Municipal Election Results Surprise Saudi Arabian Voters

By Hanley, Delinda C. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2005 | Go to article overview
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Municipal Election Results Surprise Saudi Arabian Voters

Hanley, Delinda C., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Saudi Arabian men cast ballots for the first time since 1963 on Feb. 10, 2005. In the first of three stages of municipal elections held throughout the Kingdom, voters in the Riyadh region selected candidates to fill half the seats in its 38 precincts. The royal family appointed the remaining council members and the mayors. Nationwide, from February to April, Saudis aged 21 and older, excluding women and members of the military, voted for half the members of a total of 178 municipal councils.

Throughout the Kingdom, municipal elections generated spirited debate in the media, mosques, universities, offices, coffee shops, living rooms and, most likely, bedrooms. According to Arab News editor Khaled Almaeena, people discussed the state of society, plans for the future and other issues of vital concern "openly, frankly and without fear." Different viewpoints were expressed and accepted.

Saudi Arabians discussed the elections, set up the electoral process, registered, listened to candidates' speeches, and turned out to vote. By the end of the first round in Riyadh, at least, they also had astounded themselves by how smoothly it had all gone.

Thanks to the country's oil wealth, Saudi Arabians don't pay taxes, yet enjoy free health care and education, a pothole-free modern road system, mostly clean, crime-free streets, and sparkling skyscrapers, offices, hotels and malls bustling with business. Municipal council members in Riyadh help run the nuts and bolts of a local city government that is quite trouble-free.

So why did more than 1,800 businessmen, Islamic scholars, teachers and others in the capital area alone invest their time, money and reputations to compete for only 127 politically powerless positions? Candidates used the Internet, billboards, glossy pamphlets, newspaper ads and evening lectures held in tents, followed by traditional dinners, to explain their platforms to voters.

In the first hotly contested election, seven members of the community were chosen for the seven precincts in the capital city of Riyadh, and another 120 men for the 37 precincts outside Riyadh.

While many hailed the act of voting as important in itself, Saudis were stunned to find that the election results were equally important. "These elections are good for us," Omar Bahlaiwa, assistant secretary-general of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry told the Washington Report. "We've discovered we have a civil society. The results surprised us all. We thought that being a tribal society, Saudi Arabian voters would select people on the basis of their own tribe. It didn't happen like that."

"I voted for the first time in my life and it was a big thrill!" Abdul Rahman Sadhan, deputy secretary-general of the Council of Ministers, told the Washington Report. "It shows that democracy is possible in Saudi Arabia. We handled it beautifully. We used modern technology to create a voter registration card," he said, pulling his own from his wallet to show us. "I'm going to keep it as a souvenir. I love it.

"I'm not concerned with who won or who lost. Only one of the people I voted for won. What matters is that the election process went smoothly," Sadhan added, grinning, "without the problems the U.S. had in Florida in 2000 or Ohio in 2004." He said he is confident these municipal elections will lead to voting for offices with more political importance. "Democracy will develop. In four years' time women will vote. Saudis will elect Regional Council members. The percentage of elected officials will increase, too. Members of the Shura Council will be raised from 120 to 150. This year members will be appointed. But one day...."

Sadhan concluded, "Democracy has to come in steps: First nations need to enhance education, teach tolerance, and learn how to deal with each other without fighting. We're taking one step at a time to prevent chaos. Saudi Arabia cannot afford to make a mistake."

The elections showed the maturity of voters who were unswayed by money, extremist agenda or tribal affiliations-voting instead on the basis of the candidate's merit and platform.

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