Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, is an absolute monarchy without political parties.

The kingdom held municipial elections in 2005 which were the country's first nationwide polls since its foundation in 1932.

Women's rights

Women were barred from voting or standing for office, but officials said then they would be allowed to stand in the next vote, which had been expected this year.

The election for half the seats on the councils was part of a series of reforms undertaken after the September 11 attacks of 2001 focused international attention on Saudi Arabia.

Most of the hijackers involved in the attacks were Saudi, acting in the name of the group al-Qaeda.

King Abdullah ascended the throne in 2005 promising a programme of cautious reforms in the world's biggest oil exporter.

Analysts and diplomats say he faces stiff opposition from senior members of the royal family as well as a powerful religious establishment fearing loss of influence.

Last week, a group of Saudi human rights and opposition
activists sent a petition to Abdullah demanding political and judicial reforms, including holding elections.

In March, Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, the interior minister and half-brother of Abdullah, was quoted by a local newspaper as saying that Saudi Arabia had no need for women members of parliament or elections.

Later that month, Nayef was appointed as second deputy prime minister, which means he will run the country when Abdullah and crown prince are away.