The Saudis are portraying their exercise in democracy as a rousing success, claiming it was an important contribution to the Bush doctrine of bringing change to the Arab world through democracy.
On February 10, the oil kingdom conducted its first round of municipal elections in the Riyadh district that includes the capital city and 37 other local councils. Two more local council polls are scheduled for the coming two months in other parts of the kingdom – the broadest-ever ballot Saudi Arabia has known – albeit not the first. Limited council elections were held in the 1960s and 1980s.
But Washington is still holding back from breaking out the democracy champagne. The electoral process was too circumscribed to celebrate. Saudi Arabia’s princely rulers allowed the public to choose only half of the local council members – the House of Saud picks the rest. And bowing to clerical pressure, they banned women from voting, drawing criticism from the smattering of liberals in Saudi society and upsetting some of the more progressive princes.
In a bid to calm tensions, Prince Mansour Ibn Miteb, chairman of the general committee for municipal elections, promised women would be allowed to cast ballots in 2009, explaining feebly that there had not been enough time to organize their participation in the current poll. Women’s rights advocates in the kingdom were not impressed and are calling on the government to make amends by appointing women to at least half of the seats on the municipal councils.
Of the half million eligible voters in the Riyadh district, only 30 percent registered to vote – a proportion low enough to elicit demands in the early stage of campaigning to cancel the election. And given the low registration figures, the 65 percent turnout in the Riyadh district and 82 percent in outlying towns were not much to boast about.
All in all, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in the Gulf note, the Riyadh district local election did little to promote democracy in Saudi Arabia; neither did it bode well for the next rounds of balloting across the country. The turnout might improve in the next two rounds – but not by much; in the western region, the public is already complaining loudly about the candidates’ powerlessness to wreak change and hence the futility of voting.
Indeed ordinary Saudis are greeting the kingdom’s foray into democracy with apathy, even at the local level. They know quite well that none of the winning candidates in the Riyadh district will dent let alone reform the royal regime. Most are solid establishment men, aged 40 to 50 and chartered members of the middle class. All seven are married and university graduates; five hold doctorates and all work in government or royal institutions.
The losers are already crying foul, claiming the victors violated election rules by distributing a list of candidates endorsed by senior clerics.
A senior member of the ulama, or religious scholars, Sheikh Abdallah bin Jabreen, urged voters to support candidates he described as “Allah-fearing”.
This kind of interference, however, was not enough to support the losers’ description of the winning candidates as Islamist. As a precaution against this complaint, the government cannily vetted the candidates to weed out Islamic radicals – according to the royal definition. As far as the government is concerned, the newly elected officials are al mainstream Muslims. But that is only according to the yardstick set by the conservatives.
Among them are Abdallah Ibn Ahmad al-Suwailim, the imam of the Prince Khaled ibn Saudi Mosque, and Abd al-Aziz al-Omari, a professor of Islamic culture at Imam Muhammad ibn Saudi University, the institution that spawned leaders of the Islamic opposition in the 1990s.
The profile of the losers in the elections in Riyadh city is also telling. None hail from the Saudi elite or ultra-wealthy groups, a fact the victors cite as proof that pouring money into spectacular rallies did not buy voter support.
But most importantly, not a single liberal won a seat.
Much of the voting seemed to run along tribal and clan lines. New councilor Faysal al-Duwaish is the great-grandson of a leader of the Ikhwan, a nomadic force that Saudi Arabia’s founder Ibn Saud established in the early 20th century to help him conquer the kingdom. He was elected in the Duwaish clan’s stronghold of Artawayia. Abd al-Aziz Olayan, a member of the wealthy al-Olayan clan, was also returned.
So while Saudi de facto monarch Crown Prince Abdullah may have set his feet on the path of democracy charted by President George W. Bush, his steps are cautious and within traditional boundaries, never losing sight of the royal family’s permanent objectives. “No matter how you sum up the election, the Saudi royals will continue to hold the reins of government,” one Saudi prince told DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
Moreover, none of the elected councilmen, all bland bureaucrats, is likely to outshine any Saudi ruler or draw a significant popular following. The royal family paid lip service to Bush’s demands for reform, but made pretty sure no real spark of democracy would be ignited that could light a fire under the Saudi throne.
Missing from the slates were the candidates representing broad social, economic or regional interests. Conservatism and tradition continue to prevail.