2005 Municipal Elections in Saudi Arabia: Democratization or Pretense

The Newsletter of the Muslim World Initiative of the United States Institute of Peace has been updated this month. It focused on Saudi Arabia and included this article.

2005 Municipal Elections in Saudi Arabia: Democratization or Pretense

Jean-Francois Seznec, Columbia University

(Jean-Francois Seznec is contributing a chapter on Saudi politics in an Institute Muslim World Initiative study on "Political Authority in Contemporary Muslim Societies.")

In January 2003, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz announced that Arab states should include their own population in the management of their affairs. At the time, this idea was seen as a momentous reform in Saudi society and many Saudis came to expect elections to the Majlis as-Shura, the appointed parliament. At the time, Prince Abdullah may have meant to have a real election to Parliament. However, an al-Qaeda inspired uprising led the al-Saud family to firm up the old alliance with their political allies and ideological guides since 1744, the Salafis.
The Saudi Salafis have an absolutist view of religion and morality. Any political change that could question their stronghold on society, such as popular elections, could undermine their power and authority. Hence, they do not support a liberalization of which elections are part and parcel. It is not surprising that the Minister of Interior, Prince Nayef, a royal champion of Salafi causes, cracked down on the liberalization efforts. Societal reforms were placed on the back burner but the Salafis-al-Saud unity was preserved. A series of elections will take place in Saudi Arabia on February 10, 2005 (the Riyadh region), March 3 (the Eastern provinces), and April 21 (the rest of the Kingdom). However, the elections will be for only half of the members of the newly established 178 municipal councils, a far cry from elections to a national, legislative institution with meaningful powers.

That Saudis have now the opportunity to chose any kind of government is an important step in Saudi Arabia. But the upcoming municipal elections came as a major disappointment to many who have demanded that the royal family allow more public participation in the political process. In 2002 and 2003, voices demanding liberalization of the political system were increasingly heard. The press became quite vocal and full of articles and editorials debating the arch conservative culture imposed by the Salafis in the kingdom. The extra judicial power of the religious police, the Mutawa’in, was increasingly questioned. The treatment of women as second class citizens was actively discussed. The Crown Prince organized dialogues between conservatives and liberals on religion in society, on the role of the youth, and on the rights of women. For the first time, the Saudi leadership admitted that Shi’a and non Wahhabi Sunnis actually existed, were citizens and fellow Muslims. The Shi’a were allowed to present petitions to the Crown Prince asking for equal treatment under Saudi law. Saudi “liberals,” those men and women who support power sharing and a more open society, also wrote numerous petitions to the Crown Prince asking among many things for more participation of the people in the political process, elections to the appointed Majlis as-Shura, an end to corruption, and an independent judiciary system. This was another way to demand an end to royal family privileges. Many princes were heard actually agreeing with these petitions. In fact, the two major press groups in the country are owned by Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz, the governor of Riyadh, and by the al-Faysal clan. Since these two press groups were very vocal in favor of liberalization, one can assume that these two major princely groups were supporting it. At the time, people felt free to debate openly all subjects.

The Crown Prince, with the support of major royal clans, seemed to favor reform. For example, he presented a charter for increased popular political participation in January 2003, saying that women should participate in society and presenting the opinion that Muslims can have diverging views on Islam. Countering these views, Prince Nayef, the Minister of Interior, often praised the Salafis’ contribution to society and Islam. After stinging newspaper editorials against the Salafis, accused of encouraging Jihad against the West and the royal family, Prince Nayef dismissed two editors. In March 2004, he ordered the arrest of thirteen leading liberal intellectuals and clerics. He demanded that they apologize and renounce all political activities. Three of them refused and are still in jail awaiting trial for sedition. These arrests brought an end to the atmosphere of reform.

When extremists inspired by al-Qaeda started to wage war against the Saudi state during 2003-2004, Prince Nayef, as Minister of Interior, set further limits on the liberalization efforts. Prince Abdullah’s national dialogues became very stilted affairs. In particular, the dialogue on women in society was delayed for many months. It finally took place in late 2004, but was placed under the leadership of the Salafis with limited participation by women. In a similar vein, the Mutawa’in’s budget was increased by $100 million. In other words, the Salafis were handed back the control of society which had been slipping away from them in the past few years.

