Democracy in Saudi Arabia
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
On February 10, elections to municipal councils were held in the region around Alreyad or Riyadh, the capital of Al-Mamlaka al-Arabiya as-Saudiya, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The country has a population of 21 million, of whom 3/4 are citizens. The voter turnout was high, but women were excluded from the elections. Elections in other provinces will take place in March and April.
That the elections were only for local councils was a wise step for Saudi Arabia. Democracy grows best from the ground up, and local elections are closer to the people, allow for more participation, and create a culture of democracy that can then be extended to the national level.
There will be social pressure in the future to include women in the electorate. There have been elections in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries that are largely Islamic, where women did vote. Given the culture of Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive cars, the exclusion of women is not surprising, but will have to change, even if the government officials think they have to set up separate voting places for women. Women are also not allowed to be candidates in the current elections, and either the Saudi rulers will have to put up convincing religious reasons why women should not be in government, or else women will have to be allowed in next time.
Kings and dictators still rule much of the Arab world, so the recent elections in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Palestine are historically significant, however flawed they may be. We should not be so cynical that we overlook the positive influence these elections will have. There is much frustration among Arabs with their governing regimes, and either they will democratize or else face violent revolts. Arab kings may be heeding the lessons of the French and Russian monarchies, which refused to budge, and then collapsed in violent revolutions.
One of the problem in local government in Saudi Arabia as elsewhere is corruption. It is doubtful that the elections will greatly reduce corruption in city councils, since half the councils are still appointed by the central government. Frustration with continuing corruption will pressure the Saudi government to let all the council members to be elected.
Many of the winning candidates for the city council seats were Islamists. This will not be a problem, since Saudi Arabia already enforces religious laws as interpreted by the rulers. Perhaps, though, the elected council members may be able to alter the local enforcement.
The negative feelings of many Arabs towards the USA created fears that democracy would be seen as an American or European idea not suited to Arab and Islamic culture. But the enthusiasm for voting that has been shown by elections all over the Islamic world has shown that democracy is seen by most Muslims as natural and rightful, not a foreign imposition.
US government chiefs should avoid gloating about this election. The White House is touting the book by Natan Sharansky, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident now living in Israel, has a good case for the influence of democracy. But Arabs need to grow democracy themselves from local grassroots rather than have mass national democracy imposed on them from Americans or Europeans. The Saudi government may have been responding in part to external elements, but it was mostly internal pressure that led to the elections and could continue to bring the kingdom ever closer to a constitutional monarchy with a democratic government. That is the only way to prevent the violent extremists and supremacists from taking control.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2005 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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