Men in eastern and southern Saudi Arabia voted for local councilmen in the second stage of the kingdom's unprecedented nationwide elections yesterday, speaking hopefully and at times nervously about their taste of democracy.
Voters, wearing traditional white robes called thobes and red-and-white checkered headdresses, lined up outside polling stations in the eastern city of Khobar, waiting to cast their first ballots ever.
"This is a national duty and we should participate in it," said Ahmed Ba Zakama, a 52-year-old shift superintendent at the giant Aramco oil company. "We hope that the people we choose will relay our ideas and proposals to the authorities."
More than 206,650 voters have registered and 800 candidates were running in the Eastern Province, where most of the country's 3 to 4 million minority Shiite population lives. In the south, about 115,000 voters have signed up and more than 1,700 candidates were running. Results are not expected before tomorrow.
Next month's third stage of elections will cover the western and northern regions of Saudi Arabia, including the holy cities of Mecca and Madina, and the central region of Qassim.
Both Sunni and Shiite voters hope the elections will provide them with an opportunity to communicate their needs for better infrastructure and services in their neighborhoods. Shiites, who have long complained of discrimination, hope for an additional advantage -- a channel to push for more rights to their community.
At polling station 320, a sprawling boys' high school, about 50 men sat in green plastic chairs or on the ground or milled about in the playground waiting to get into the building to vote.
Fouad al-Ahmad, a 42-year-old technician in a petrochemical plant, held a newspaper that listed all candidates in his district.
"I feel anxious," he said. "It's a first process."
"Are the candidates going to keep their promises? Are there going to be barriers to their efforts? Is it going to be just a process like third world countries?" he added.
Asked if he would like the democratic process to go as far as it has gone in Lebanon, where the government fell on Monday as a result of popular pressure and peaceful demonstrations, al-Ahmad said: "To me, what happened in Lebanon was chaos."
He said in a conservative country like Saudi Arabia, where protests are banned, "this choice of the people is not going to be adequate for our society."
"We need controlled democracy," that blends elections with the old tradition of directly appealing to members of the royal family to resolve issues, he added.
Muhammad al-Yami, a 28-year-old English language teacher, disagreed.
"I hope we will reach this degree of democracy," he said, referring to Lebanon.