King Abdullah's venture into reform as he nears his 89th birthday may look sadly timid to the West and Saudi women, but it is the outcome of a tenacious battle he is waging amid frail health on Saudi Arabia's powerful ultra-conservative establishment.
It was therefore a big step forward when he announced in a weak voice during his speech to the opening of the third session of the Fifth Majlis al-Shura (consultative council) on Sept. 26 that women would finally be allowed to vote and run for office in the 2015 local council elections, and would also be awarded seats on the Sixth Majlis al-Shura to be appointed in 2013.
Their number has yet to be determined.
Then, on October 4, Majlis Speaker Abdullah a-Sheikh said the council was getting ready to accept women members, stressing that the Majlis was governed by the laws of Sharia. He went on to laud women's contributions in their professions and noted that 12 women already serve the Saudi Majlis system as consultants.
This was a diplomatic effort to appease the opponents of female rights by assuring them that the Sharia injunction against gender mixing would not be violated and the Majlis could only benefit from this reform.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Saudi experts say that he needed to tread gingerly in the uphill battle still being fought against the government and clerical circles strongly opposed to introducing women into elective or appointed office. The first such appointees are therefore not likely to exceed ten percent of the 150-member Majlis.
Even reforms bar gender mixing
Having won the vote for local councils, women might be expected to do better and attain broader municipal representation – except that voting patterns in Saudi society are traditionally governed by male-dominated family and clan. However, if women fail to break through to more than a seat or two out of the four or five council seats through the ballot, the royal family is empowered to boost female representation by exercising its prerogative to select half of the members of a given local council.
The two reforms ushered in by the king were sensational in Saudi terms, even though he stressed they had clerical endorsement and were in keeping with the spirit of Sharia.
In the past year, the Saudi women's rights campaigners have focused on gaining the right to drive cars. They even managed to recruit several prominent clerics to their cause. But the reformers were astonished to find that ultra-conservative circles considered women drivers more repugnant than women voters. Why? On peculiar Saudi grounds: Whereas modern technology enables elected bodies to segregate women from men in separate rooms by using closed circuit television for joint sessions, there is no sure way to prevent a man occupying the passenger seat alongside a woman driver and so indulging in the cardinal sin of gender mixing.
On Sept. 29, three days after the king's bombshells, Saudi Arabia held municipal elections for the second time in five years. The exclusively male turnout was a low 30-40 percent, well below the 2005 level, with no more than 1.2 million casting ballots for 258 local and municipal councils.
The princes outweigh local government
This was interpreted by some experts as a vote of no-confidence in the royal reforms granting women the ballot next time round.
The turnout was lowest in the more affluent and better-educated classes of the main cities – 35 percent in Riyadh, 20 percent in Mecca and 27 percent in Jeddah – and higher among the rural and outlying populations, going as high as 60 percent in the Bedouin districts of the north and the Khayl region in northwest Najd.
The towns also showed their resentment of the disempowerment of municipal councils except for developing public parks and playgrounds; decision-making on major issues remains in the hands of the royal family and the princes who govern all the kingdom's districts and some of the cities.
The powers-that-be in Riyadh deliberately dampened interest in the local elections by restricting the content of campaign materials and prohibiting candidates from publicizing their schedules. It is general expected that women's participation for the first time in the next vote in 2015 will stimulate balloting substantially.
King Abdullah has spent many years slowly but surely raising the status of women in Saudi Arabia's extraordinarily hidebound society, starting as Crown Prince, then as acting monarch during King Fahd's long indisposition and from the time he was crowned in 2005.
He fought for and achieved separate ID cards for women previously listed on the documents of their fathers or husbands; and in 2009 added the first female to the government in Riyadh, as Deputy Minister of Education for Women's Affairs.
No turning back the clock for Abdullah's successors
The king is actively supported in his drive for women's rights by his daughter Adila and other reform-minded royals.
But he has always trod carefully, first obtaining the nod of the religious establishment which shares power with the throne before launching a new measure. This caution has armed him against defeat at the hands of the influential ultra-conservative circles in high places.
Indeed, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi experts believe his latest reforms may be part of a trade-off with those circles for which he agreed to hold off on an edict granting women driving rights.
Saudi women are still a long way from equality and liberation from the chains of anachronistic tradition, fundamentalist religion and male hyper-chauvinism. Abdullah's limited reforms leave women still prohibited from running their own businesses or even their private affairs without a male guardian escorting them in public. Certain professions and fields of study are open to males only.
Furthermore, a future monarch would have the power to reverse Abdullah's reforms. Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, who is second-in-line to the throne after Crown Prince Sultan, is reputedly less progressive than the incumbent. He may draw a line on further concessions to women but is unlikely to revoke Abdullah's "revolutionary" rulings.
Instability creeps up on the kingdom
The fingerprints of the Arab Revolt are detected in the royal initiatives for change. Granting women limited voting rights is meant to show the population that the "liberal" throne has seen the light and is willing to cater to popular interests without the coercion of popular uprisings and disturbances.
Two events this week demonstrated that King Abdullah and the senior princes in government are fully alert to the instability creeping up on them:
1. The king secretly ordered the transfer of 1,600 Saudi troops and 30 tanks to neighboring Bahrain, thereby doubling to 3,200 the Saudi expeditionary force propping up the throne against dissent. Riyadh is gearing up for the next Iranian bid to stir up Shiite riots against the Bahraini ruler.
2. The Saudi Interior Ministry, which is headed by the hardline Prince Nayef, issued a stern warning in the wake of Shiite riots in the town of al-Awamia in the Qatif oil region: People failing in "loyalty to Allah, their homeland, or the State and its authority" stand to lose their citizenship.