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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia

The election for local councils illustrated the slow, limited steps that the ultraconservative kingdom, a staunch U.S. ally, is taking in allowing some popular voice in its government. The councils are one of the few elected bodies in the country but have no real power, mandated to offer advice to provincial authorities.

Saudi Arabia does not have a parliament. Instead, it has a Shura Council, an assembly appointed by the king with a similar mandate to advise, but not legislate.

On Sunday, King Abdullah -- who is seen as a relative reformer -- decreed that women would be allowed to vote in the next local elections, scheduled for 2015. He also said women will be appointed to the all-male Shura Council.

The local council vote was initially due in 2009 but was postponed. The kingdom has 1.2 million registered voters out of 5 million men who could be eligible to vote.

In Thursday's election, more than 5,000 men are running for 1,056 seats on the nearly 300 local councils nationwide.

Saudi media said voting went off to a slow start but was expected to pick up later in the day.

Abdullah, seeking to insulate his nation against the anti-regime uprisings sweeping other Arab nations, announced earlier this year a $93 billion package of jobs, incentives and services for Saudis.

His decree Sunday on women was also seen as a nod to the Arab world's season of change and the yearning for greater social freedoms among a segment of Saudi society.

It was a significant step forward for Saudi women. But women continue to bear the brunt of their nation's deeply conservative values. They are unable to serve as Cabinet ministers, drive or travel abroad without permission from a male guardian. They are often targeted by the kingdom's intrusive religious police, who enforce a rigid interpretation of Islamic Shariah law on the streets and public places like shopping malls and university campuses. Many proponents of women's rights questioned why they had to wait four years to vote.

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