September 15, 2005

Saudi women to get first taste of polls

By Souhail Karam

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi businesswomen will be able to
stand for election to a local trade and industry chamber in the
first vote of its kind for women in the conservative Muslim
monarchy, a top executive said on Thursday.

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.

"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 percent 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 center.

"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. 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'

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

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.