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Geopolitics

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.

Frustration

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

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