Saudi authorities allowed businesswomen to take part in a November election of 18 board members of the Red Sea city of Jeddah's Trade and Industry Chamber (JTIC), the chamber's chairman Ghassan al-Suleiman said on Thursday.

"Businesswoman in Jeddah asked this year to participate and vote in the election of the chamber's board members," Suleiman told reporters in a conference call.

Women account for less than 10% of the chamber's 40,000 members, but Suleiman said he would be happy to see them make their presence felt in the relatively liberal city, which is also Saudi Arabia's main commercial centre.

Initiative supported

"We will not mind if they (businesswomen) take all the seats available - if they deserve to," he said. Eight women have so far expressed interest in running but more may join before the
poll starts, he added.

"The initiative is largely supported by other chambers of the country ... They (trade chambers) will follow closely our election," he said.

Earlier this year Saudi Arabia held its first nationwide elections, for municipal councils.  

"I hope businesswomen will subscribe massively and that this development extends to other trade chambers of the country,"

Hatoun al-Fasi 
Historian

Women were barred from voting or standing for office, although officials have said they will be allowed to stand in the next vote in four years' time.

Women are also barred from driving in Saudi Arabia and must be covered up and accompanied by a male relative in public.

Useful step

Asked why women had not stood for election before at the Jeddah chamber, an official said it was the first time they had expressed an interest.

"They (businesswomen) have never asked for such a thing in the past but now things have changed," the official, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.

Nashwa Taher, a businesswoman in Jeddah, welcomed the decision. "This is a useful step for Saudi women," she said.

"This move was expected from our wise leadership," historian Hatoun al-Fasi said in reference to King Abdullah, who succeeded his half-brother the late King Fahd last month.

"It should help us catch up with what we missed in municipal elections ...  I hope businesswomen will subscribe massively and that this development extends to other trade chambers of the country," al-Fasi said.