As our regular readers will be well aware, we at Mediolana have been providing our burgeoning following with analysis galore on the Arab Spring, and in this context have swiftly realised that when it comes to the future of the Middle East and North Africa, almost nothing seems to be off the cards; however, the developments of Sunday, 25th September 2011 had even Mediolana’s blogger-in-chief spluttering into his cappuccino in disbelief: King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud announced that his polity was to extend the vote to its female subjects.
The main thrust of this reform is that women will be allowed to vote and stand as candidates in municipal elections from 2015. Women are also to be appointed to the Majlis Al-Shura or Shura Council, a consultative body that advises the monarchy on areas of public policy.
Is this a revolutionary change? On one level, hardly: of Saudi Arabia’s 285 municipalities, half the seats are filled by government appointees; meanwhile, in the Shura Council, the emphasis is on a perfunctory interpretation of the word ‘consultative’: discussions on the fate of the kingdom’s oil revenues are strictly off-topic. Almost whichever way one looks at it, Saudi Arabia has a democratic deficit which is so profound that what should be an event of real structural significance begins to lose meaning when placed in a wider context, at least in a purely mechanistic reading.
However, on another level the conferring of suffrage on Saudi women can be viewed as an extraordinary occurrence for the following reasons:
1. The Triumph of Politics Over Economics. In an era of Fonduenomics and Peak Oil, where petroleum prices are shifting to an ever-higher base and competition over vital resources has arguably never been greater, Saudi Arabia should be in an incredibly strong position. As arguably the key mover in OPEC, an organisation whose revenues are projected to top US$1trn in 2011, Saudi Arabia is in theory about as insulated from recessionary storms as any country can be; within the specific context of politics, it can attempt to obviate dissent via financial incentives in a way that few other states on earth can dream of. Yet even this has not stopped the momentum of the Arab Spring reaching Saudi shores, a phenomenon which merits closer examination.
2. The Importance of Image. Saudi Arabia’s international image was a fairly anonymous one up until the 1990s, consisting mainly of staid narratives on themes such as petroleum, profligacy and pilgrimage; a more than decent showing at the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States raised hopes that the country may yet make an impression on the football world and, in turn, broader popular culture. However, in the last decade or so Saudi Arabia has become synonymous with a whole host of negative trends, from the spawning of extremist ideologues to alarming deficiencies in the realm of urban planning. Interestingly, the perception of Saudi Arabia within the Islamic world seems to be plummeting: moves such as an Indonesian moratorium on labour exports to the kingdom in protest at the execution of Ruyati binti Satubi, a 54-year-old domestic worker, would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. The fact that the highest echelons of the Saudi state are tacitly recognising this state of affairs in making constitutional changes is notable.