It appears that in early 2004, the royal family rekindled the alliance forged between AbdelWahab and Mohamed bin Saud in 1744. On can theorize that under a renewed arrangement the Salafis would support the royal family and give up their unspoken, albeit obvious, support of the extremists. In exchange, the royal family would acquiesce to the Salafis’ efforts to impose their views of morality and religion on society. In this power grab by the Salafis through Prince Nayef, the “liberal” princes’ silence was very loud indeed. Prince Abdallah, Prince Salman, and the al-Faysals did not utter a public word against the crackdown. Therefore, one can conclude that they agreed to the arrangement to avoid a conflict with the Salafis, hoping to liberalize another day.

Elections to the appointed Majlis as-Shura have been a major demand of liberal reformers and the Crown Prince promised such elections in 2003. Hence, to preserve Prince Abdullah’s appearance of leadership, elections had to happen. However, they had to be arranged in a manner that would provide the smallest disturbance within the family and their renewed Salafi allies. Electing deputies to the Majlis as-Shura who would have a say on national and international affairs would have been too sensitive. Even elections to local offices could become a base for liberal dissent. Therefore, a compromise was made to have elections for innocuous municipal councils, and only for half of the council members. The other half of the council would be appointed by the Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs, Prince Mitaib bin AbdelAziz, guaranteeing pro-government majorities on all councils. The voting age was placed at twenty-one, ensuring fewer young disaffected and unemployed potential opponents would be involved.

More importantly, women were disenfranchised with no legal basis. Indeed, the electoral law makes no reference to gender. In 2002, under orders from Prince Abdullah, women were allowed to have their own identity papers, independent from any male relative, and thus became full fledged citizens who could participate in all activities open to Saudi men, including elections. However, Prince Nayef, to the Salafis’ relief, announced that the country was not ready for women to participate. Naturally, the debate on women’s participation has been raging since in Saudi owned newspapers such as the Arab News, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, al-Riyadh, and al-Watan.

Under a barrage of complaints, Prince Mansur bin Mitaib bin AbdelAziz, who administers the elections, admitted that there was no legal basis for the disenfranchising of women, except “technical” issues which would be resolved for the next elections in 2009. This of course is not satisfactory to many Saudis. It implies that women will not vote for another four years and causes one to question whether there will be any elections to the Majlis as-Shura any time soon.

In the Riyadh region, which has over 4 million Saudi citizens, there are only 400,000 to 500,000 persons entitled to register and only 150,000 actually did so, about 3.75% of the overall population. These low numbers are in part explained by Saudi demographics. Over 75% of the Saudi population is below the age of 21, the minimum voting age. Since women are not allowed to register, this leaves only half a million enfranchised citizens. However, the fact that only 150,000 males actually registered shows that in the Riyadh region, these elections are seen as hardly representative. On the other hand, registration seems to have been substantially higher in the Eastern Province, where 220,000 people registered out of a potential of about 370,000. Since a large number of the Eastern province’s citizens are Shi’a, it may imply that the Shi’a groups in the kingdom may have seen these elections as a way to increase their voice in the political process. Any voice at this time is a major progress for them. It will be interesting to see how the registration numbers develop in the Western province later this year.

Sharing of power through an electoral process was started as a major reform by the Crown Prince and liberal members of the royal family. However, true power sharing would have cut into the societal stronghold of the Salafis. The al-Qaeda inspired rebellion gave a perfect tool to the Salafis to get the royal family to buckle under and keep them in control of society. The elections, having been announced by the Crown Prince, had to proceed but were transformed to become an exercise in futility for most Saudis.

On the other hand, the very fact that there are elections at all have promoted vocal and semi-public debates which include women, Shi’a, Sufis, and Hijazis, and which will be very difficult to suppress. Whether the Salafis like it or not, the kingdom has been transformed in depth by outside influences. The Internet, satellite television, and education, however flawed, have made people question the societal controls to which they have been subjected to by the Salafis. Since May 2004, liberalization has taken a back seat, but as the al-Qaeda rebellion comes under control, liberals seem to be raising their heads again. Newspapers have restarted discussing the rights of women, criticizing overly puritanical behaviors, and asking for more participation. Perhaps this trend will continue and revive the possibility of real elections in the near future.

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