CDHR Comment: Under domestic, regional and global pressures, the Saudi ruling family had little choice but to act, even if such action is seen as too little too late. Saudi women have been increasingly giving voice to their anger and frustration with being marginalized by an autocratic and theocratic government in a male dominated society. In addition, a number of educated royal females (including two of King Abdullah’s daughters, Adela and Sita and Basma Bint Saud, daughter of former King Saud) are becoming increasingly active in women’s issues and speaking out against their family’s discriminatory policies toward women. Adding to the rising domestic discontent, the sweeping Arab revolt against oppression, corruption and lack of economic opportunities is being felt inside the fortified Saudi royal palaces. These are some of the reasons that prompted King Abdullah to issue a royal decree on September 25, 2011, recognizing Saudi women’s basic citizenship rights.
On the eve of municipal elections (Sept. 29, 2011) that were supposed to have been held in April 2009, but were arbitrarily postponed by King Abdullah, the king decreed that Saudi women will be allowed to participate in future elections four years from now, if promises are kept. The aging and ailing monarch also decreed that women will be allowed to join the powerless national Consultative Council whose members he appoints as he and his family see fit. This may also happen four years from now unless he changes his mind or is coerced by other family members into rescinding this proposed reform.
While King Abdullah’s decree may have a positive psychological impact and can potentially be translated into tangible action, it has many flaws that can render it worthless. Royal decrees may easily be cancelled or postponed indefinitely by the king as has happened in the past. They can also be shelved by his successor. This scenario is likely if Prince Naif inherits the family throne next. Decrees are not institutionalized laws that can be contested or enforced through independent courts or challenged by independent civil society organizations – actions which are is not permitted in Saudi Arabia. Given the result of the last and only municipal elections in Saudi Arabia in 2005, the proposed reform will only be window dressing designed to silence domestic reformers and appease foreign critics.
If the same process and conditions used in the 2005 elections are followed in elections this month and in the future, the outcome will be meaningless. Only half of the 285 municipal officials will be elected, while the other half are appointed by the government. Candidates will be intensely examined and those deemed independent or critical of government policies, like political blogger Fouad Al-Farahan, will be dropped from the list of candidates. Women may still be excluded, while anyone under the age of 21 and government employees, including military and security personnel, will not be allowed to run for office or to vote. Finally the elected municipal councils in 2005 were not given any legislative powers. They were told to collect complaints and submit them to government agencies, effectively co-opting them into becoming part of the existing dysfunctional government agencies.
Given the Saudi monarchy’s intense opposition to democracy and political participation (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-23/will-the-saudis-kill-the-arab-spring-.html), one cannot help but question whether the Saudi king’s announcement is a genuine attempt at reform or just another maneuver to ease domestic and global pressure on the royal family for at least four more years. The king avoided any mention of some actions he could have taken immediately to eliminate the relegation of women to the margins of society. Allowing women to drive and abolishing the institutionalized equivalent of slavery, the male guardian system, would improve women’s lot much more quickly than permitting them to vote in cosmetic municipal elections four years from now.