Saudis tiptoe to democracy

Saudis tiptoe to democracy

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 
18 February 2005

Saudi Arabia took a cautious step towards democracy on February 10 when voters in Riyadh and the surrounding areas elected 127 members of municipal councils. Further elections in the rest of the kingdom are scheduled for March 3 and April 21.

Although the power of the councils is limited and only half the seats were open for contest - the other 50% of members will be appointed - there was no doubting the eagerness of candidates to seize their first electoral opportunity in 40 years: in Riyadh city 640 candidates vied for just seven seats.

In the absence of political parties, it was up to individual candidates to make themselves and their policies known - which many did by setting up roadside tents where feasts and poetry recitations were laid on for potential voters. 

There was no limit on campaign spending so long as candidates used their own money. One of the unsuccessful candidates reportedly spent four million riyals (just over $1 million) on newspaper advertising and street posters.

In the capital at least, the enthusiasm of candidates was not matched by the enthusiasm of voters. With an estimated 500,000 citizens of Riyadh eligible to vote, 86,462 completed the registration process and only 56,354 actually voted. Registration and voting levels appear to have been higher elsewhere.

The elections were the most tangible result so far of the kingdom’s reform programme which seeks to open up government gradually to increased public participation, starting at the local level where debate is likely to focus on practical issues rather than high politics.

Although these first steps may reassure conservatives, reformists say they do not go far enough - especially because they have so far excluded women from voting. In fact the electoral law says ‘all citizens’ are entitled to vote and does not specifically bar women but the authorities said there was not enough time to organise separate voting facilities for women as would be required by Saudi custom. This leaves the way open for female voting in future elections and there is also the possibility of including some women among the appointed council members.

Announcement of the election results brought allegations - widely reported in the Saudi press - that at least six of the seven winners in Riyadh belonged to an unofficial Islamist bloc. These candidates are said to have been named in text messages sent to voters shortly before polling day, claiming that they had the blessing of religious scholars. Similar statements reportedly appeared on websites.

Many of the losers cited the messages as evidence of collaboration between the winning candidates which, if proven, would be an infringement of the electoral rules.

Ibrahim al-Quayid, a prominent academic who was among victors, denied that certain candidates had used religion and formed coalitions in order to win. 

Pointing out that five of the seven winners five had doctorates and four of them were western-educated, he told Arab News: ‘They are, of course, Muslims and they represent the mainstream Muslim society not any extremist ideology.’

Another of the winners, Abd al-Aziz al-Omari, a history lecturer and property developer, said: ‘Many of the candidates who lost are more Islamists than myself.’