Prince Mansur, the head of the elections committee, on Tuesday said women will have to stay away since the authorities had little time to prepare for both genders to run and vote in the polls.

"It's difficult, given the limited period of time we have, for ladies to participate in the elections," the prince said.

The elections committee had a year to prepare for the polls, beginning on 10 February, in a kingdom where men and women who are not closely related enough are prohibited from mixing.

For women to participate, separate polling areas run by female election judges would have been required. Campaigning by female candidates could also have become a sensitive subject.

Social constraints

Saudi Arabian society does not
tolerate free mixing of the sexes

Salih al-Malik, a member of the elections committee, said "social constraints" were a factor.

Conservatives in the segregated kingdom feel that giving freedoms to women would corrupt society.

"The upcoming elections are a first experience … we don't want it to be a failure," al-Malik said.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said he thought women should be allowed to participate in Saudi voting, but said it was up to the Saudi government to decide.

"These things have to come in due course and I am still waiting to see if this is the final official position of the Saudi government," Powell said.

"Take part in decision-making" is the slogan adopted by the Saudi election committee for men over 21.

The elections are part of the government's measured response to calls for political and social change.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with an unelected Consultative Council, which acts like a parliament.

Political parties are banned and press freedoms are limited.