Nadia Bakhurji, architectural consultant, has launched campaigns twice to run in Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections. But she has yet to ever hold office.
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As a Saudi woman, that’s no great surprise. Once in 2005, and again this year, her ambitions were thwarted by a ban against women candidates and women voters. But like nearly all other Saudis – male or female – neither has she ever attended a council meeting or petitioned an elected municipal official.
Saudi democracy is not only constrained at election time, but the grassroot politics that takes place between polls – public participation in council meetings, petition drives, protests and lobbying – is virtually non-existent even in the democratically elected municipal councils.
“It’s been a complete blackout,” Bakhurji, who also was the first woman to announce her Riyadh municipal council candidacy in 2005, told The Media Line. “I thought at first that maybe the municipal council was on a learning curve, but to my knowledge there hasn’t been very much done.”
The pro-democracy aspirations of the Arab Spring have put the spotlight on Saudi Arabia, a monarchy that has tread lightly on issuing new reforms. Since King Abdullah returned to the country in February following hospitalization, the government has announced tens of billions of dollars in subsidies and hiring as well as plans to replace expatriates with Saudi labor. But deep political reforms remain off the agenda.
After officials delayed a poll originally slated for October 2009, municipal elections are now scheduled for September 29 – the second time ever that voting is being allowed in the kingdom for any office. Still, the vote for 258 municipal councils is the only time Saudis get to choose their political leaders.
Approximately, 1.2 million of the three million Saudi males eligible to vote registered during the registration period in April and May, said Election Commission Chairman Abdul Rahman Al-Dahmash. Among potential candidates, there’s apparently more interest: Earlier this month, 5,609 candidates registered to campaign for 1,632 seats in the municipal councils, but that doesn’t mean they will get to run.
The elections process is tightly controlled. Election commission officials will vet the candidates and issue a final list on July 18 of men qualified to campaign. Moreover, the winners get a limited say in municipal affairs because only half of the local council seats are to be decided in the election. The rest are appointed by the government.
In 2005, Saudis initially reacted to the municipal elections with mixed emotions, but quickly became enthusiastic as voting drew near. Religious conservatives ran well-organized campaigns and issued a “Golden List” of candidates. The endorsements from religious scholars resulted in overwhelming victories for conservatives in Jeddah, Riyadh, Mekkah, Madinah, Taif and Dammam.
This time around Saudis have expressed skepticism over whether the election will produce tangible results, local government transparency or changing the way municipalities conduct business.
“The municipal council has not said a single word to the public since they were elected six years ago,” Abdullah Al-Atayyah, 38, a high school teacher, told The Media Line. “What would be the point of voting this year?”
Al-Atayyah says there is no mechanism in place that allows Saudis to attend council meetings or even explains how to seek permission to attend one.
Perhaps the most notable instance of Saudis attending a municipal council meeting occurred with the May 2010 airing of the MTV documentary, “Resist the Power! True Life,” which profiled four young Saudis in Jeddah. Ahmad Sabri, a youth activist, organized a group of women to attend a Jeddah Municipal Council to discuss the inability of women to move freely about the city because of the female driving ban.
In a message on the social network Formspring, Ahmad Sabri’s sister, Lama Sabri, recounted what happened next. “He appeared on MTV after one year or more of struggling with the city council, and they only allowed us to attend once. And in that meeting they promised to appoint specific dates for women [to attend], but of course they never did, so we had to enter [invade] the all-men meetings.”
In the documentary, council members debated whether to partition the council chambers in order to segregate men and women. The council then permitted the women to address their concerns. The council didn’t invite the group to return.
In April, a group of Saudi writers and intellectuals announced a campaign to boycott the elections. In a statement, the group, which didn’t identify its members, complained that the councils have no administrative or financial independence and don’t have budget oversight responsibilities.
“The experience of the previous six years have proven the absence of any effective role for these councils, even in the small issues related to municipal work, such that they have no presence in the lives of citizens,” according to the statement.
The group also said the elections failed to promote “popular participation in decision-making.”
The lack of interaction between the electorate and municipal council members appears to be only partly responsible for the lack of enthusiasm among Saudis for this year’s voting. Political parties cannot organize and campaigning will be limited. And banning women from the polling booth has puzzled some Saudi men.
“I understand why women couldn’t vote in 2005, but again in 2011?” a Saudi lawyer says. “There‘s no reason this time around.”
Hatton Al-Fassi, an assistant professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, wrote on the Arabic-language website saudielection.com that the government is doomed to “repeat past mistakes” by not permitting women to participate in the September polls. But a poll released recently by the Riyadh-based ASBAR Center for Studies, Research and Communications found that 59% of Saudis opposed women voting and 72.5% were against women as members on councils.
Bakhurji acknowledges that the “country is divided towards the progress of women” and a “tug-of-war” has developed high in the Saudi government between liberals and conservatives about the pace of women’s rights. But she insists that most men are ready to vote for women candidates and points to her election victories in the Saudi Council of Engineers.
The 13,000-member organization has only 200 female members, and Bakhurji was the only woman among 75 candidates running for a board seat. Yet, her male colleagues elected her to a second term. She also points to Nora Bin Abdullah Al-Fayez’s 2009 appointment as deputy education minister and women elected to seats on the Riyadh and Jeddah Chambers of Commerce.
“Obviously, women are on the path to higher decision-making,” she says, expressing disappointment over her aborted run for municipal council. “In the past two years there have been positive steps in the progress of women and this would have been a natural step. There is no excuse for us not to participate.”