Obstacles Likely to Remain in Voting Rights for Saudi Women
Author: Rob Wagner
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 10/21/2011
Saudi King Abdullah’s royal decree giving women voting rights and issued just days before the Sept. 29 municipal elections, upstaged the kingdom’s second round of polling in six years. The decree, if implemented in 2015 as promised, helps legitimize a flawed election process that only allowed men to vote. It also promises to bring significant change to the lives of Saudi women if government authorities charged with its implementation follow the spirit of the decree as the king had intended.
The Sept. 29 municipal elections, in which 1.2 million Saudi men were eligible to cast ballots for 5,323 candidates running for 2,112 council seats, were to demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s commitment to developing a democratic process at the local government level. It was only the third round of elections since 1962. Voter turnout in September, however, was light. Campaigning by candidates paled in contrast to the onslaught of text messaging that dominated the 2005 elections. In addition, enthusiasm among voters waned since 2005 as it became apparent that public participation at municipal council meetings failed to materialize. 
Attention among Saudis and Western observers now turns to what role female voters will play in the 2015 municipal elections. The chief concern among Saudi women activists is whether the four-year wait will jeopardize the implementation of the king’s decree. The ramifications of King Abdullah’s decree giving women voting rights are immense. Yet activists are wary that reform is really underway. 
Saudi Arabia has long ignored external pressure to implement wide-ranging reforms that would bring the kingdom closer to the Western ideal of democracy. A $38 billion social benefits package announced in March was King Abdullah’s perceived response to the then-burgeoning Arab Spring movement. Western media interpreted it as a bribe to encourage Saudis to stay off the streets. Most Saudis recognized the benefits were in line with annual packages awarded usually each December.   
Saudi Arabia, however, is not immune to the Arab Spring. The Saudi government, no matter how much it wished to isolate itself from the growing clamor of regional protests, soon interfered in Bahrain’s domestic affairs to contain protesters demanding constitutional reforms. The kingdom also provided support to Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen as anti-government protests continued to gain momentum since January.
The unexpected beneficiary of the Arab Spring on kingdom’s domestic front is the fledgling Saudi feminist movement that has made gains since March. These advances culminated with women winning the right to vote, run for election to municipal council seats and accept appointments on the quasi-legislative Shoura Council.
More than any ruler in the Middle East, King Abdullah has always been in touch with his feminine side. Since he assumed the throne in 2005, he has taken steps towards reform despite considerable resistance from religious conservatives. Part of his efforts was to shift Saudi women from the margins of society to more prominent roles.
Laying a Foundation
Consider two critical steps Saudi Arabia is taking that directly impact women’s rights:
- The Shoura Council is close to finalizing a codified Sharia system that will be an immense boon to women struggling for equal rights in domestic courts. Codified gender-neutral Sharia would severely restrict Saudi judges’ reliance on tribal customs and traditions in rulings. Under the proposed codified new system, but remaining true to Islam, guardianship rules face revisions that could allow Saudi women to obtain divorces without patriarchal meddling and to pursue more business and educational opportunities. The caveat to this proposed landmark legislation is just who will interpret Sharia. Religious conservatives could cement their authority over the rights of women, although there are enough liberals on the Shoura Council to provide a more equitable interpretation. 
- King Abdullah’s university scholarship program starting in the 2007-2008 academic year gave virtually every qualified Saudi female student the opportunity to study abroad. In 2010, Saudi women undergraduate and postgraduate students accounted for 25 percent of the 15,600 Saudis studying in the United Kingdom. Approximately 6,000 women are studying at universities in the United States. Worldwide, 20.5 percent of all Saudi students on full government scholarships are women. An estimated 56.6 percent of all Saudi university students in the kingdom are women. Nearly 60 percent of Saudi businesswomen have university degrees with one-third of those degrees earned at Western universities. 
