26 Sep 2011

Spring time for women in Saudi?

Four years ago, talking to Prince Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, in a hotel suite in Mayfair he told me he and King Abdullah had no real objection to allowing Saudi women to drive: “But Saudi society is very conservative”, he said, “many would reject it, and we could have trouble if we allowed it.”

One vast Arab Spring later, and in a five-minute speech to his country’s Shura (a sort of advisory council) King Abdullah announces that women will be allowed to run as candidates for municipal elections in polls after next Thursday’s male-only vote. He added, as if it was the more outrageous concept, “women will even be able to vote in municipal elections”.

There’s no question that this is a hugely significant development in a country in which women have faced some of the most draconian personal and working conditions anywhere in the world.

However, it is worth deconstructing what it actually means. There are 5,000 seats contested in Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections (half of all the seats in municipal administrations in the country – the government simply appoints the other 5,000). These posts have nothing to do with the national governance of the country in which there is still no  electoral element.

Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections on Thursday will only be the second ever staged in the country’s history. One intriguing future question is how many of the 5,000 people the government appoints to the councils will be women.

Nevertheless it is a palpable break-through and may signal the scale of female restiveness in the tensions that have affected Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships.

We have been aware of the protests by women against the driving ban on females. A number of women have been jailed briefly this year for flouting the ban.

But what of the ban on women having certain medical procedures and operations without male permission; the restriction on movement inside the country without a male guardian; the ban on women leaving the country at all without a male guardian; and the ban on women filling a great swathe of jobs?

Old man Saud and his brother King have seen the dangers of the continued repression of women in their country.

How long then before there really are women in positions of elective authority? It could certainly be several years and may be longer. Because of the considerable restrictions on reporting in Saudi Arabia we have no real way of knowing the scale of pressure that the authorities are under.

A number of ex-patriot doctors and construction people have told me that tensions are higher than we know. The King’s move would seem to suggest strongly that the Arab Spring has indeed left this deeply conservative kingdom shaken, perhaps even stirred.

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