News this week that women are registering to vote in elections in Saudi Arabia has garnered plenty of attention. The move, described by the kingdom as a “significant milestone in progress” is in keeping with a 2011 royal decree permitting women to run and vote in municipal polls to be held in December. But before we celebrate a step toward equality in one of the world’s most notoriously misogynist countries, it is important to look a little closer at this supposed reform. The reality is that when you view this change in the wider context of Saudi Arabia’s extreme and expanding political repression, it is clear that it is an advance on paper only. Indeed, the right to vote in thoroughly closed political systems is essentially meaningless — what do you vote for in a system that effectively forbids meaningful political opposition of any kind?
Public political dissent is illegal in Saudi Arabia, which is rated as “Not Free” in Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties; Saudi Arabia is a mainstay of the 10 worst-scoring countries in the world. Citizens that even hint that political and human rights should be expanded have been tried as terrorists within a judiciary system that is closely aligned with the monarchy.
Meanwhile, elections have limited impact, to put it mildly. Political decision-making revolves around the King, who appoints his own cabinet and then ratifies the legislation that the body passes. Decision-making bodies like the Majlis al-Shura, the king-appointed 150-member consultative council, act in a consultative capacity. Local municipal elections were introduced in 2005. Half of the seats on these councils are determined by vote, and the other half by royal appointment. The votes that women will now have, then, are good for half of the seats for a largely advisory group in a system completely dominated by the palace.