Headlines have highlighted misbehaving princes, struggles over Saudi succession, the wisdom of Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, a 20-year record in the number of the country’s executions (including the beheading of political critics and poets), the death of over 700 religious pilgrims during the Hajj in a stampede just outside Mecca and shifting US alliances in the region.
In perhaps the cruelest indignity of them all, businessman and Republican presidential contender Donald Trump slammed as ‘dopey’ Al-Waleed Bin Talal, an influential Saudi prince who runs many of the kingdom’s business and investment interests, last week on Twitter.
But for one weekend, at least, Saudi Arabia was in the news with fluffy headlines about historic municipal elections that allowed women, for the first time in Saudi history, to vote and to run for office, complete with photos (like the one above) that show a purportedly modernizing country where women are now enjoying the right to vote amid a loosening of other gender-based restrictions.
Don’t buy the hype.
Women only sparingly cast ballots in an election for only two-thirds of the members of essentially powerless municipal councils in a country that remains one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world, where an absolute monarchy, in tandem with Wahhabi clerics, have restricted the rights of women to a degree virtually unknown across the globe in the 21st century.
Saudi Arabia announced that it would hold elections for the first time in 2003 — not coincidentally, the same year that the United States invaded Iraq, in no small measure to liberate the country from an undemocratic tyrant. Given the historical alliance between the Saudi kingdom and successive US governments that stretches back decades, municipal elections, however meaningless, gave then-president George W. Bush at least some political breathing room as criticism rose on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and the country’s role in promulgating jihadist terrorism worldwide. So long as the Saudis were moving, if only symbolically and glacially, towards reform, it would give the Bush administration the fig leaf it needed to perpetuate the US-Saudi relationship as a pillar of US policy in the region.
But Saudi Arabia might be the absolutely worst place to be female in the world, in terms of the restrictions and discrimination they face. Infamously, Saudi Arabia is the only country on the planet that refuses to allow women to drive vehicles. Women comprise just 5% of the labor force, and those who do live and work in the kingdom are largely segregated from the male population. A woman cannot even leave her home without her male ‘guardian,’ typically her father or husband or other male relative. Moreover, a Saudi woman’s guardian can prohibit her from travelling abroad, working, studying or even, in some cases, access to health care. Dress is highly regulated by an ultraconservative religious police force that enforces a strict dress code, typically a long, black cloak (abaya) and accompanying head scarf (shayla).
Saudi Arabia held the first municipal council elections in 2005, and they repeated them in 2011. This year’s elections, however, have drawn wider global headlines because, for the first time, women have been allowed to participate in them. Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi even won a seat on the Mecca municipal council. Yet, the ability for women to cast a ballot was more of a novelty than anything else — the kingdom’s officials said that just 130,000 women has registered to vote in the elections, compared to 1.35 million Saudi men.
Even if women participated in larger numbers, it would still mean fairly little. That’s because Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy where power is concentrated in the hands of the royal ruling family. Though the Saudi government has a Council of Ministers and a 150-member Consultative Assembly, their members are each appointed by the king, who runs the government as the country’s prime minister, issuing royal decrees as law. The only other truly powerful institution in Saudi government is the ulema, the council of leading Islamic religious leaders, which in turn is dominated by the descendants of Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, enshrining the influence of the relatively radical Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam, which has promoted fundamentalist religious views within Saudi Arabia and, according to many critics, jihadist terrorism outside the country. Though the symbiotic relationship with Wahhabism has kept the Saudi royal family in power since the 18th century, it has sometimes caused troubling blowback for the monarchy — it was Islamic radicals, notably, who in 1979 tried to seize control by force of Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
In any event, that leaves very little space for the newly constituted ‘municipal councils’ to shape or enact policy. Notably, only two-thirds of the councils’ members are elected — the remaining third are still appointed by the Saudi royal family. In 2014, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index ranked Saudi Arabia 161st out of 167 — only six countries (including Syria and North Korea) managed to score more poorly, and authoritarian countries like China, Russia, Belarus, Sudan, Iran, Cuba, Eritrea and Zimbabwe all managed to rank as less authoritarian as Saudi Arabia.
Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Saudi king from 2005 until his death in January 2015, took some steps to provide for more education of Saudi women, and it was under his rule that municipal council elections were first held. His half-brother, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, ascended to the throne on January 23 and, though it is rumored that Salman is in ill health and possibly suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, the new Saudi king is both more conservative and hawkish than his predecessor.
Salman’s first year in power was dominated by a proxy war with the Shiite Iranian Republic, most notably over Yemen, where pro-Iranian Houthi northern rebels took power from a fading Sunni government last year, despite a robust Saudi air campaign to dislodge them.
In April 2015, Salman raised eyebrows by removing his half-brother, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, as the new crown prince, replacing him with the 55-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the interior minister and a leading figure within the next generation of Saudi princes. Mohammed, whose tough line against radical terrorism has made him a favorite among policymakers in Washington, is now in line to hold the monarchy — when Salman dies and, presumably, Mohammed becomes king, power will pass for the first time in over six decades from the hands of the (many) sons of Abdulaziz (or Ibn Saud), who refounded the modern state of Saudi Arabia and ruled from 1932 until his death in 1953. More controversially, Salman appointed his own son, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the country’s new defense minister, as deputy crown prince.
Friday’s municipal elections are, indeed, a landmark. But make no mistake — it’s not exactly a pivotal moment towards greater liberty or human rights in the Saudi kingdom.