JEDDAH // Saudi men are to vote today in municipal elections, the last all-male affair in the kingdom after it was decreed this week that women could cast ballots in four years' time.
Some 5,324 candidates were to compete for 816 seats in the elections - only the second in Saudi Arabia's history - to fill half the seats in the country's 285 councils. The other half would be appointed by the government.
The first elections in the country, which has a population of 27.5 million, including about 19 million Saudis, were held in 2005, but the government extended the existing council's term for two years. About 1.2 million male voters have registered to take part.
The election was to come four days after Saudi Arabia's monarch King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud granted women the right to vote and to run in the next municipal elections in 2015, a historic first for the conservative country.
Rights activists had long fought for women's right to vote in the kingdom, which has barred women from driving or travelling without the consent of a male guardian.
Despite their frustration at having to wait until 2015 to exercise that right, some female activists were happy with the decision by the 86-year-old king, who has been spared Arab Spring protests that toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
"We are heading towards a new era that will see women obtain their rights," said Maha Futaihi, the spouse of Adel Faqih, the kingdom's labour minister.
Candidate Othman Al Othman also welcomed the king's decision.
"It is an honour for us to compete with our sisters and I think they are more serious and interactive than men," he said.
King Abdullah also announced on Sunday that he had decided to admit women to the Shura Council, an all-appointed, consultative body.
Saudi Arabia does not have an elected parliament. King Abdullah's move was hailed by the United States and Britain, which both called it a significant "step forward" for the Saudi people.
However, Saudi Arabia's moves towards gender equality were seen by some as insufficient. Hussein Sharif, a human-rights activist in the western city of Mecca, said "women still have a long way to go" to gain their rights in the kingdom.
"The road for women to gain their rights is still too long. She is still marginalised ... in terms of her rights and duties," added Fahad Al Harithi, the head of Asbar Centre for Studies, Research and Communications.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) also welcomed the decision but said it had come too late.
"King Abdullah's promise that women will finally be allowed to vote is a welcome move away from the discrimination and exclusion that Saudi women have suffered for so long," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director.
"Sadly, King Abdullah's promise of reform in 2015 doesn't come soon enough for women to vote in upcoming municipal elections," Ms Whitson said.
Amnesty International, which cautiously welcomed the decision, said the kingdom was moving too slowly on women's rights.
"It is a welcome, albeit limited, step along the long road towards gender equality in Saudi Arabia," said Philip Luther, the global rights watchdog's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"It is, however, much overdue and does not go nearly far enough. While moving in the right direction, Saudi Arabia is moving far too slowly," Mr Luther said
" Ultimately, it is no great achievement to be one of the last countries in the world to grant women the vote."
More than 60 intellectuals and activists had called in May for a boycott of the September ballot, saying municipal councils lacked the authority to effectively carry out their role and half of their members were appointed.