Thu, Jan 20, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Saudi Arabia's democratic baby steps

Next month's municipal elections, though modest, are a real breakthrough for the average Saudi man. Women will still be barred from voting

By Saad Eddin Ibrahim

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

This month's elections in Iraq and for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority may be claiming all the world's headlines, but another potentially far-reaching ballot is also underway, albeit to far less acclaim: the registration process for the municipal elections in Saudi Arabia in the middle of next month.

As the heartland of some of the strongest Islamist forces anywhere, this Saudi effort -- if successful and a harbinger of other needed changes -- may have an even more profound impact than the elections in Iraq and Palestine.

Roughly 40,000 Saudis are expected to compete for 1,700 seats in 178 municipal councils. The enthusiasm is obvious, and the campaign is already under way and highly spirited. Members of the Saudi royal family are not entering the race, as they already enjoy ultimate political power. But, sensing the public's excitement, they have made sure to be photographed by local and international media while registering to get their electoral ID card.

By the standards of Western, and even emerging Third World democracies, the Saudi municipal elections are an extremely modest affair. But in the Saudi context they are a real breakthrough.

For Saudi Arabia is a country in which both rulers and ruled are equally arch-conservative, adhering, for the last two centuries, to the puritanical Wahhabi doctrine of Islam. During the last 50 years, repeated attempts by reform-oriented elements to open up Saudi Arabia's society and polity had failed. But recent democratic trends worldwide have now reached the shores of this medieval desert kingdom and can no longer be ignored.

To begin with, members of the small but steadily growing Saudi middle class have increasingly expressed their discontent publicly. Despite legal prohibition, Saudi women have defiantly driven their cars in the streets of Riyadh, while prominent intellectuals have published open letters to King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah demanding social and political reform.

This pressure for change has been building for years. The first Gulf War (1990-1991), brought nearly 1 million foreign fighters from 35 countries to the Arabian Peninsula, along with their modern weapons systems, communications gear and different lifestyles. Such a massive foreign influx into so hermetic a country could not but have a significant domestic impact.

Nearly all countries neighboring Saudi Arabia already practice one form of electoral participation or another, although most of these nods toward democracy are defective in some way. For years, ordinary Saudis watched with envy parliamentary debates on Arab satellite channels, in countries richer than theirs, such as Kuwait, as well as in poorer ones, such as Yemen and Jordan.

Even the tiny state of Qatar has the rabble-rouser al-Jazeera television channel, which is watched by more viewers in Saudi Arabia than in any other Arab country. Messages by their dissident compatriot Osama bin Laden are periodically beamed from that channel, inciting Saudis against the royal family.Bin Laden's constantly highlights the House of Saud's corruption and repugnant connections with the US. While democracy is not part of his agenda, his messages, as well as his followers' periodic armed attacks inside the country, have no doubt contributed to the erosion of the regime's legitimacy.

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