The Saudi-owned Al-Hayat daily quoted Saudi sources as saying elections would be held to fill one-third of the 120 seats in the Majlis ash-Shura or Consultative Council, which so far has been an all-appointed body.

The London-based daily also reported that elections to the Consultative Council would be preceded by polls to regional councils.

Half the members of the regional councils would be elected within two years.

Political activist Muhammad Said Taieb confirmed the report, saying he has been informed of the election plans by the defence minister.

"Prince Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz told me the Saudi leadership intends to organize partial elections of the regional councils and the Majlis ash-Shura in two years and three years respectively," Taieb said.

Winds of change

The news of council elections follow the 13 October announcement about the first ever polls to be held in 2004 to elect half the members of municipal councils.

The municipal polls will be the first national elections to be held in the conservative kingdom. Currently, ballots are only held to choose some members of the government boards of chambers of commerce and industry.

Saudi Arabia has been under US pressure to open up the country. It also faces growing demands from liberals to pursue democratic reforms.

The kingdom witnessed a rare political protest in Riyadh earlier this week when hundreds protested the arrest of dissidents.