Saudis tiptoe to democracy
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
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
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
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
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