Prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz, Saudi interior minister, on Monday delivered a blow to women's hopes that they might be allowed to participate in municipal elections in the kingdom early next year when he told a Kuwaiti newspaper that it was not an option for women to participate.
In his statement to Kuwait's Al-Watan newspaper, the prince gave no reason for the decision to exclude women from the elections, but indicated that the government's main preoccupation was with combatting terrorism.
Crown Prince Abdullah, the country's de facto ruler, has called for a greater role for women in public life and the workplace women account for only 4 per cent of the labour force. But improving women's rights meets with strong resistance from the religious establishment.
When the Saudi government in August issued the regulations for next year's partial municipal elections it left the question of women's participation unanswered.
As legal experts debated the wording of the law and analysts predicted women would ultimately be banned, Nadia Bakhurji, a 37-year-old Riyadh-based architect, decided to test the regulations herself.
Late last month, she became the first woman to declare her candidacy and send a press release to local newspapers outlining a detailed programme.
?The law is open to interpretation? she told the FT, adding: ?I've received no comment from anyone telling me to back down.?
Ms Bakhurji's election programme emphasised social issues, particularly environmental and public safety concerns.
But her candidacy was a strong political statement in a country where women suffer daily discrimination and live in strict segregation.
The election of half the members of the 178 municipal councils is part of a cautious reform programme launched in response to international and domestic pressure.
But the credibility of the vote will be damaged by the denial of women's right to vote.
?It is obsolete to exclude women,? argues Hatoon al-Fassi, an assistant professor at King Saud University who was helping women candidates organise their campaigns.
?We think this is the right moment there is now an acknowledgement that women do not have fair treatment.? Ms Fassi had established an informal network aimed at educating women about the role of municipal councils, encouraging them to run and raising issues that are important to local communities. ?We're trying to prove to our society and to leadership that we are capable of doing it,? she says.
In an apparent attempt to avoid months of controversy over women's role in the elections, the electoral law said the vote would be open to all muwatins over 21 years of age.
The word means male citizens but legal experts said that Saudi law used the masculine when referring to all citizens.
Abdelaziz al-Qassim, a legal and religious scholar, said a ban would have to be clearly stated in the regulations.
Officials involved in drafting the law said their intention was to exclude no one. But leaks from the ministry of municipal affairs, which is organising the poll, suggested women would be allowed to take part in future elections but not in this one.
Sulaiman al-Hattlan, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Watan newspaper, said logistic difficulties, rather than politics or religion, might be cited as the justification. One handicap, he said, was that only 5,000 women had identity cards, a document that was only introduced for women two years ago.
Ms Bakhurji, meanwhile, said that if the authorities insisted the identity card was an obstacle, they should allocate a quota for women in the 50 per cent of seats that are appointed.
?Getting women's voices across on the councils is difficult if women are not represented,? she says.
?A quota would at least raise the morale of women here and make them feel that they are full citizens.?