Saudi Municipal Elections: Gradualism of Reform and Traditional Politics

By Amr Hamzawy

Qanatara.de, March 7, 2005

Throughout the last days and weeks assessments of the first and second phase of the Saudi municipal elections have been overwhelmingly negative. Democratic reformers in the Middle East and experts in the West stamp it as a mere cosmetic step designed by the royal family to ease internal and external pressures calling for political liberalization. A long list of missing elements is used to describe the elections as fraud and utterly irrelevant.

Exclusion of women as voters and candidates, low levels of citizens' participation, trivial competences assigned to elected local councilors who are kept away from high politics and supposed to primarily discuss urban planning and street lightening, and finally dominance of tribal loyalties and religious inclinations in determining voters' preferences represent only the most prominent of these elements which have been extensively highlighted to dismiss any positive expectations about the impacts of the elections.

Can we ignore historical specificities?

To be sure, from a liberal point of view all of them allude to depressing facts that negate basic normative principles of modern polities. However, can we account for the significance of Saudi municipal elections using liberal benchmarks and ignore historical and cultural specificities in place? My answer is definitely not.

Since its inception in the 1920s Saudi-Arabia remained a traditional absolute monarchy which saw in the conservative ideology of Wahhabism its legitimizing source. In the name of uniting and modernizing Saudi society the state developed a totalitarian control over its population and denied citizens the right to participate in public affairs and to organize themselves politically.

Economic prosperity, but no political rights

The public space, primarily the media and press landscape, was completely sanctioned. And because the state accumulated till the end of the 1980s enough oil revenues to satisfy basic social needs and to sustain high levels of welfare expenditure, the majority of the population seemed to accept the denial of political rights in return for economic prosperity.

Put differently, contesting the power of the state or opposing its policies never became an integral part of the social and cultural reality in the desert kingdom. Only in the last few years, especially since the attacks of 9/11 and due to subsequent changes in international and regional politics, have internal calls for reforms and democratization measures started to attract public attention and international interest.

Keeping these facts in mind, holding municipal elections in Saudi-Arabia signifies, in spite of all its structural shortcomings, at least an opening in an authoritarian political spectrum and probably a step in the direction of more citizens' participation.

However, articulating context-sensitive understandings of Saudi elections or for that matter of the package of political reforms recently initiated by the royal family to coop with democratization calls is not so easy a job.

Reforming authoritarian polities

Taking local specificities seriously, the challenge becomes then how to avoid being trapped in the apologetic logic of celebrating minor measures as qualitative shifts or ultimately legitimizing the absence of democracy by evoking the notion of Saudi-Arabian exceptionalism, regardless of whether the latter is rhetorically grounded in religion, authentic culture or social reality.

Two key concepts might be helpful in this regard, gradualism and traditional politics. Reforming authoritarian polities can not but follow a gradual path. It is an uneven process which entails the creation of new spaces where citizens learn how to practice their rights and the institutionalization of public choice as the governing principle of the state-society relationship.

Ambivalence towards certain issues such as the role of religion in politics and exclusion of specific groups even if these represent more than 50% of the society are, whether we like it or not, integral parts of introducing political reforms in a country like Saudi-Arabia just as potential setbacks in the future.

Minimizing degree and scope of ambivalence

What really matters, though, is whether the dynamics of the reform process lead to a steady minimization of the degree and scope of ambivalence and exclusion within a reasonable period of time.

Gradualism is not meant to be a synonym of stagnation. Quite the opposite of other countries in the Middle East such as Jordan and Egypt where at least two decades of state reforms are yet to lead to substantial changes, it will take some time in the Saudi case before we come to an objective assessment of undertaken reforms.

Instead of producing clear cut normative judgments, granting credibility for the new start and learning how to grasp the ambivalent nature of the current moment might be more needed right now.

Primordialism as a progressive factor

On the other side, both reformers in Saudi-Arabia and experts outside it have to question their negative understanding of traditional politics. Almost every observer of the municipal elections has felt the urge of denouncing the apparent influence of tribal loyalties on voters' preferences as being an ultimate negation of the very logic of democratic reform in Saudi-Arabia.

Nonsense! Primordialism does not represent per se an element of backwardness in the Saudi political spectrum, rather a moment of pluralism. Throughout the 20th century Arab nation-states attempted to modernize their societies by abolishing the ethnic and religious diversity. The outcome was multiple patterns of authoritarian regimes with varying degrees of brutality and repression.

The surfacing of primordialism as a political reality in Saudi-Arabia, just as it is in today's Iraq as well, will ultimately push forward the reform process. Then only a democratizing, consensus-oriented polity can accommodate diversity peacefully.

Amr Hamzawy is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, and a noted Egyptian political scientist who previously taught at Cairo University and the Free University of Berlin. His research interests include the changing dynamics of political participation and the prospects of democratic transformation in the Arab world, with special attention both to Egypt and the Gulf countries.

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