Modest in scope and participation, the Saudi elections are the first nationwide ballot since the 1960s in a country that has faced international and domestic pressure to liberalise its absolute monarchy.

The elections have been delayed twice. The government first announced that two months of local voting would begin in September but that was postponed to November so it would not clash with the fasting month of Ramadan, which began in mid-October

Dhafir al-Yamy, a lawyer and candidate in Riyadh's electoral district number three, laid out his platform on Sunday night to a hundred Saudi men sitting in a beduin tent beside a busy highway in eastern Riyadh.

They discussed a local housing crisis, lack of playgrounds and how to fight corruption.

"This is a good step towards reform. The world can see that the kingdom is making its citizens partners in decision-making," al-Yamy said.

Low registration

At best, the elections will be only a partial reflection of popular will. Just half the council seats will be chosen by voters, women cannot participate and many men cannot be bothered, judging by voter registration figures.  

"This is a first for
Saudi Arabia. It is a
good start but it is
too early to judge"

Misfir al-Waal,
pharmaceutical employee

Just 149,000 signed up in Riyadh, a city of more than four million - a paltry turnout even after women, armed forces and people under 21 were excluded.

Other regions of the huge desert kingdom will vote in March and April.

No one is sure how much authority the councils will wield but there is no shortage of candidates - more than 1800 in the Riyadh area.

Businessmen, tribal figures, limousine drivers and government officials have launched campaigns with newspaper advertisements, posters, websites and nightly meetings to make their case.

Costly campaigns

Candidates are barred from campaigning on radio or television or in mosques, and none belong to any party. Still, many are investing heavily in the hunt for votes.

"Election campaigns are expensive. Some will cost millions of riyals (hundreds of thousands of US dollars)," al-Yamy said at his gathering, attended by many of his extended tribal family.

Some Saudis, less affluent than the country's petrodollar image suggests, hope the elections will help address what they see as a deeply unfair distribution of wealth in the world's biggest oil exporter.

Years of waiting

One man at al-Yamy's meeting asked why he waited 16 fruitless years for the council to provide land to build a house, when the city is littered with empty plots. Others demanded what the candidate would do to address corruption and waste.

"There is bad planning," al-Yamy said. "And where it isn't bad planning, there is bad implementation. The losses are a scandal."

But he said it would take time for any council to tackle the task. "To begin with, there will be big gaps in the legislation, but with time and sincere work there will be new mechanisms to balance public and private interests," he said.

Voters are wary. "This is a first for Saudi Arabia. It is a good start but it is too early to judge," according to Misfir al-Waal, 34, a pharmaceutical company employee who says he cannot afford to buy a house.

"Every candidate makes promises. Let's see if they are right," he said. "Some people will just vote for a name they recognise from their family."