The Sept. 29 municipal elections in Saudi Arabia mark the second round of polling in six years and the third in almost 50 years. The latest scheduled elections ostensibly will bring Saudis closer to developing democratic ideals espoused in the West. However, the elections also have prompted criticism from Saudi activists who assert that the electoral system prevents half the population from representation by denying women the right to vote and that it gives an edge to religious conservatives.
The September elections followed a voter registration drive in May and a short period through early June that permitted candidates to register their campaigns. Ultimately, voters will go to the polls in September to elect men to 1,632 seats in 258 municipal elections. Half the municipal council seats throughout the Kingdom are appointed by royal decree. In 2005, 1,212 seats were open on 179 councils. Saudi authorities have banned women from voting or registering as candidates.
Although the Arab spring continues with violent clashes in Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, Saudi Arabia appears virtually immune to demands from Western nations and Saudi dissidents for more aggressive democratic reforms. Saudi King Abdullah’s announcement of the September elections followed his return from Morocco and coincided with the Tunisia and Egyptian uprisings in late February and March.
Yet there is little evidence to suggest that the municipal elections will become a Middle East template for Western-style democracy as envisioned by the United States and the European Union. The U.S.-backed 2006 elections in the Palestinian Territories that brought Hamas to power foreshadowed what the Arab spring brought to North Africa. In Tunisia, the conservative Islamic Ennahda Party has gained considerable power by using Friday prayers at neighborhood mosques to solidify their base despite warnings from the Tunisian government against using political propaganda in sermons. And in July, thousands of religious conservatives descended on Tahrir Square in Cairo in a show of solidarity. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had kept a low profile during the Egyptian revolution, has emerged as the strongest political party. If Saudi Arabia’s 2005 municipal elections were any indication, religious conservatives will also prevail in September, although in a much quieter fashion.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
Long before the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia had been on a reform binge, albeit by modest Saudi standards. In 2003, King Abdullah helped established with then-King Fahd the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue to encourage free expression on domestic issues. Since 2005, King Abdullah inaugurated a new system of succession. He also created the National Human Rights Society, broadened women’s role in the workplace, and revamped government institutions to streamline bureaucracy and reduce corruption.