Municipal Affairs Minister Prince Mutib bin Abd al-Aziz was quoted on Saturday by the official news agency, Saudi Press Association (SPA), as saying the move was part of efforts to give Saudi citizens a greater role in running local affairs.

The Gulf kingdom 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.

Prince Mutib did not say whether women would be allowed to vote or stand in the elections.

Election centres

According to the prince, teams of legal, religious and technical experts had set up a basic framework for the elections and that "regulations for election of municipal councils will be published soon, God willing," SPA said.

Election centres, dates for voter and candidate registration and procedures for electing 178 municipal councils would be determined according to a fixed timetable, it added.

"That will begin after the end of the summer holidays and the beginning of the academic year [September]," the agency quoted the prince as saying.

When it announced in October plans for elections, seen as the first concrete Saudi political reforms, Saudi Arabia said half the council members would be elected and that preparations for polls should not take more than a year.

But diplomats see little chance of the elections themselves taking place by then.

Gradual reforms

The arrest of several pro-reform activists in March and the government's ongoing battle with activists have also overshadowed the cautious reform programme championed by Crown Prince Abd Allah in recent months. 
 

"We will not allow anyone to stand in the way of reform whether through calls for immobility and stagnation or calls to leap into darkness and reckless adventure"

Abd Allah bin Abd al-Aziz,
Crown prince of Saudi Arabia

The US 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.

Crown Prince Abd Allah vowed in January to press on with "gradual and studied" change.

"We will not allow anyone to stand in the way of reform whether through calls for immobility and stagnation or calls to leap into darkness and reckless adventure," he said.

Saudi Arabia has been under the dynastic rule of the house of Saud since its foundation in the 1930s. Diplomats say local elections were held in parts of the western Hijaz province until the early 1960s.