Elections in Saudi Arabia have been historically rare. The first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia took place in 1939. After the Municipal elections in 2005 the next elections were planned for 2009. After two years’ delay, they were held in 2011. Elections for seats in some municipalities were held during the 1960s. Municipal elections for half the councillors, with voting by men only and with male candidates only, took place in 2005. In September 2011, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and stand in the 2015 municipal elections. He said they would also have the right to be appointed to the consultative Shura Council.
The move was welcomed by activists who have called for greater rights for women in the kingdom, which enforces a strict version of Sunni Islamic law.
“Because we refuse to marginalise women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior clerics and others… to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from next term,” he said.
“Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote.”
The BBC’s world affairs correspondent Emily Buchanan says it is an extraordinary development for women in Saudi Arabia, who are not allowed to drive, or to leave the country unaccompanied.
She says there has been a big debate about the role of women in the kingdom and, although not everyone will welcome the decision, such a reform will ease some of the tension that has been growing over the issue.
Saudi writer Nimah Ismail Nawwab told the BBC: “This is something we have long waited for and long worked towards.” She said activists had been campaigning for 20 years on driving, guardianship and voting issues.
Another campaigner, Wajeha al-Huwaider, said the king’s announcement was “great news”.
“Now it is time to remove other barriers like not allowing women to drive cars and not being able to function, to live a normal life without male guardians,” she told Reuters news agency.
Correspondents say King Abdullah has been cautiously pressing for political reforms, but in a country where conservative clerics and some members of the royal family resist change, liberalisation has been very gradual.
In May 2011 more than 60 intellectuals called for a boycott of ballot saying “municipal councils lack the authority to effectively carry out their role”.
Municipal elections are the only public polls in Saudi Arabia. More than 5,000 men competed in municipal elections – the second-ever in the kingdom – to fill half the seats in local councils. The other half are appointed by the government.
The next municipal elections are due in 2015.