The Sept. 29 municipal elections in Saudi Arabia mark the second round of polling in six years and the third in almost 50 years. The latest scheduled elections ostensibly will bring Saudis closer to developing democratic ideals espoused in the West. However, the elections also have prompted criticism from Saudi activists who assert that the electoral system prevents half the population from representation by denying women the right to vote and that it gives an edge to religious conservatives.
The September elections followed a voter registration drive in May and a short period through early June that permitted candidates to register their campaigns. Ultimately, voters will go to the polls in September to elect men to 1,632 seats in 258 municipal elections. Half the municipal council seats throughout the Kingdom are appointed by royal decree. In 2005, 1,212 seats were open on 179 councils. Saudi authorities have banned women from voting or registering as candidates.
Although the Arab spring continues with violent clashes in Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, Saudi Arabia appears virtually immune to demands from Western nations and Saudi dissidents for more aggressive democratic reforms. Saudi King Abdullah’s announcement of the September elections followed his return from Morocco and coincided with the Tunisia and Egyptian uprisings in late February and March.
Yet there is little evidence to suggest that the municipal elections will become a Middle East template for Western-style democracy as envisioned by the United States and the European Union. The U.S.-backed 2006 elections in the Palestinian Territories that brought Hamas to power foreshadowed what the Arab spring brought to North Africa. In Tunisia, the conservative Islamic Ennahda Party has gained considerable power by using Friday prayers at neighborhood mosques to solidify their base despite warnings from the Tunisian government against using political propaganda in sermons. And in July, thousands of religious conservatives descended on Tahrir Square in Cairo in a show of solidarity. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had kept a low profile during the Egyptian revolution, has emerged as the strongest political party. If Saudi Arabia’s 2005 municipal elections were any indication, religious conservatives will also prevail in September, although in a much quieter fashion.
Long before the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia had been on a reform binge, albeit by modest Saudi standards. In 2003, King Abdullah helped established with then-King Fahd the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue to encourage free expression on domestic issues. Since 2005, King Abdullah inaugurated a new system of succession. He also created the National Human Rights Society, broadened women’s role in the workplace, and revamped government institutions to streamline bureaucracy and reduce corruption.
Perhaps the most radical reform was the establishment of an electorate not seen in Saudi Arabia since the early 1960s. However, few Saudis have seen tangible results from the elections since municipal council meetings are largely inaccessible to the public.
Hendrik Jan Kraetzschmar, who with the London School of Economics’ Public Policy Group, was part of a Riyadh team in 2004 to help Saudis establish democratic municipal elections. The Saudi government, he reported, embraced some Western electoral procedures and eschewed others. Most notably was implementing cross-district voting that enabled religious conservative candidates to secure large numbers of votes and win elections they otherwise would have lost if voting were limited to their own districts.
“Specifically, the Saudi case demonstrates that, by putting a premium on cross-district efforts at voter mobilization, the electoral system provided the institutional backdrop against which it was possible for Islamist candidates and their backers to coordinate successfully their campaigns and achieve impressive victories across the Kingdom. It also posits that it was this level of coordination, facilitated by the electoral rules that gave the entire campaign a distinctly ideological flavor, even though the elections were formally run on a non-partisan, individual-candidacy basis, Kraetzschmar wrote in his January 2011 study, “The First Democratic Elections in Saudi Arabia in 2005.”
The 2005 municipal elections were not without precedent. Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections in 1939, just seven years after the founding of the country. Little is known about this fledgling attempt at democracy, but King Saud bin Abdul Aziz permitted municipal council elections again, starting in about 1954, in part to blunt criticism from Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. These early efforts inexplicably ceased around 1962.
The Arabian American Oil Co., a consortium of U.S. companies that developed the Saudi oil industry and now owned by Saudi Arabia as Saudi Aramco, kept some records of the early elections process. Islamic scholars and reporters employed by Aramco monitored the elections from the beginning. Registered voters elected candidates to councils that had real power. Councils had the authority to build roads and acquire routes through eminent domain. Some councils had authority over electrical hookups.
