressing the public," she says. "This one guy, Hassan al-Mahdi, a real estate mogul, is everywhere. I think I saw his face on billboards eight times between the airport and the hotel."

The elections Thursday are in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and the surrounding region. "Some of the candidates have spent a couple of million dollars on their campaigns," says Faiza.

There are 1,818 candidates for 104 seats, and only about 150,000 voters (out of 560,000 eligible) registered. "There was some apathy during the registration phase. The candidates weren't allowed to announce themselves until the official 12-day campaign before the vote. And this is a more religiously conservative part of the country, where some voters question the compatibility of democracy and Islam," she says. "But already twice as many people have registered for the March vote in the eastern province. I think we'll see a snowball effect."

David Clark Scott
World editor

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