Just for show?

Saudi Arabia's upcoming municipal elections are unlikely to change the status quo -- for one thing, women won't be voting.

By Brian Whitaker

Published February 9, 2005 1:54PM (EST)

Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most traditional absolute monarchies, will take a tentative step toward democracy Thursday when male citizens go to the polls in the first municipal elections in 40 years. Candidates have splashed out money on advertising and laid on feasts for potential voters, but the authorities' "progressive step" has left reformers disappointed.

"I call it a quarter-election," said Ali al-Ahmad, of the Saudi Institute, a pro-reform organization based in Washington. "It excludes women voters -- that's 50 percent -- and then only 50 percent of the council seats will be decided by the voting."

The elections are one of the first tangible parts of a reform program urged by Crown Prince Abdullah, the country's day-to-day ruler, in the face of stiff resistance from ultra-conservatives, especially among the clergy. With all key ministerial posts in the hands of senior princes and an unelected parliament whose role is consultative, power is concentrated in the hands of the royal family. But the kingdom faces pressure to allow greater public participation.

Elections at local level are seen as one way of opening up the system while preserving the status quo. Elected councilors will be able to discuss roads, sewage and street lighting, without, as one Saudi put it, debating "high politics." But in a country where many regard democracy as un-Islamic, Saudi men have shown limited interest. In the Riyadh district about 150,000 have registered to vote, only about a quarter of those entitled to do so. In the Ahsa region, 250 miles east of the capital, the figure is higher, with almost 45 percent of eligible men registered to vote.

Despite voter lethargy, there is no shortage of candidates: In the Riyadh district 1,800 are contesting 127 seats, and in the capital itself 700 are vying for just seven seats.

"There are some who think they can do something instead of sitting and criticizing, and [others] who see a business opportunity," Ahmad said.

With no political parties allowed, some candidates have spent vast amounts of their own money on self-promotion. One is reported to have spent 4 million riyals (575,000 pounds) on newspaper ads and street posters. At his campaign tent he handed out bottles of water with his face on the label.

Jeddah's daily paper, Arab News, has reported claims that "vote brokers," who offer to deliver large numbers of votes for candidates for a price, have been trying to gain a foothold in Riyadh. In carpeted tents voters have been entertained by poets, lectured by experts in municipal services and invited to sumptuous banquets.

While the prestige of winning a council seat is beyond doubt, it is unlikely that the councils will have much real power, since their budgets will be decided by the government.

Although election law says all Saudi citizens can take part, the authorities were nervous about the reaction from religious conservatives if women got the vote. After much hesitation they allowed "technical difficulties" to decide the issue, saying there were too few women with photo I.D. cards or female officials to register women voters. The authorities have hinted that future elections will include women, and there have been demands to include large numbers among the 50 percent of council members who will be royally appointed.

"It's too little, too late," said Mai Yamani, a research fellow at Britain's Chatham House. "These elections are part of a show of democratic performance, and part of the pressure in the region -- not just because of the Iraqi elections, but because all the other Gulf states now have their own small elections.

"Most people I talk to say it is going to give us nothing -- all the old rulers will still be there."

Brian Whitaker

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