The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia says the kingdom could give the right to vote to women in the next election.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal raised the prospect of women's suffrage at a conference in London on political, social, and economic reforms in the kingdom.
He noted that Saudi Arabia's first-ever elections for city councils, in which only men could vote, were held without problems this month. Prince Saud says the religious affairs ministry has determined there is nothing in Islam that prevents women from voting.
"The smoothness of the electoral process led our election commissioner to announce that he is recommending that women participate in the coming elections," Prince Saud said. "Therefore I would not be surprised if they do so in the next round of elections."
The prince did not clarify, but it is believed women will remain barred for the second phase of municipal council voting set for next Thursday. The final round of the municipal election cycle is planned for April.
Also attending the London conference was British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He said the lack of reform in societies such as Saudi Arabia's can produce destabilizing effects.
"No nation can stand still, and the challenge for Saudi Arabia is to adapt to this changing world reality, while preserving all that is good and admirable in its society," Mr. Straw said. "For without reform, frustrated aspirations for change will fuel resentment and strengthen those forces who wish to destroy all that the society hold dear."
Both men noted that it took centuries for democratic traditions to evolve in Europe, and that Saudi Arabia is moving to modernize at a quicker pace.
Prince Saud pointed to suspicions in the Middle East about the reform agenda, which is a prominent plank in President Bush's policy toward the region. The prince also appealed for more understanding between Middle Easterners and the West.
"There is widespread suspicion among people in our region that Western calls for social and political reforms, which are not indigenous to our region, is intended to establish political dominance," Prince Saud said. "In order for us to cooperate fully, we must strive to correct misunderstandings, misperceptions and misrepresentations."
Prince Saud said his country, and the Muslim faith, have been unfairly tarnished as the source of Islamic terrorism. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden, and 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 2001 attacks against the United States were Saudis.
But the U.S. investigation into those attacks found no official Saudi government involvement, though it did fault the kingdom for doing little to curb fund-raising by al-Qaida.