Dr Saad al-Faqih, head of the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), told Aljazeera.net on Sunday that municipal elections in the autumn would be "window-dressing".

He was speaking after the Saudi authorities announced they have prepared the ground for electing 178 municipal councils, and would start organising election centres and voter lists later this year.

"The Saudis are deceiving the West into believing real change is underway when it is not," Dr al-Faqih said.

"These municipalities are not like western municipalities which have real power. They are just concerned with trivial matters like sewage and putting out the rubbish.

"Also, you must remember that the regime is only allowing one third of these municipalities to be elected."

Dynastic rule

Dr al-Faqih, who was jailed in the early 90s for being involved in Saudi Arabia's reform movement, said elections in a country where there is no freedom of speech or assembly do not mean anything.

"There is no real power-sharing or accountability for the rulers of Saudi Arabia. The regime will never agree to that because that would bring about its demise."

"The Saudis are deceiving the West into believing real change is underway when it is not"

Dr Saad al-Faqih,
Movement for Islamic Reform
in Arabia

Saudi Arabia has been governed by dynastic rule since its creation in the 1930s, and has recently been under pressure to introduce more reforms and freedoms into its society.

The government announced on Saturday that municipal elections would be held sometime in the autumn.
  
Muhammad Ibrahim al-Hulwah, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the appointed Shura Council, said on Sunday that no one should underestimate the importance of the polls.
  
The upcoming ballot "will promote a culture of elections, shift decision-making from main cities to the regions thereby boosting development, and enable citizens to get better services through their chosen representatives", he said.

Modernisation

While some want authorities to speed up the reform drive, al-Hulwah said: "The government takes a bird's-eye view of society, trying to strike a balance between those who favour quick change and ultra-conservatives."
  
Hence its step-by-step approach to "political modernisation", because "what is important is not to issue a decision [to introduce a change] but to implement it".

Security forces are fighting
opposition to Saudi rule

Al-Hulwah added the country's reform programme included the formation of a human rights committee with women as founding members, and the easing of restrictions to enable women to take up jobs and start businesses.
     
"But I don't know if women will be allowed to take part in the municipal elections," he said. "Here, social factors might prove stronger than political factors."

The Gulf kingdom has been fighting to quell a challenge to its rule by opponents who say the House of Saud is unfit to govern the country.

Riyadh announced last October it would hold municipal elections, the first in four decades, after pressure from the US and domestic reformers to grant some political participation and freedom of expression.

US pressure?

The US says it is eager to promote reform in the Middle East and has encouraged its long-standing ally, the world's biggest oil producer, to speed up change since 11 September 2001.

Saudi Arabia
, which is home to Islam's holiest sites, says it will not allow its cautious programme of political change to be influenced by outside pressure.

The upcoming ballot "will promote a culture of elections, shift decision-making from main cities to the regions thereby boosting development, and enable citizens to get better services through their chosen representatives"

Muhammad Ibrahim al-Hulwah,
Saudi Shura Council member

However, MIRA's Dr al-Faqih says the widespread perception that the US is pressuring the Saudis to reform is "illusory".

"There is pressure regarding social and cultural matters," he said. "For example, 12,000 people been arrested that are considered to be anti-American interests in the kingdom.

"But there has been no real pressure for things like power-sharing. I think the US is happy to deal with a secretive dictatorship that is pro-American because they know if there is real democracy in Saudi Arabia the people will conclude that US interests come far behind Saudi interests."