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Middle East: Saudis To Savor Small Dose Of Democracy

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Saudi Arabia takes a tentative move toward democracy by holding municipal elections next week. The elections, to be held in the capital, Riyadh, on 10 February, are the first ever in the conservative Muslim country. They cannot be called genuinely democratic, insofar as half the population --- namely women -- are not allowed to vote. Is this the start of reforms in the secretive desert kingdom, or it is merely an attempt to divert attention from the lack of movement on larger issues?

Prague, 3 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Saudis appear to be taking their first taste of democratic-style elections cautiously. With a week to go before the municipal elections in the Riyadh region, only about one in 30 of the city's 4 million residents has registered to vote.

Their lack of interest looks to be justified by the meager scope of the election. At stake are only seven of the 14 seats on the Riyadh city council. The rest of the councilors are selected by the government. Moreover, no political parties are allowed to campaign, no women can vote, and the city council itself has strictly limited powers.

The campaign in Riyadh is described by local journalists as a "somber" affair, with candidates trying to make contact with the electorate through door-to-door canvassing, handing out leaflets, and ads in the press. Campaigning on television and radio is banned. Most candidates are reported to be talking only to their tribal kin, not to the broader community.

The editor of the English-language "Arab News" newspaper, Faisal Ali, tells RFE/RL there is a widespread feeling that the election is a "sham" being staged by the ruling elite to appease Western demands for increased democracy.

"Not many people are taking an interest in the election," Faisal says. "They feel that this election process is nothing but a means to appease the U.S. administration [of President George W. Bush], which wants reforms to be initiated in Saudi Arabia. So this first election in Saudi Arabia has failed to ignite much enthusiasm."
"Saudi Arabia is the most undemocratic state in the region, and they justify their absolutist monarchy by saying that democracy is incompatible with Islam." -- Mai Yamani of the Royal Institute of International Affairs

Ali notes that even the country's "parliament," the Shura Council, has no political power. Its members are selected by the government and it can only recommend changes, which are then sent to the Cabinet of Ministers, which is headed by the Saudi king. It is that body which makes decisions.

Another regional expert, Mai Yamani of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, sees few grounds for optimism in this timid first attempt at elections.

"Saudi Arabia is the most undemocratic state in the region, and they justify their absolutist monarchy by saying that democracy is incompatible with Islam," Yamani says. "Now, this is not the view of many Muslim scholars in other countries."

Nevertheless, the fact that 1,948 candidates are standing for the seven municipal council seats in Riyadh shows a desire for involvement among educated, middle-income Saudis, who could form a budding "political" class. And Ali says there is a great deal of latent enthusiasm in the country at large.

"At the moment the people of Saudi Arabia [become] sure that these elections are not a sham, but rather the building of reforms," Ali says, "I think more and more people will come forward and join the electoral process."

Analyst Yamani also says Saudis are looking forward to genuine change. "The whole question is, are they going to have the rule of law, better human-rights situations, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and respect for individual freedom and dignity?" she asks. "That is the main question."

The voting in Saudi Arabia is taking place in the afterglow of what the international community sees as a successful national election in Iraq on 30 January.

The overall turnout among Iraqis was higher than expected, given the threats of massive violence and retribution by the Iraqi insurgency. Ali says that on Iraq's election day, he toured the entire Saudi city of Jeddah, where he lives, and found positive echoes.

"I talked to a lot of Saudis, particularly young Saudis," Alis says, "and I found that a lot of people are interested in the electoral process [in Iraq], and they think they should also be given the right to vote, [that] they should be involved in the decision-making process of their country. And they were very happy that the election has taken place in Iraq, and they were very enthusiastic and very optimistic that the process of electioneering will take place soon in Saudi Arabia."

Analyst Yamani says the Saudi elite is "very concerned" about events in Iraq. She says they fear, on the one hand, that the violence could spread from Iraq to their own country, or alternately that a successful, democratized Iraq that is rich in oil could eventually become a regional rival.

"There are many threats and challenges to the ruling [al-Saud] family in Saudi Arabia at the moment," Yamani says, "and it is a very delicate time for them."

Other Saudi cities and regions will hold similar municipal votes in March and April.