Cautious Optimism: prospects for local government and greater women’s participation in Saudi Arabia

  • David Sands, Rebecca Jackson

On December 12, 2015 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia held municipal elections that were historic for a number of reasons.

First, in the influential oil-rich country, which houses the Muslim world’s two holiest cities, the prospects for democratic reform at the municipal level could have a positive impact on the Middle Eastern region overall. Second, the participation of women as both voters and candidates sets a historic precedent in a country that had yet to have women’s suffrage. However, while prospects for reform and women’s political participation seems on the uptick, the international community must temper expectations of any quick reform.

Municipal governance is a key pillar in a democracy.  In the Kingdom, municipalities are considered the second level of local government (the first being provincial government) and are charged with general organization, landscaping and public hygiene. While the role of the municipal council remains vague, upon completion of local elections, newly elected municipal councils in Saudi Arabia should assume greater responsibility for municipal governance becoming the “front-line” to addressing citizen concerns.  Establishing effective and transparent governing practices at the local level is paramount to any progress of political reform in the Kingdom.  According to an IRI Arab Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI) poll, more than 50 percent of Saudi citizens (men and women) believe that local governments will play a positive role in building stronger community services in the Kingdom.  That said, the municipal government’s relationship with the central government is yet to be seen.  It is critical that the central government allow its local counterparts to engage responsively and transparently with constituents.

The Kingdom has made other recent gestures towards promoting the role of its female citizens. Although women have lacked autonomy and full participation in social, political and economic life in the Kingdom, the former Saudi King Abdullah in 2011 decreed that the appointed advisory council to the King would include 30 percent women (this occurred in 2013). His Royal Highness Abdullah further decreed that municipal elections in 2015 would include the full participation of women. The fact that the elections have occurred and women were allowed to participate, suggests that the Kingdom is beginning to recognize that Saudi women must have greater opportunities to participate as decision makers.  

Following IRI’s belief that “when women participate as decision makers, the economic and social well-being of their country grows, and more inclusive governing and peace building processes take root,” the participation of women in Saudi Arabia’s local elections is the first step in strengthening local communities in the Kingdom.  What happens next will be critical to building the momentum for women’s participation in political life in the country.  The Saudi women who were elected on December 12 should have increasing access to leadership training and opportunities to connect with their counterparts in other MENA countries.  In particular Morocco and Jordan have women who currently serving on locally elected bodies.  This experience sharing could greatly benefit Saudi women councilors as they begin to tackle uncharted territory subsuming their roles as elected officials for the first time ever. 

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