Saudi men taste democracy

SAUDI ARABIANS will go to the polls on February 10 to celebrate another round of elections in the Arab world in less than two months.

  • E-Mail
By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  February 6, 2005

Saudi men taste democracy|~|Election-time-200.jpg|~|ELECTION TIME: Municipal elections are being held in the Kingdom.|~|SAUDI ARABIANS will go to the polls on February 10 to celebrate another round of elections in the Arab world in less than two months. The elections in 178 municipalities are the first to be held in the kingdom since the 1960s. They will be held in three stages with the first phase taking place around the capital Riyadh on February 10, the second in the east and southwest regions of the country on March 3, and the third, in the north, on April 21. The government is keen on portraying this process as part of the Saudi government’s response to progressive movements calling for political reform and a wider part of liberalising the country. Since the 9/11 attacks a number of reformers have petitioned Crown Prince Abdullah, the de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, to implement reforms and there have been pockets of dissent in the country with Saudis taking to the streets in the capital Riyadh and the coastal city of Jeddah. “The elections are another step in the development of the Kingdom, and part of the process of revitalising government and broadening of decision-making,” Adel Al Jubeir, foreign policy adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah told Arabian Business. “The Kingdom is undertaking comprehensive reforms in virtually all areas, with the objective of improving the lives of all citizens,” he added. Jamal Khashoggi, media adviser to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, says the objective of this process is to introduce the culture of elections to Saudi society and this in itself is the “biggest achievement”. “It is an essential part of the reform plan and one of the most important objectives of the reform plan is to widen people’s participation. It is our way of saying democratisation,” said Khashoggi. Though the intentions may be well placed the picture seems rosier than some may like to admit. In a country where people like to play their cards close to the vest, some Saudis preferred not to air their views on the record. A prominent Saudi businessman from one of the biggest merchant families in the kingdom and a member of one city council, told Arabian Business he believes the elections are going to create a paradigm shift in the psyche of the Saudi population. “I think the elections are very positive as a process, as a journey of a thousand miles,” he adds. Citing a highly publicised fiasco that took place in the coastal city of Jeddah four years ago, the Saudi businessman explains how heavy rain had caused flooding in parts of the city and how the ensuing crisis led to authorities examining the drainage system only to discover the original contractor had duped the municipality when building the draining system. “Now elected officials will have a different psychology,” he says, hopefully deterring similar incidents from taking place. Though he is hopeful about the positive gains that will come about from the election, this Saudi businessman also says the limited scope of these elections means that “no other issue, political issue, other than municipalities will be” discussed. However, all women will be excluded in this round of elections. Nadia Bakhurji, first woman to nominate herself for the municipal elections before women were restricted said she was unhappy with the status quo. “I’m very very disappointed,” she told Arabian Business. “But I also have to say I have mixed feelings because in the forthcoming election after this one in 2009, they’ve promised us that we will be participating.” Dr. Ihsan Bu Hulaiga a member of the Saudi consultative Shura council believes there are no obstacles to women participating. “No one can say Saudi women are not capable or don’t have the capacity or the right to participate in decision-making. As far as the royal address given before the Shura council in May 2003 — that address pointed out a number of issues regarding reforms one of them is the empowerment and inclusion of women in all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia,” says Bu Hulaiga. Though women he concedes will not be included in this municipal election “for a number of logistical reasons,” Bu Hulaiga says it is highly likely that women will be able to participate in 2009. “When you review the law, nothing in there is against females per se,” he says. Bakhurji said while the 2009 elections may be a long away from now, waiting wouldn’t lessen her resolve or that of other Saudi women. “There will be attempts from the women’s side to try and get the parties who are responsible to accept us somehow even through allocated seats. We are going to keep pushing this issue of appointing a certain percentage of seats within the municipality council to ladies if they are not going to put us through the election process.” Talk of expanding the consultative Shura council from its current 120 appointed members to 150 has raised the prospect of wider participation of Saudi women. “It makes great sense to include females [in the Shura council],” says Bu Hulaiga. “Saudi women participated in various activities of the Shura council, in capacities other than full-fledged membership. I don’t think it will be farfetched for the ladies to be asked to be included. I believe the role of women will be expanded in the shura three months from now,” Bu Hulaiga revealed. Notwithstanding what may or may not happen in the medium term, Bakhurji says the current elections are a positive move towards reform and she plans to run in 2009. “Compare it to five or 10 years ago it was a non-issue you couldn’t even discuss it.” Asked if women would vote, Jamal Khashoggi adviser to prince Turki said, “Eventually it will come.” For now only male citizens over the age of 21 will vote for half of the members of their municipal councils, effectively sidelining women who make up half of the population. While a total of 1,818 candidates are running, of which 646 are competing for the seven seats in Riyadh’s council, voters seem apathetic with only 150,000 residents registering for the first round of elections. Neil Partrick, senior economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit says the low voter registration suggests “considerable ambivalence about the unfamiliar practice of electing representatives.” The exception to this he says is the registration in the Shiite dominated eastern province “where a determination on the part of a historically disadvantaged community to grab a platform may be motivating people.” Partrick adds, “The powers of the municipal bodies will remain limited, and the options that can be presented to voters are in any case narrow. In such a context this process looks largely irrelevant to the necessity for the ruling family of strengthening popular legitimacy across Saudi society.” ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code