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Saudi women will gain a right in 4 years

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has announced that women will be able to participate in future municipal elections, according to Al Jazeera and The New York Times.  The Al Jazeera article explains that

More than 5,000 men will compete in Thursday’s municipal elections, only the second in Saudi Arabia’s history, to fill half the seats in the kingdom’s 285 municipal councils. The other half are appointed by the government.

Women will be allowed to vote in the next round of municipal council elections, which should come in 2015 or so.  The decision reflects long lasting pressures on the Saudi government to create better gender equality, as well as pressure from the Arab Spring to make changes that make government more representative and accountable to the people.

A quote from the Times:

“It is not something that will change the life of most women,” said Fawaziah Bakr, an education professor in Riyadh, noting that she had just held a monthly dinner for professional women who were buzzing with excitement about the change.

“We are now looking for even more,” Mrs. Bakr said. “The Arab spring means that things are changing, that the political power has to listen to the people. The spring gave us a clear voice.”

The story, for whatever reason, reminds me of this 2008 New York Times article about an unlikely icon (source of encouragment?) for Saudi Arabian women.

I think that the US is trying to come to grips with the fact that our less-than-wholesome allies in the Middle East are not entirely sustainable if we leave them to their own devices domestically.  So there is a challenge to push/encourage Saudi Arabia to take steps towards liberalizing their social/legal/political system when maintaining good relations is paramount to our Middle East strategy.  Given the Secretary of State Clinton’s priorities, especially in the area of gender equality, this might be a development that provides the United States an opportunity to build on.



8 Responses

  1. In context of the Arab spring, Arab monarchies have been trying to take baby steps to mollify their populations, including Morocco and Jordan (recently unlikely additions to the GCC). They may hope that venting potentially boiler societal issues may allow them enough wiggle room to avoid Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Q’s fates. But in 2015??? Rather vapid illusion of reform. But Ms. Bakr states what they won’t be able to avoid, “We are now looking for even more.” And I’m certain that will mean real change, not more lip service.

  2. If I were a Marxist, I would say that, like Qamariyya notes, this is merely a step the House of Saud needed to take in order to quell whatever grumbling existed among disaffected members of Saudi society in the wake of the “Arab Spring”. It falls somewhere along the lines of the Kuwaiti and Saudi government’s promise to shell out cash to its citizens in order to keep them out of the streets.

    A lot can happen in four years. So this move begs the question whether we can expect an increase or curtailing of rights for women as the political aftershocks in the region quiet down in the coming years?

  3. This is certainly a development for Saudi Arabia socially and politically–but it is stunted at best. What does this actually mean for Saudi women’s rights? For their representation? Will it significantly change their status within their country? In 2015 they will still need the approval of a male family member to enable them to exercise this new right. Will the House of Saud continue a precarious break from the rigid Al ash-Sheikhs’ handling of civic affairs? It will take much time. Perhaps, and I hope, this will be an instance of “give them an inch” . . .

  4. I agree that the real impact of this announcement will likely be minimal unless the women of Saudi Arabia demand more. However, it shows recognition on behalf of the government that the people, especially the women, want change which is a positive movement.

    In response to my comment about Palestine and the ICJ- I don’t think it would give them actual results, but it could provide for another avenue to discredit the behavior of Israel with more weight (since it would be a actual case not an advisory opinion), especially given the latest government announcement: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15080160

  5. And so today one woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving, which is illegal for women. That certainly dilutes the good news. Also, it’s worth noting that King Abdullah is 87 and had major health concerns last year. The Crown Prince Sultan is around 82 and in very poor health and the other likely successor, Prince Nayef who is the Minister of the Interior and controls the domestic security forces and the religious police-the dread Mutawa3. Prince Nayef has been quoted as saying “I have said it clearly: ‘No to change,’ ” Nayef told the Saudi Gazette in 2003. “However, there is scope for development.” He has declared himself a skeptic on women’s rights and elections. He is know to see little need for reform because he, “Saudi Arabia does not need fixing”. So it’s very conceivable that Prince Nayef or another Prince with similar sentiments could take power by 2015 and redact the law. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_50/b4207018600400.htm

  6. redact or revoke the law.

  7. Qamariyya, I think your point is an interesting one. People tend to become very upset when you take a right or privilege away, but if the timing works out such that Prince Nayef can take back the right to vote before women participate in the elections for the first time, he could do it without major objections. But I think that once a vote has occurred, that right will be locked in, or at least that rescinding it will spark major protest. Still, we are only talking about electing one half of municipal councils here. The move’s real significance is as a potential stepping stone, and as an easy concession for the government to show off as a sign of their being in tune with the Arab Spring demands.

  8. Well good news today. The king has revoked the lashing sentence. Unusual to see conflicting official views in KSA publicly evidenced.

    Those old codgers might die or become too ill, including Prince Nayef. The whole secession things is so notoriously opaque anyway.

    We might see events overtake things and make these speculations mute. Uprisings may yet hit the kingdom in the new Arab climate.

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