The municipal elections currently underway in Saudi Arabia are the kingdom's first since 1963, when the last municipal races were held in the Western province. The electoral law was formulated in 1977 but never put into use due partly to the country's spectacular oil revenues, which generated unprecedented wealth and took the edge off demands for power sharing. There was an unspoken compact between the Saudi population and the rulers: leave the Al Saud rule unchallenged and they will take care of all of the citizens' needs. This compact held until the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent stationing of thousands of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. An Islamic resurgence among Saudis, especially those who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s, fueled anti-American sentiment and opposition to the royal family's decision to allow U.S. troops into the country, considered holy ground by Muslims.

For a brief moment during and just after the 1991 Gulf war, Saudis found a measure of freedom to question and demand more participation in running the country's affairs. The royal family promised that reforms would come if the population accepted the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil during the crisis. Yet the only reform steps that materialized were the 1992 establishment of the Shura Council (a consultative body appointed by the government to advise on legislation) and the enactment of the basic law, the kingdom's first written constitution guaranteeing basic rights.

It was not until the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers turned out to be Saudi, that reformists found a new opportunity to push for change. The realization that an overemphasis on religious education had produced a generation of Saudis who were rabidly anti-American, anti-royal family, intolerant, and extremistin addition to pressure from the U.S. administration and mediaforced the ruling family to admit that change was necessary. Hundreds of Saudi reformists began circulating petitions calling for reform and sending them to the ruling family. In October 2003, the government announced that elections for half the seats on municipal councils (the other half being appointed) would finally be held across the country.

The forward movement to municipal elections, however, has come with a number of backward steps as well. The March 2004 arrest of ten prominent reformists (who had been calling for Shura Council elections, a constitutional monarchy, and an independent judiciary) caused many to doubt the government's sincerity regarding reform. Seven of the reformists were released after signing undertakings not to discuss reform anymore, while the other three remain imprisoned during their trials.

In addition, so far Saudi women remain barred from participation in the elections. When the text of the electoral law was released in mid 2004, its gender-neutral language encouraged five Saudi women to declare their intent to run. By the end of November 2004, however, Prince Mansour Ibn Miteb, the head of the Higher Local Election Committee at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, announced that women would not be allowed to vote or run as candidates. Although the law did not exclude them, the justification was alleged logistical problems in staffing voting centers for women and the lack of photo ID cards among women. Women have since been promised the vote for the next municipal elections in 2009. Saudi women's rights activists are hoping that the government will appoint some women to the municipal councils, although some were discouraged by Shura President Saleh Bin Humaid's refusal to appoint women to the Shura Council during the upcoming expansion of that body.

Municipal elections have already been held in Riyadh (February 10) and in the Eastern and Southern provinces (March 3). The Western province, which includes Mecca, Medina, Jeddah, and the Northern region, will be the last to vote on April 21. In the capital, seven Islamist candidates won all available seats on the municipal council after forming an informal alliance, a result the government was keen to avoid but unable to stop. In Qatif, the traditional stronghold of the marginalized Shiite minority in the kingdom, Shiites won all of the seats up for grabs, as well as five of six seats in the mixed Sunni-Shiite area of Al Hasa. The two rounds of municipal elections so far featured vigorous campaigning and a healthy turnout of registered voters at the polls, although voter registration was low in some areas.

Many Saudis remain deeply cynical about the powers of the partially elected councils, but this baby step towards democracy has nonetheless given hope to some that they will see elections for the Shura Council, which is currently being expanded from 120 to 150 members, during their lifetimes. They also believe that the municipal elections have opened the door to further reforms, and say it is a door the government will not be able to close again easily.

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh is a senior editor at the Arab News newspaper in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He writes on Saudi affairs regularly for The Washington Times and Al Ahram Weekly.