Saudi Arabia’s Democratic Baby Step

This month’s elections in Iraq and for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority may be claiming all the world’s headlines, but another potentially far-reaching ballot is also underway, albeit to far less acclaim: the registration process for the municipal elections in Saudi Arabia in mid-February. As the heartland of some of the strongest Islamist forces anywhere, this Saudi effort – if successful and a harbinger of other needed changes – may have an even more profound impact than the elections in Iraq and Palestine.

Roughly 40,000 Saudis are expected to compete for 1,700 seats in 178 municipal councils. The enthusiasm is obvious, and the campaign is already under way and highly spirited. Members of the Saudi royal family are not entering the race, as they already enjoy ultimate political power. But, sensing the public’s excitement, they have made sure to be photographed by local and international media while registering to get their electoral ID card.

By the standards of Western, and even emerging Third World democracies, the Saudi municipal elections are an extremely modest affair. But in the Saudi context they are a real breakthrough.

For Saudi Arabia is a country in which both rulers and ruled are equally arch- conservative, adhering, for the last two centuries, to the puritanical Wahhabi doctrine of Islam. During the last fifty years, repeated attempts by reform-oriented elements to open up Saudi Arabia’s society and polity had failed. But recent democratic trends worldwide have now reached the shores of this medieval desert kingdom and can no longer be ignored.