About 15 researchers in various fields were also participating in the five-day gathering, which began on Saturday, under the theme: "Extremism and moderation, a comprehensive view." 

Faisal Abd al-Rahman al-Muammar, secretary general of the King Abdul Aziz Centre for National Dialogue, told Mecca daily Al-Youm that "the debates will take place behind closed doors". 

The opening and closing sessions were, however, to be open. 

"It's a new experience, which may succeed or fail," he explained. 

The contribution of the women to the dialogue would cover issues related to the family, schools and how to shelter children from extremist views, and would be provided by viedo-conferencing links, newspapers said. 

The gathering is a follow-up on a landmark meeting held in
Riyadh in June, which ended with a call for wide-ranging reforms in the conservative kingdom and led to the establishment of the dialogue centre.

"The debates will take place behind closed doors. It's a new experience, which may succeed or fail"

Faisal Abd al-Rahman al-Muammar,
King Abdul Aziz Centre for National Dialogue

Saudi authorities, who stand accused in Western quarters of running a system that fosters extremism, have launched a massive crackdown on militants, blamed for a series of suicide bombings in Riyadh in May and November that left more than 50 people dead.

They have also been engaged in an offensive against what they call the "deviant" thinking of extremists who practise violence under an Islamic banner. 

At the same time, Saudi leaders have begun heeding calls from
liberals for political reforms, promising in October to organise the first ever polls within a year to elect half the members of new municipal councils. 

Semi-official reports have since said polls would be held within three years to fill one third of the 120 seats of the appointed
Shura (Consultative) Council, and that half the members of regional councils would be elected within two years.

The first Convention for National Dialogue, called by crown prince and de facto ruler, Abd Allah bin Abd al-Aziz, urged widening of political participation, more judicial independence and fair distribution of wealth, among many other things.

Meeting of sects

The unprecedented meeting for the first time brought members of the Sunni majority face to face with their Shia and Ismaili
counterparts. 

The latter two confessions have not been recognised in Saudi Arabia, which is dominated by the strict Wahhabi Sunni school. 

But Abd Allah Nasif, deputy chair of the second session, denied on Friday that the dialogue was being conducted on a sectarian basis, insisting it was an inclusive "national dialogue."