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. They ignored candidates who made unrealistic promises or had no platform, even if they poured millions of riyals into campaigning. Of the seven winners in the city of Riyadh, five have doctorate degrees and four are Western-educated. Those who won knew their neighborhoods well and had been involved in charities or community work before the elections were even on the horizon. According to Dr. Khaled Batarfi, a columnist for the Arab News, the winners are "well-educated, smart and have integrity. They aren't rich, but they have rich records of public service...Tribal and family prestige and connections were not a factor."
Despite the U.S. hype, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries do not see democracy as a brand-new concept that President George W. Bush needs to promote, if necessary, at gunpoint. There is an old Bedouin tradition of consensus building. The Prophet Muhammad told Muslim believers to consult among themselves, which led to the Islamic tradition of "Shura." While its 120 members are now appointed by the royal family, Saudi Arabia's Shura Council is a consultative assembly that acts just like a parliament.
Saudis last voted more than 40 years ago for regional offices in the western part of the country. Saudi Arabia's chambers of commerce already regularly elect their leaders. Crown Prince Abdullah holds a huge majlis twice a week where he meets and listens to hundreds of ordinary citizens to help them solve their problems. (Try getting an appointment with a democratically elected American president.) Individual Saudi voices have a good chance of being heard.
Saudis who have graduated from U.S. universities are now top government officials, intellectuals and business leaders. They've all seen democracy first-hand and spent time deciding how to gradually blend the best of the West into their own cherished culture. In most Western democracies, political systems have evolved over centuries. Change in Saudi Arabia, a country founded in 1932, is happening quickly.
At a Feb. 23 press conference in London with British Foreign secretary Jack Straw, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain, Prince Turki Al Faisal, said reform should be an "evolutionary" process, adding that he would not be surprised if women got the vote in the next election. He said Saudi Arabia had to fight a misconception that emulating Western society, seen as materialistic and lacking in spiritual values, could "unravel the moral fabric of society."
Debate raged in Saudi Arabia's press about denying women the vote. Seven women tried to run for office, until it was decided that for "technical reasons" women would be barred from running or voting. Some journalists listed at great length reasons it would be hard for women to vote or run for office. Our friend, Bahlaiwa, expressed another possible reason women were denied the vote in 2005: "If women had voted in the first elections there could have been problems," Bahlaiwa said. "Some men could have made that an excuse to fight and disrupt the vote." Bahlawi predicted: "They'll get the vote in 2009."
A Saudi woman journalist, Mody AlKhalaf, said that excluding women from the elections was unacceptable. "With one bold decision the government could have given the chance to seven courageous women to change history forever," Al-Khalaf wrote in the Feb. 19 Arab News. "There are no barriers that prevent women socially from voting." As for the "technical reasons" excuse, with a little planning problems could be overcome. The Kingdom could have postponed the elections until all facilities were ready for both men and women to vote, she said. "Half of the nation is certainly worth it."
Another journalist said she also doesn't buy the "technical reasons" excuse. "We've waited so long already. They could have allowed us to participate now. Women could have gone to our closest Chamber of Commerce to vote. They have women-only facilities. There are always excuses to justify the ban on women driving. Women rode horses and camels in the time of the Prophet. The days for excuses are over."
Had Saudi women been given the chance to run for office and vote, it would have shown Saudis and the rest of the world that Saudi women are educated, dignified and determined, just like their voting countrymen.
Yousef Ba-Isa, a 21-year-old student at King Fahid University, was fascinated by the elections. "They make me feel part of the political process," he said. Previously, public policy trickled down from ministers. This election means policy will begin to be shaped by elected representatives. Their efforts will have to be transparent or they won't be re-elected. Ba-Isa said the "average Abdullah" will begin to understand how policy is determined and problems dealt with.
Sadly, none of the candidates went after the youth vote, Ba-Isa complained, adding there is a serious generation gap in the Kingdom. While he said Crown Prince Abdullah regularly visits his university to hear what students have to say, most government officials don't have a clue.
With nearly 60 percent of the population of Saudi Arabia under the age of 25, municipal-level candidates in these elections couldn't honestly promise young voters what they really want-jobs. As a result, Ba-Isa said, many of his friends didn't vote. He said he told them, "If you don't vote you don't have a say. You can't improve the process by staying home and complaining." He told the Washington Report, "Give us 10 years and the youth will fix Saudi Arabia." If Ba-Isa represents the voice of the next generation, we believe they will.
Delinda C. Hartley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.