Saudi Arabia’s Elections Next Fall: Still No Woman Voting

The revolutionary wave has not reached Riyadh. The Saudi authorities are getting ready for only the second elections in the Kingdom's history, and women are still shut out.

A woman in Saudi Arabia
A woman in Saudi Arabia
Gilles Paris

RIYADH - For the second time in their history, Saudis will be asked to participate in local elections, scheduled next fall. Both the wave of revolutions shaking the Arab world, as well as King Abdullah's February 23 return from back surgery in the United States, has influenced the scheduling of these elections.

Yet one key question is bound to color this year's campaign as it did in the last, and first free elections: female participation. In 2005, Saudi women could neither vote, nor run for office. Six years later, nothing appears to have changed on this front.

The elections, in which half of the members of municipal counsels will be on the ballot for four-year, limited power terms, had been postponed for two years. At a press conference in Riyadh this week, the chairman of the electoral commission, Abdel Rahman al-Dahmash, detailed the next steps that will take place from now until election day, which is scheduled for September 22, preceded by a short public campaign of 11 days.

But right on cue, al-Dahmash was bombarded by questions concerning the participation of women. He responded, citing the following "shortcomings." Even though nothing in the law prohibits woman suffrage, there are certain "practical problems," such as the separation of women and men enforced in Saudi public places, which makes female registration and voting impossible. He also assured that "there is a plan to create the conditions that would allow the participation of woman" in the future, though he did not provide any deadlines. These are arguments that will certainly not convince feminists and other Saudi liberals who are demanding equal rights for women.

The Saudi authorities had already given the same basic reasons in 2005 to justify their election policy for women, who in fact have a second-class citizenship. "What's most important is that we are going in the right direction," reassured Miteb Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saoud, the Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs.


Several digital social networks have gathered Saudi feminists both inside and outside of the country, such as Baladi ("My Country") and Saudi Women Revolution, and have begun to increase the number of public statements calling for the participation of women, but also for the repeal of mahram, the Islamic legal term the Saudi government has appropriated to denote the requirement that women submit to male relatives in nearly all facets of life, such as permission to go out in public.

There is no clause that specifically prohibits women suffrage in the 1977 law that first envisioned these elections (only held for the first time 28 years later). There are three main differences with the municipal elections of 2005: the number of localities under consideration (285 instead of 179); the voting procedure, requiring voters to vote for only one candidate within an electoral list in order to limit the dominance of the tribes and Islamist groups recorded six years ago; and the fact that these elections, which were held in three stages in 2005, will be held on the same day nationwide.

The electoral guidelines were presented 10 days after the March 18 announcement by King Adbullah of a series of social reforms, such as a minimum wage increase, a plan to construct 500,000 new homes, and the recruiting of 60,000 police officers, all of which will cost the equivalent of $93 billion of Saudi funds.

These reforms were added to the first announcements made when the King returned, which had originally cost $36 billion. One foreign economist voiced some concern over such extravagance: "Though the first reforms could have been covered by the increase in the price of crude oil in recent months, the second reforms will require tapping into the country's monetary reserves," the source said. As for the wave of revolts shaking the Arab world, Saudi Arabia – until now -- has not seen much more than a series of petitions calling for political reforms.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Tinou Bao

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!