By Jason Benham
RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia will begin holding long-delayed municipal elections in April, a ministry said on Wednesday, in a limited political move apparently aimed at helping insulate the U.S.-allied kingdom against a wave of Arab unrest.
The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs did not say if women would be able to vote in the elections, which it said would start on an Islamic date likely to correspond to April 23.
Saudi Arabia held phased elections for half the seats on municipal councils in 2005 for the first time in over 40 years, in what was then seen as heralding a political reform process under King Abdullah. But political openings have since withered.
Rights campaigners dismissed the move to hold the municipal polls, which were originally scheduled for 2009.
"The elections will not have an effect or bring stability to the kingdom because people understand that it's a political gimmick," said political activist Mohammed al-Qahtani.
The king announced $93 billion in social handouts last week, including for security forces and clerics, seemingly seeking to mollify the population and strengthen pillars of Saudi family rule.
There was no mention of political reform, although the king did decree a new body with a large budget to fight corruption.
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, is trying to stave off protests such as those that ousted the rulers of Egypt and Tunisia and spread to neighboring Yemen, Bahrain and Oman.
This month Riyadh sent 1,000 troops to help Bahrain suppress mainly Shi'ite opposition protesters, many of whom had demanded a constitutional monarchy -- anathema to the Saudi royals.
The Saudi family dominates political life, political parties are banned and there is no elected parliament. The municipal councils, which have little power, are half filled by appointees of Saudi princes serving as provincial governors.
Women were excluded from the 2005 municipal polls. Since then an already glacial reform process has slowed, although the king has continued to liberalize bits of the economy and outflank hardline clerics seen as sympathetic to al Qaeda.
"My personal view is that women should vote because they represent more than 50 percent of the population," said Tarek Fadaak, a member of Jeddah city council. "It is hard to say if women will vote. I don't have any indications."
POLLING DATE UNCERTAIN
The ministry said on its website preparations for the polls, which must be held by October, had begun months ago. A Western diplomat said April 23 might just be a date in the organizing process, rather than when voting would actually take place.
"Since they were in the pipeline long before this unrest there is no reason to say they are in the least connected to turmoil in the region," said Saudi analyst Khalid al-Dakhil.
Other analysts said the announcement on municipal elections came as no surprise. Nor did it attract any local media fanfare.
Instead, newspapers focused on an appeal by King Abdullah not to call him "king of humanity" or "king of hearts" -- tags often used by Saudi officials, but which offend some clerics.
"We are all slaves of God. Please exempt me from these (titles)," he told a gathering of clerics and officials on Tuesday.
Sunni clerics, whose power rests on a longstanding pact with the Saudi family, wield much social control in the kingdom. Many oppose women voting. They have attacked protests as un-Islamic.
Minority Shi'ites have staged marches in the Eastern Province, home to most of Saudi Arabia's oil, but Saudis elsewhere disregarded a Facebook call for protests on March 11, when security units were deployed in force just in case.
Dozens of Saudi men gathered outside the Interior Ministry in Riyadh Sunday to demand the release of jailed relatives.
"The protests for the families of the jailed Saudis will continue until there is more information about them and until they are taken to trial," said a Saudi-based analyst who asked not to be named. "The problems in the east (of the kingdom) will continue because the Shi'ites have their own grievances and are very much affected by what is happening in Bahrain."
About 100 Shi'ites were detained last week during protests urging the release of prisoners and a Saudi troop pullout from Bahrain, the local Human Rights First Society said Wednesday.
Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki declined to comment on the report, but said demonstrations were illegal.
Saudi Shi'ites complain of discrimination in jobs and benefits. The government denies the charges.
(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif in Jeddah and Andrew Hammond in Dubai, writing by Alistair Lyon; editing by Ralph Boulton)