The Thursday vote, from which women are excluded, was part of a cautious programme of reform introduced by de facto ruler Crown Prince Abd Allah.

 

"It took a long time to get here but we've broken through a psychological barrier," university professor Sulaiman Anazi, who spoke to journalists after casting his vote, commented.

       

But critics say the elections are largely a cosmetic response in which few are taking part and some diplomats say the vote does at least create a mechanism for Saudis to channel concerns.

   

Election details

 

Voters are deciding just half the members of municipal councils, whose powers are likely to be limited. The government will appoint the other council members.

   

Women cannot vote and few men registered in the Riyadh area - just 149,000 in a city of over four million people - reflecting scepticism over the power of the councils.

   

"This is a crippled democracy. If you are half-appointed and half-elected, it's not fair. We can take it this time. But I hope it no longer exists in the future," voter Muhammad

al-Humaidan said.

   

"But it is a step towards a bigger step in future where society raises its voice and participates in decision-making."

 

Reaction to  criticism

 

The Riyadh vote was the first of a three-part election for municipal councils across the country. Voting will take place in the eastern and southern provinces next month, and in western and northern Saudi Arabia in April.

   

Saudi officials counter election criticism by saying that change must come from within and will not be rushed.

 

"Reform in this religious society takes time. If it is not gradual, it will not give the expected results," Labour Minister Ghazi Algosaibi said.

   

More than 1800 candidates competed in Riyadh and some have spent large sums on campaigns. They range from businessmen, tribal figures and security chiefs to academics and officials.