Assuming the Shoura Council does indeed follow through with its plan to codify Sharia, these gains establish a foundation for the new series of women’s rights prompted by the Arab Spring and implemented by King Abdullah. Following the king’s return from medical treatment in Morocco in March, the Saudi government dithered over its next step in women’s rights as it engaged in its passive-aggressive relationship with religious conservatives. The Ministry of Labor’s attempts to minimize gender segregation in the workplace and allow women to work as clerks in lingerie shops faced indifference if not outright obstinance. And the coeducational King Abdullah University of Science & Technology opened in 2009 still rankles clerics to no end.
Although Saudi Arabia rarely accedes to the demands for reform from the international community, King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, among other more liberal-minded royals, recognize that the government can’t treat women as chattel.
However, whatever modest gains Saudi women have made are by no stretch of the imagination guaranteed to remain. Rather, all that Saudi women have achieved could very well be wiped out if religious extremists replace older liberal Saudis in high-level ministerial positions as recent changes in high-level shuffling indicate.
Still, the Arab Spring knocked down some long entrenched barriers. A case in point is the driving ban that denies women the ability to enjoy affordable and convenient transportation. Saudi women initially viewed the West’s demands to end the ban as a tempest in a teapot. But the Arab Spring emboldened them to make the issue a rallying point to insist on greater rights that would help erase the indignities Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal society heaps on its women.
The arrest of Manal Al-Sharif in May for driving in the Eastern Province and the subsequent June 17 women driving demonstration proved the necessary catalyst for change. Al-Sharif was the icon for the burgeoning Saudi feminist movement. 
The government has done little to prevent women from driving since June 17. There has been no crackdown, and no arrests or harsh punishment meted out that echo the 1990 Riyadh driving protest led by 50 women. With the exception of a rogue judge who sentenced one Saudi woman to 10 lashes for driving without government permission, which was vacated by King Abdullah, few women driving cars have run afoul with traffic police. The Saudi government’s apparent indifference puts in doubt whether the driving ban even exists anymore. In essence, Saudi women have won the right to drive given the government laizzez-faire attitude. Eventually Saudi women must drive, but Riyadh seems to have thrown the ball in the women’s court. 
While Riyadh sees no need for a royal decree to decisively end the driving issue, it took a different approach when King Abdullah gave women voting rights. This is a consolation prize in lieu of a royal degree granting women driving rights, but it’s also more significant. Riyadh saves face by not succumbing to international pressure on the driving ban and it gives women modest, but still restrictive, rights that tacitly acknowledge the calls for democratic reform brought on by the Arab Spring.
The problem is that women don’t vote until 2015 and won’t take a seat on the Shoura Council for another 18 months. The lengthy time it will take to implement the decrees makes them vulnerable to unwanted changes that could lead to no voting rights at all. It’s no easy task to rescind a royal decree. Only another royal decree can do that. King Abdullah is not likely to rescind his own decrees and he prefers to ignore the complaints from the religious conservatives of giving women too much. 
However, ministerial authorities charged with the implementation of the decrees could very well erect roadblocks. Interior Minister Prince Naif, for example, has gone on record as saying the need for women to drive is exaggerated. He is a champion of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. He consistently aligns himself with religious hardliners. 
If Saudi women rest on their laurels following their hard-fought battle to win the rights they achieved, then they may find themselves tucked away inside their homes. In the view of Saudi women’s rights activists, the battle is not just winning rights, but organizing efforts to keep them. One concern is that religious conservatives continue to interpret Sharia, the wants and needs of Saudi society, and, ultimately, the rights of women.
By taking seats on the Shoura Council, women can create an organized lobbying effort to push for a more gender-neutral interpretation of Sharia, particularly on issues of male guardianship and travel rights. 
Saudi journalist Samar Fatany notes that appointments to the Shoura Council allow women to address “the challenges that have hindered their progress, such as the ban on women driving, the reluctance of the public to support women in leadership positions, the strict culture of segregation within society …” 
Regardless of King Abdullah’s intentions and the future of women in the electoral process, there is little evidence that the kingdom is ready for a Western-style democracy.
