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Saudi Arabia holds last ever male-only elections

A set of council elections is the last to be held before new rules come in that allow women to run for office for the first time.

Saudi men await a chance to cast their votes in local elections yesterday. Yesterday's ballots were the last to exclude female voters.
Saudi men await a chance to cast their votes in local elections yesterday. Yesterday's ballots were the last to exclude female voters.
Image: Hassan Ammar/AP

SAUDI ARABIA held only its second nationwide vote ever yesterday – its last ever male-only election, for its powerless municipal councils.

The balloting comes just days after the king decreed that women will be able to participate for the first time in the next local elections in 2015, a measure likely aimed at heading off Arab Spring-style dissent in the kingdom.

The election, and Sunday’s decree to give women the vote, are two examples of the baby steps King Abdullah has been taking to reform and modernise his oil-rich nation since he ascended the throne in 2005.

Though small, they are significant by the standards of his ultraconservative country — home to Islam’s holiest shrines and vastly influenced by the clerical establishment.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon welcomed the king’s announcement giving women the right to vote.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement that Ban “believes that these represent an important step in the realization by women in Saudi Arabia of their fundamental civil and political rights.”

If giving women the right to vote was hailed as a courageous step by the king, some saw it as almost purely symbolic.

“It was a bold and unexpected move,” said blogger Eman al-Nafjan. “It is a start, but what we really need are reforms that improve women’s lot in their everyday life.”

Official turnout figures were not available for Thursday’s vote, but Saudi media and activists said it was a small slice of the 1.2 million registered voters, a possible reflection of the insignificance Saudis attach to the local councils that operate in the shadow of provincial governments.

Some 5,000 people ran for the more than 1,000 seats on 285 councils across the kingdom. The voters elected half the members of the councils’ the other half will be appointed by the government.

‘Glacial’

The local council vote was initially scheduled for 2009 but was postponed. The first one was in 2005.

Still, the reforms signal the ruling family is not ready for deep change, even as popular uprisings are transforming the face of an Arab world long accustomed to absolute monarchs — like the Saudi king — dictators and fraudulently elected leaders.

“They are glacial changes,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Center in Doha, Qatar, said of the recent decree on women. “But King Abdullah is the only man who can push change. Unfortunately, it has been too slow.”

The Saudi kingdom is nowhere close to any of its Arab neighbours, not even those in the conservative Gulf region, when it comes to basic rights, freedoms and gender equality. The king rules with absolute power and shows zero tolerance for political dissent.

The ruling Al-Saud family has a near monopoly on top government posts and does not answer to anyone outside the family. Women are barred from driving and they cannot be members of the Cabinet.

They cannot travel either, be admitted to hospital or take a job without permission from a male guardian.

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About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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