How voters cast ballots depended on the region. Shiites in the Eastern Province often found themselves on the short end of the stick when pitted against the Sunni majority. In one election, voting took place similar to the U.S. Electoral College in which about 50 men represented about 20,000 residents in the region. Although Shiites comprised of about half the population, none of the 50 representatives were Shiites. Predictably, the election resulted in a Sunni landslide. 
In other regions, older conservative landowners easily beat young businessmen, and middle-class entrepreneurs and mid-level managers. The minimum voting age was 18 or 21 depending on the district. In some districts, the local Emir determined who was eligible to run for office. The total number of votes, not percentages, elected candidates. In one election, 5,000 voters cast ballots among scores of candidates, but the winner received only 115 votes.
Poll monitoring by candidates’ supporters kept voter misconduct at a minimum. In Dammam, for example, monitors suspected several illiterate voters of casting ballots filled out by other people. Monitors ordered them to cast their votes a second time after voiding the first ballots. Not unexpectedly, the most organized candidates won council seats. Many candidates acknowledged the influence of the 1960 John F. Kennedy/Richard Nixon U.S. presidential race in how they approached their campaigns.
For a country that had not experienced a municipal election in more than 40 years, voter enthusiasm for the 2005 municipal elections was remarkable. According to the Riyadh-based ASBAR Center for Studies, Research and Communications, older Saudis took the most interest in the elections. An estimated 73 percent of the registered Saudis voters over the age of 46 cast ballots. About 55 percent of registered Saudis voters between 30 and 40 years old went to the polls, while 43.5 percent of registered men between the ages of 21 and 29 voted. An estimated 55.5 percent of the registered voters held Bachelor of Arts degrees and 54 percent were government employees.
ASBAR painted a bright portrait of the 2005 elections. The study reported that 72.7 percent of the polled Saudis voted because it was an act of national pride and patriotism. Nearly 63 percent of the Saudis polled said they voted because the elections assured “every citizen’s right to vote.” And 48.3 percent said they voted because they wanted to encourage and support the elections.
However, the study also found that in some regions a high percentage of registered voters never went to the polls. In Al Baha, 41.9 percent of the registered voters didn’t cast ballots. In Makkah, 38.3 percent of the registered voters didn’t vote and 39.1 percent of registered voters in Riyadh failed to go to polling stations.
The study did not provide details of its methodology. Yet ASBAR reported that 59 percent of the surveyed Saudis opposed women voting and 72.5 percent didn’t want them on municipal councils. The study concluded that “there was a clear increase in the percentages showing the lack of support concerning women’s participating in the elections, whether in voting or as candidates. This was attributed to reasons related to traditions, norms and the weak qualifying of women.”
Architectural consultant Nadia Bakhurji, the first Saudi women to register her candidacy for 2005 elections only to have her application nullified, argues that female voter participation legitimizes the election. “In the past two years there have been positive steps in the progress of women and this would have been a natural step,” Bakhurji said. “There is no excuse for us not to participate.”
Bakhurji pointed out that contrary to the ASBAR study men are ready to vote for women candidates. She said the 13,000-member Saudi Council of Engineers has only 200 women on its membership rolls. Bakhurji said she was the only woman among 75 candidates running for a board seat, yet her male colleagues elected her to a second term. She also noted that Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez’s 2009 appointment as deputy education minister and the women elected to seats on the Jeddah and Riyadh Chamber of Commerces illustrate substantial progress. “Obviously women are on the path to higher decision-making,” she said.
Bakhurji’s allies like Dr. Hatton Al-Fassi, an assistant professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, wrote on the Arabic-language website saudielection.com that the government is doomed to “repeat past mistakes” by not permitting women to participate in the September polls.
Saudi electoral regulations ban candidates sharing similar political views from creating alliances, slates or campaigning on issues outside of their local council districts. Yet a Golden List, sometimes referred to as the Recommended List, emerged in the weeks leading up to the 2005 election.
The lists featured candidates “approved” by local clerics or Islamic scholars and played upon the religious emotions of the voters. One Saudi journalist noted that Saudis are “weak” when pressed on matters of Islam and susceptible to ideological arguments.
