This week, in the face of mounting domestic and international heat, the House of Saud promised to allow elections for local councils in Saudi Arabia’s 14 municipalities. If they take place as planned next year (and you never know), the elections will be the first in the kingdom’s history.
How big of a deal is this? Depending on how you reckon, we’re looking at the beginnings of a seismic shift in Saudi Arabian, and possibly Middle Eastern, politics; or else a temporary patch rigged up to placate a restless population without ceding meaningful power.
The Economist called the announcement a “telling omen of democratic stirrings to come.” Ken Pollack, a Middle East expert who was an outspoken advocate of the Iraq war, sees reason for optimism, saying in the New York Times that “the cynics should take note: more so than even the pluralist maelstrom in Iraq, moves toward democratization in Saudi Arabia could have ripples throughout the Middle East.” He continues:
“In fact, because Saudi Arabia is the most conservative of the Arab states, Riyadh’s decision to start a process of democratization, no matter how gradual, is already beginning to force many Arabs to rethink where the tides of Middle Eastern history are headed. As long as the Saudis keep moving down this path, no matter how sluggishly, it will be hard for the other countries of the region not to follow. The other governments will have no answer when their people ask why, if the Saudis can adopt more pluralistic political institutions, can’t they as well?”
But a little caution is in order. Pollack prefaces his analysis with caveats: the initiative might be derailed, elections may not be free and fair, we don’t know if women will be allowed to vote (though Saudi women welcomed the news.) And, after all, restricted elections can’t cure all of Saudi’s deep structural flaws.
As the Associated Press notes, the royals already issued a law calling for the formation of municipal councils in 1975, but never implemented it. And if elections are to be held and candidates are to compete, one would presume that public gathering will be called for. Yet there is no protected right of freedom of assembly in the country.
Jane’s Intelligence Digest thinks that the effort might be too little, too late:
“This week’s announcement is indeed a very modest proposal. The plan provides for the election of up to half the members of local councils. However, it remains unclear whether voting will be restricted to males and there is no indication that more far-reaching reforms – such as elected national government – are even being considered. Nevertheless, any move in the direction of democracy in the Kingdom is likely to prove an uncertain gamble for very high stakes.”
But the situation may have reached a tipping point. The strong pressure for reform Saudi Arabia faces at home and from abroad is pushing the royals to move on reform faster than they’re probably comfortable with. The prominent role Saudis played in the September 11 terrorist attacks brought greater international scrutiny on the kingdom’s domestic affairs, and the Bush administration kept classified information pertaining to the Saudi government in it’s 9/11 report released earlier this year.
The Christian Science Monitor recognizes the domestic imperative:
“The imperative for reform is as much domestic as foreign. The country’s population has doubled in the last 20 years to 23 million. Unemployment is at 25 percent – yet the government must import foreign workers to do jobs the country’s religion-based schools leave Saudis unqualified to perform. These disgruntled youth form the recruiting pool for Al Qaeda – the pool from which most of the 9/11 hijackers emerged.”
Another sign of internal pressure was the Saudi government’s unprecedented decision, earlier this year, to permit the existence of human rights N.G.O.s. While most saw the decision as a reaction to increased scrutiny of the regime and an effort to create a safety valve for domestic unrest, The Arab Times, a pro-government Saudi paper saw the move as another shining example of the modernizing project long endorsed by the royal family:
“[The elections] should not be interpreted as a radical departure from the past. This is not because elections will not mean anything: They will mean a great deal indeed. Rather, it is because, for more than seven decades, Saudi Arabia has constantly changed with the times. It would be difficult to imagine another country in the world where such extraordinary development has taken place with such little negative effect. …
[O]nly the cynical or the naive can fail to acknowledge that what is taking place in Saudi Arabia is a very radical reassessment of the social contract.”
This interpretation has few takers in the West. National Security reporter Joe Trento noted last month that the House of Saud doesn’t have a grip on domestic discontent:
“Recent shootouts across Saudi Arabia make it very clear that the Saudis can’t control their own borders or the discontent from within. Al-Qaeda has thoroughly penetrated not only the Saudi financial establishment but its military and intelligence services too.”
For all the happy talk of reform, Saudi Arabia is, lets not forget, pretty darn repressed. This week’s announcement was accompanied by a crackdown on 150 Saudis protesting the government’s autocratic rule.
Bringing the Saudi question back home, Michael Steinberger argues in The American Prospect that Democrats should make the Bush administration’s weakness on Saudi Arabia an election issue:
“Given the many business and personal ties binding the president, his family and his associates to the House of Saud, George W. Bush’s see-no-evildoer attitude toward the Saudis is a vulnerability just begging to be exploited by the Democrats. And they need to do so if they hope to recapture the presidency next year.”
Indeed, it may turn out that Saudis and Americans will be voting at the same time. In both elections, Saudi-American relations are sure to be matters of debate. That is, if Democrats choose to make it one.
As for the Saudi elections, Lebanon’s Daily Star points out that the significance of the political reforms will be clear only when, and if, Saudis go to the polls.
“The extent to which they are free and fair will say much about the royal family’s intentions, but the level of public participation in … the process will reveal even more about the ruling elite’s willingness and ability to accept and support democratisation. This is a test the establishment cannot afford to fail.”