By Glen Carey
Saudi Arabia excluded most adult citizens from today’s municipal elections, betting that a limited ballot coupled with $130 billion of extra spending will be enough to halt Arab unrest at the kingdom’s borders.
Women weren’t entitled to stand as candidates or cast votes in the ballot, which closed at 5 p.m. local time, and the councilors chosen by Saudi men age 21 and over who aren’t in the military will enjoy few powers. Still, the fact that the ballot took place is an advance from two years ago, when the election was first due and King Abdullah postponed it.
In between came the Arab revolts — mass protests that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia and spread to Saudi neighbors Yemen and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, holder of the world’s biggest oil reserves, has relied chiefly on extra money for jobs and housing to ward off unrest. Permitting today’s vote, only the second in half a century, may be another part of that plan.
“The Saudi leadership is anxiously looking at what is happening in the rest of the Arab world,” said Paul Sullivan, a political scientist specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University in Washington. “There are considerable unemployment and other social tensions in the country. Holding these elections may be one of the leadership’s ways of trying to calm some of those tensions.”
Early indicators suggested “a considerable voter turnout,” Abdulrahman Dahmash, chairman of the country’s election commission, said at a press conference in Riyadh today. “We have seen that citizens are quite keen on participating in a process where their voice counts.”
At the al-Malaz district voting station in Riyadh, election officials said that out of 2,024 registered voters, more than 100 had cast ballots by 2:40 p.m.
Saudi Arabia’s jobless rate was 10 percent last year and it needs to create 5 million jobs for nationals by 2030, Labor Minister Adel Faqih said in January. The country may cut oil output if falling prices threaten the financing for its budget- stretching stimulus plan, HSBC Holdings Plc said this week.
Brent crude is trading at about $105 a barrel, down 15 percent from its 2011 high in April. HSBC forecasts an average price of $90 a barrel next year, and that’s about the level that may prompt Saudi rulers to reduce supplies, the bank’s head of Asian oil and gas research, Sonia Song, said on Sept. 26.
Saudi Arabia largely escaped this year’s Arab unrest, though its benchmark Tadawul AllShare Index fell as much as 20 percent in February and March as the revolts spread. Saudi rulers sent troops to Bahrain to help quell demonstrations there. There were some rallies in the mostly Shiite Muslim east of Saudi Arabia, including in the village of al-Qatif where Mohammed al-Shayoukh was standing.
In his campaign tent, as aides fired off messages on Facebook and Twitter while tea was served at a stand outside, the candidate admitted it was hard to generate voter interest.
“People were disappointed with the previous municipal council,” elected in 2005, al-Shayoukh said in an interview. Still, he said, the campaign is “the only election process that people can participate in” and “a small window to make changes.”
If elected, he said he will work to mediate between the people of al-Qatif and local authorities, and expand the “little power” that the council currently has.
More than 1 million Saudi men were registered to select from 5,323 candidates for 2,112 council posts, according to the kingdom’s elections commission.
Political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy ranked as the least democratic country in the Middle East by the Economist Intelligence Unit in its 2010 Democracy Index.
To ensure a strong turnout, the commission ran advertising campaigns in local newspapers. “Your voice is your duty,” said an ad in Al-Riyadh newspaper.
“I needed to get to know the candidates,” said Mesaad Bahatheq, a 50-year old doctor and one of three people who turned up to vote at al-Malaz in the early afternoon. “I voted for the one that I hope will help represent us.”
In another Riyadh district with 13,540 registered voters, 600 had cast ballots by 3 p.m., according to the Prince Salman Center voting station.
The government needs to broaden participation and the role of elected officials to engage more people, said Khalid al- Dakhil, a political science professor at King Saud University. “We are only allowed to elect 50 percent of the members,” he said in phone interview. The government appoints the rest.
Dahmash said a new code that will expand the powers of the councils has been drafted and is awaiting approval.
When the last elections were held in 2005, Saudi forces were battling al-Qaeda militants who were attacking foreign nationals and government institutions and infrastructure.
“The situation has become more challenging, more in terms of the regional dynamic than a hardcore internal al-Qaeda threat,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. Elections “may satisfy potential domestic opposition and discontent.”
Saudi women will be allowed to join in the next election, due in 2015, as voters and candidates, King Abdullah said this week. Abdullah, born in 1924, has promised to improve the status of women and opened the first co-educational university in 2009.
After the king’s decision, Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, president of the Human Rights First Society, who had earlier said he didn’t plan to vote, changed his mind. “I am going to a polling station this morning because the king allowed women to participate in the next municipal elections,” he said in a phone interview.
Two days after the decision, two Saudi women were punished for breaking the ban on female driving: One was arrested, and the other was sentenced to 10 lashes by a court in Riyadh. Princess Amira al-Taweel, wife of billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, wrote on her Twitter account yesterday that Abdullah has revoked the lashing sentence.
“Giving women the right to vote and to run for office may also be a strategy to reduce some of the social and political tensions,” Sullivan said. “The leadership sees slow reform as the best, given the conservative nature of most of Saudi society.”