According to LSE Public Policy Group’s Hendrik Jan Kraetzschmar, telephone text messages bombarded voters with statements that convey such messages as, “These are the candidates who follow the principles and line of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). If you want the better for our Islamic and Arab society, vote for them.” Older voters were less likely to reject such arguments, thus keeping the Islamic slate of candidates from fragmenting.
This strategy had a stunning impact in every municipal council district. Candidates running on the Islamic Golden List ticket scored overwhelming victories in Jeddah, Makkah, Madinah, Riyadh, Dammam, Tabuk and Qaif.
Further, candidates on the Golden List greatly benefited from cross-district voting. Many candidates who won seats garnered significantly more votes than there were registered voters in their district. For example, a winning candidate in Jeddah received 9,090 votes, far more votes than the number of registered voters in his own district. More than half of his votes came from other districts.
The Golden List and the informal collaboration between candidates also illustrate the power of new communication technology and its influence on vote getting. While social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, played a minimal role in the 2005 elections, it’s likely to have a significant presence in the September 2011 polling.
Islamist electioneering, council transparency and the marginalization of women have prompted opposition from some Saudi liberals and women’s groups. A group of Saudi writers and intellectuals, which includes Saudi human rights activist Mohammed Fahad Al-Qahtani, released a statement in March 2011 that the group would boycott the September elections because the Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs failed to address concerns of the 2005 elections. The ministry also failed to explain why it cancelled scheduled elections in 2009.
The group complained the councils had no effective role in even the smallest issues affecting local municipalities. Election opponents also said the process diminished democratic practices because half the council members received their seats by appointment. The group also cited the exclusion of women for the second time in six years and the lack of public participation in council decision-making.
The primary reason for keeping women from voting is that the infrastructure and electoral procedures to allow women at polling stations were not ready, according to Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs. Authorities cancelled the 2009 elections, claiming they needed more time to evaluate how women should be included in the process.
However, the failure to allow women the right to vote sparked the launch of the Baladi Campaign by women activists. The Facebook-driven Baladi Campaign encouraged Saudi women to challenge the ban by attempting to register at local registration offices and demand voter identification cards. Two women successfully registered in the Eastern Province, but registration officials in other Saudi regions refused to issue women voter identification cards. Two women filed claims with the Board of Grievances to overturn the registration officials’ decision, but they failed.
The Baladi Campaign group argues that a woman’s role in Saudi society has “surpassed traditional limits” and that the ban violates international charters ratified by Saudi Arabia that prohibit gender discrimination. The group also cites religious texts and legislation. The group appealed to Saudi authorities to consider the negative perception of the Kingdom in the international community.
“Women in Saudi Arabia have a negative stereotypical image as being oppressed, completely marginalized, and incapable of being productive members of society. It is important to change this negative image in order to show that Saudi women are like all other women in the world, with their own concerns, hopes, capabilities and potentials and can express themselves in their own ways,” the Baladi Campaign said in a statement.
Saudi Women Revolution, another group of women activists using social media to garner support to overturn the driving and voting bans among other gender rights issues, has taken a more aggressive approach. Ignoring some Islamic requirements, Saudi Women Revolution seeks an end to the male guardianship laws in which a male member of the family has complete legal control over a woman’s right to seek higher education, a job or to leave the country.
The group is not seeking the “equal but separate” Islamic concept of women’s rights. Instead, the group embraces some feminist Western ideals. The group states: “Saudi women should have their complete political rights which are guaranteed Saudi men, such as running and voting for elections in municipality councils. Women should also be part of the Shoura Council and all state institutions, foundations, firms and ministers including ministers of justices and foreign affairs.”
In June, Saudi women activists won support from the Shoura Council, the Kingdom’s quasi-legislative body. The Shoura Council issued an advisory ruling that women be permitted to vote and run for municipal council seats. The Shoura Council determined that, “the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs should take the necessary measures to include female voters in municipal elections, in accordance with Islamic Sharia.” However, the recommendation does not include the September 2011 polling but future elections.
