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Saudi democratic experiment ends on a flat note

Low turnout Thursday marred the last of three municipal elections in Saudi Arabia's first national vote.

By Faiza Saleh AmbahCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 2005


As Saudis watched the winds of free speech and democracy gust through Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt in recent months, the first elections here in 60 years ended Thursday with barely a stir.

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Small numbers of Saudi men turned out to cast their ballots Thursday in the third and final elections for 179 municipal councils nationwide. Women were not allowed to participate in this cautious experiment in political reform by the world's largest oil exporter.

Apart from minority Shiites in the Eastern Province, and Islamist supporters of popular conservative clerics, the majority of the country's eligible voters showed little interest in the elections that began in February and were carried out in stages.

In the bustling commercial city of Jeddah, only 55,000 men, or 22 percent of the city's eligible voters, registered, according to government figures.

Analysts say that the desultory response was due to several factors, including restrictions on campaigning, an inexperienced and poorly informed electorate, and the low stakes: voters were choosing only half the seats on their local city council.

"It's difficult for people to suddenly become engaged in politics and elections when the political arena has been barren and political institutions have been non-existent for decades," says Khalid al-Dukhayel, assistant professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh.

The government's election-awareness campaign was insufficient, says Mr. Dukhayel, "because there were no grass-roots movements or civic societies available to energize the people and make up for the shortcomings of the government [get-out-the-vote campaign]."

Political parties and gatherings are not allowed in Saudi Arabia, a monarchy ruled by the Al Saud family for more than 70 years. In the past three years there has been a movement toward greater freedom of speech and tolerance in the kingdom. But dissidents who criticize the monarchy or its religious establishment risk jail.

President Bush, who will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in his ranch in Crawford, Texas, April 25, has been pushing for Saudi Arabia to democratize since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Most of the hijackers were Saudi. The Bush administration has said that the lack of political participation has led to religious extremism in the region.

The last round of voting here has been marked by controversy. Last week a "Golden List" with the names of seven candidates running in Jeddah, endorsed by popular conservative clerics, started circulating via text message and on Internet web sites. Despite allegations of foul play by 21 other candidates, the election commission ruled that those mentioned on the "Golden List" had not violated elections rules. Candidates on a similar list in elections in Riyadh in February swept the polls there.

The Arab News newspaper quoted Sheikh Mohammad al-Shareef, one of the clerics endorsing the list, who defended his actions by saying he has the right to recommend the candidates he knows and trusts.

The strong showing of the Islamist candidates, who swept the Riyadh elections, is credited to the fact that political gatherings are banned. Religious groups are the only ones allowed to gather and speak publicly in the conservative kingdom, analysts say.