Hendrick Jan Kraetzchmar was an adviser to the Saudi government to help develop a municipal electoral process in 2004 for the 2005 elections. In a report for the London School of Economics’ Public Policy Group, Kraetzchmar wrote that Riyadh adopted some Western electoral procedures and rejected others. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the elections was the implementation of cross-district voting that allowed religious conservatives to win contests by attracting large numbers of voters.
In his January 2011 report, Kraetzchmar wrote, “Specifically, the Saudi case demonstrates that, by putting a premium on cross-district efforts at voter mobilization, the electoral system provided the institutional backdrop against which it was possible for Islamist candidates and their backers to coordinate successfully their campaigns and achieve impressive victories across the Kingdom.” 
Voter Interest Declines
The lack of voter interest in the 2011 had less to do with the victories of Islamic conservatives, and more with the virtually non-existent participation of Saudi citizens to influence council decisions. Council meeting dates, locations and agendas are rarely publicized and members could selectively choose who attends.
About 1.2 million Saudi men registered to vote, but some regions witnessed significant drops in voter participation. In Riyadh, the number of registered voters dropped from about 800,000 for the 2005 elections to just 300,000 in 2011. 
A poll conducted by the Saudi English-language daily newspaper Arab News found dissatisfaction among Saudis over the performance of the Jeddah Municipal Council. The newspaper found that 71.6 percent of the 387 polled Saudis characterized the council’s performance as “very bad” while only 15.2 percent the council’s conduct was “good.” Survey respondents complained of poor services and the “catastrophic” reaction to the November 2009 and January 2011 floods that left more than 100 people dead.  
During the Sept. 29 election, Saudis also faced confusing instructions for polling center locations.
In Jeddah, the Complaints Committee of Municipal Elections voided the results of election in the city’s District 3 because poll center officials moved the district’s polling place to a different location just hours before voting began. The switch caused confusion when voters arrived at the original location and found it closed. 
Polling officials also reported that winners in some districts garnered few votes. Abdullah Al-Muhammadi, for example, received just 381 votes in the voided District 3 election in Jeddah. Abdul Aziz Al-Suraie earned 239 votes in Jeddah’s District 2. Khaled Bajammal received 163 votes in District 4 and Fouad Murad in District 5 garnered only 71 votes. In Riyadh, 177 candidates won seats on 45 municipal councils. Yet candidates fell well below in receiving 50 percent of the vote. In one Riyadh district, Fuad Abdulrahman Al-Rashid was the top vote-getter by receiving 44 percent of the vote. Waleed Abdullateef Sweidan took second place with 42.9 percent. 
Voter turnout was relatively low in the Eastern Province with 30 percent of the registered voters casting ballots. In some rural areas, such as Tabuk and Najran, turnout was closer to 50 percent.
The 2005 and 2011 municipal elections were experimental at best. The true test of a democratic election comes in 2015 if women cast ballots with no conditions attached. Voter enthusiasm is likely to increase if for no other reason than the novelty of voting for a woman. The 2015 elections are also likely to ignite the passions of Islamic conservatives who will not allow the issue of women’s voting rights to go unchallenged. Saudis can expect a concerted effort to tamp down female participation by appealing to male voters’ perceived religious duties.
Saudi women have demonstrated exceptional organization skills with such social media groups as Women2Drive, Saudi Women Revolution and the Baladi Campaign. By capitalizing on these skills, women are likely to rival the religious conservatives in organizing campaigns for public office to ensure women sit on municipal councils. These skills will also help women develop a strong, single voice in the Shoura Council to push legislation addressing equity in Saudi society.
Bio: Rob L. Wagner is the former managing editor of the English-language daily newspaper Saudi Gazette in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He covered Jeddah’s municipal elections in 2005 and frequently writes on Arab and Islamic issues.