Saudi’s enthusiasm for the 2005 municipal elections turned to indifference when it became clear that there would be little transparency as to how newly elected council members went about their business.
Nadia Bakhurji characterized council members conducting municipal business as a “complete blackout.”
A telling incident of how a fledgling municipal council works was broadcast in the 2010 MTV “Resist the Power! True Life” documentary. One segment chronicled Jeddah youth activist Ahmed Sabri’s attempts to have the Jeddah Municipal Council grant an audience to a group of women to discuss the lack of transportation available because of the country’s female driving ban.
Following lengthy negotiations, the group received permission to attend one meeting. However, the council spent most of its time debating whether the men and women should be segregated in the council chambers. Sabri finally made his statement to the council. Several women in the audience followed with specific comments on their inability to conduct family business without adequate public transportation. The council made no decision and did not meet with the group again.
The Saudi municipal elections can be best described as ongoing experiment in political reform. To be sure, sidelining women is the central flaw in the electoral process. A separate, but equally important, weakness is the Shoura Council’s failure to pass clear-cut open-meeting legislation guaranteeing council transparency. The elections are meaningless without public access or participation in the council decision-making process.
However, the elections should to be placed within the context of Saudi Arabia’s attempts at reform following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Until the formation of the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue in 2003 under King Fahd, public discourse of domestic matters was largely taboo. The municipal elections broadened freedom of expression by creating a new relationship between Saudis and their government. The elections encourage public participation in government matters and demonstrate the Saudi government’s neutral position in the outcome of the elections.
Equally important to Saudis is that the elections comply with the tenants of Islam. Although the elections may not be a model of Western democracy, they are an important step towards fulfilling the requirements of Islam. The Holy Qu’ran, for example, twice cites Shoura, which is essentially mutual consultation. The Ash-Shura Verse 38 states, “And those who answer the call of Allah, and perform regular prayer, and who [conduct] their affairs by mutual consultation, and spend out of what we have given them.” In Al-Imran, Verse 159 states, “Thus it is a mercy of Allah that thou art lenient unto them; had you been cruel and hard-hearted, they would have surely dissipated around you; therefore, ask forgiveness for them, pardon them, and consult them on the conduct of [their] affairs, and when you are resolved, put your trust in Allah, Allah loves those who trust [in Him].”
For the first time in more than 40 years, Saudis enjoyed the right to register to vote or run as a candidate, vote in secret, have access to polling stations and public debate the elections’ outcome.
Discussion of social issues such as government corruption, women’s rights, health and even the development of cinemas, have only surfaced in the past six to eight years. Although the government tightened its control of the news media in 2011, the Saudi press had enjoyed relative freedoms in covering domestic and foreign policy issues. Municipal elections were a logical step in furthering public discourse.
Although religious conservatives managed to skirt some election rules regarding candidate alliances and exploit others such as cross-district voting, most voters did not take issue with the overall credibility of the election process.
Many Saudis remain critical of the lack of transparency in the municipal council and the failure of municipal employees to be held accountable for their decisions. This was evidenced during the 2009 and 2011 Jeddah floods that left scores of people dead and more than 10,000 buildings damaged. Saudis used Facebook and Twitter to criticize Jeddah municipal officials. Ultimately, Saudi law authorities arrested 50 municipal officials and businessmen on corruption charges stemming from mismanaging construction projects. While the criticism was not directed specifically at the Jeddah Municipal Council, Saudis sent a message that municipal leaders’ conduct is under scrutiny.
The 2005 and 2011 municipal elections are tentative steps towards a democracy within the context of Islam and shouldn’t be misunderstood as failing to embrace democratic ideals advocated by the West. Rather, if Saudis learn from both elections and implement changes to include women and develop municipal councils as true consultative bodies, then the Saudi Islamic electoral process will become compatible with Western-style democracy.
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About the author: Rob L. Wagner
Rob L. Wagner is an independent journalist and former managing editor of the English-language daily newspaper Saudi Gazette in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He covered the Kingdom’s 2005 municipal council elections. He frequently writes on Arab/Islamic issues for several Middle East publications. His article archive is online at http://13martyrs.wordpress.com/