Five years ago this month, there was a good deal of excitement in Saudi Arabia when men (but not women) were given an opportunity to vote for the first time in 40 years.
They were electing half the members of municipal councils – the other half to be appointed by the king – and there was no shortage of candidates. In Riyadh alone, 640 candidates vied for just seven seats and some spent absurd sums of money campaigning.
The councils (largely powerless) were elected for four years, but when 2009 came and they were due for re-election, nothing happened.
The reason given at the time was that the next elections had been postponed for "re-evaluation" and some suspected that the whole idea of local democracy would be quietly dropped. But apparently not.
According to a report in the Saudi Gazette last month, work is proceeding on a new law "that seeks to completely overhaul the powers and functions of the kingdom’s 179 municipal councils, including harsh penalties for vote rigging and other violations and an increased emphasis on public accountability".
Judging by the paper's report it contains some sensible provisions. John Burgess, on the Crossroads Arabia blog, notesthat the draft law does not exlcude women from eligibility to vote – "though in Saudi Arabia, this does not mean that they will not be stopped from participating. There’s no law that prohibits women’s driving, after all."
The draft laws do appear to grant more authority and autonomy to the councils. I think this a prerequisite to effective civil governance. If the councils serve as no more than figurehead or bookmark offices, then they have no utility beyond the minor one of providing jobs to a few hundred people. If, however, the councils gain authority and concomitant responsibility for their actions, then they will serve an important role in defining the future of representative government in the kingdom.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 February 2010.