Saleh bin Humaid, the council's speaker, said talk of women members was premature after suggestions by an Austrian official that women could enter the 120-member council.

Bin Humaid "told me that the issue of women joining (the council) was on the table but that the mechanisms that would ensure the success of this move are still under discussion," Andreas Khol told the daily al-Riyadh on Sunday.

But al-Madina newspaper quoted bin Humaid on Monday as saying "this is groundless, and what was attributed to the (Austrian) guest was the result of a mistake in translation because the issue was not brought up in the first place".

Dictatorial rule 

"The Saudis will try and cloak their repression in Islamic terms but in reality there is no defence for it under Islamic law"

Muhammad al-Massari,
Saudi dissident

And al-Jazirah newspaper quoted him as adding that keeping women out of the council did not mean they could not have an input in matters of concern to them.  

In response to international condemnation of their dictatorial rule, the Saudis say they have their own vision of human rights which is in accordance with Islamic law.

They say the king and the crown prince hold consultative meetings every week where each citizen can come and complain.

However, Saudi dissident Muhammad al Massari said Riyadh has no justification for excluding women from the political process

Repression

"The Saudis will try and cloak their repression in Islamic terms but in reality there is no defence for it under Islamic law.

"The extreme Wahabis (an Islamic sect) that run Saudi Arabia have two obesssions - women and non-Muslims. With the gradual westernisation of the country they feel they must isolate themselves from corrupt influences.

"But when their power is threatened they abandon their principles and, for example, let Americans plant bases on their territory."

And Massari said men as well as women are disenfranchised in Saudi Arabia.

"The Shura council is appointed by the king ... It is just an insignificant advisory group that makes no real decisions.

Family business

The only people that have power are the ruling elite and the 20 big families that are closely related to them ... In reality Saudi Arabia is one big family business"

Muhammad al-Massari.
Saudi dissident

"The



"The only people that have power are the ruling elite and the 20 big families that are closely related to them.

"The others have no real power but are bought off by having access to huge wealth. In reality Saudi Arabia is one big family business."

Saudi Arabia announced earlier this month that the first ever polls in the kingdom would take place within a year to elect half the members of new municipal councils.

Reports have since said that polls would be held within three years to fill one-third of the Shura Council's seats, and that half the members of regional councils would be elected within two years.

Pro-reform activists have twice petitioned Crown Prince Abd Allah bin Abdul Aziz since the beginning of the year to demand the liberalisation of Saudi Arabia's system.