The days of men-only voting in Saudi Arabia are numbered. When 2015 comes around, women will be allowed to vote and be candidates in local council elections like those being held this Thursday.
The reform is small next to democratic change in other Arab countries, but rights campaigners welcomed King Abdullah’s announcement on Sunday.
Yvonne Ridley, with the International Women’s Union, said: “It’s great news, especially for the Saudi women who are very empowered. I know some of them in particular who have been waiting for this moment. In fact, in the last municipal elections I was in Riyadh and one of them told me, ‘Look, we’re not voting this time, but we’ll be voting next time, and we will be standing.’”
Critics said the concession is little more than cosmetic, since only half the seats go up for grabs, and municipal councils have few real powers.
Saudi women still live in the only country in the world where the law forbids them to drive. They also need a male relative’s permission to work, travel or have surgery. This summer some women protested against the driving ban. Some were arrested. Others were harassed in different ways.
So what if they can vote locally? asked rights activist Massoud Shadjareh, who is with the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London: “I just thought at the beginning that it was a joke, because in a society like Saudi Arabia where no one has got any input into the politics, the reality is (that) it is a total dictatorship, and, you know, to give rights to women to vote… vote for what? You know, vote for who is going to (be) running the local neighbourhood?”
With its towering wealth, Saudi Arabia is the last Arab holdout against giving women the vote. Kuwait did it in 2006. Syrian women were the first to join men at the polls, in 1949, though few observers would say democratic change is complete in Syria.
Activists in the world’s No. 1 oil exporter have called for a boycott of this Thursday’s poll. In any case, the Saudi turnout at the last one was very low, and it is not expected to be much higher now.