Saudi Arabia: Hard Liners sweep the board in local council elections

Timid reforms will not solve deep political crisis

Religious hardliners have won the local council elections in Saudi Arabia which were held in three phases from February to April 2005.

The western media applauded the decision to hold the elections as a historic occasion and great step forward in the direction of “democracy” in this oil rich Kingdom. However they were much more subdued when they saw the result of the “democracy” they had so recently praised. It seems like many Saudi Arabians were not that enthusiastic either about the elections.

Only 40% eligible people registered to voters. The turn out was very low in all the big cities. According to state television it was 31% in capital Riyadh, and 29% in commercial capital Jeddah. In Jeddah only 20% eligible voters were registered. Women were not allowed to participate in these elections, which itself demonstrates the completely false nature of this so-called democracy, in which almost 50% population has no right to vote! The majority of the population, especially young people showed no interest in these elections, because for them this it was seen as a useless exercise which would not make any significant change or difference to their lives.

The elections were held to fill some of the 600 seats of 178 municipal councils in Saudi Arabia while the rest of them will be filled by nominations from the King. The cleric-backed candidates have come out on top in Meddina, Mecca, Tabuk, Taef and other cities and towns. Well known religious leaders and clerics put their own candidates but did not themselves take part in the elections. These candidates did less well in Al Qassim, a region some 300 kilometres north of capital Riyadh, seen as the heartland of the Wahabi faith. They won just 2 seats whilst the remaining 5 went to technocrats and businessmen in the regional capital Buraida. In Unaiza they only won one out of five seats.

According to lawyer Abdul Aziz al Kassem, “The winners can be considered moderates. They are more open than the official religious establishment and the Wahhabi currents, they are technocrats and business men with religious leanings, who are against any liberal reforms of the theocratic state.” According to the pro-government daily Arab news based in Jeddah, “The election results are unexpected for both government and militant groups. The winners are western educated radicals, opposed to militancy and liberalism and want to keep Saudi Arabia as an Islamic country, but want more share in the running of government through elections. They are not a party because it is illegal to form a party, but still they are very closely connected with each other nationally and will become a sizeable force in future. There are different currents among them, but the leading colour is Islamic. This is the emergence of the middle class on the political scene.”

Middle class

There is no doubt that a new middle class has emerged in last two decades. There are almost one million people educated from western colleges and universities. They are mostly professors, doctors, lawyers, managers, civil servants and businessmen. They have shown their strength in the elections, by wining 80% the seats. This is an important development in a tribal-dominated society like Saudi Arabia. Society has partially emerged from the constraints and confines of traditional tribal politics. Those who make up the middle classes now have been transformed from poverty-stricken desert dwellers to wealthy citizens of modern metropolises within two generations. The middle class intelligentsia has increased their influence in the last few years. But it would be a mistake to exaggerate their influence in this conservative society, compared to the religious leaders and mullahs.

More liberal

The older layer of the middle class is more conservative and supportive of the royal family than the newer layers. The new generation is more liberal and wants fast track reforms in the direction of democracy and liberalism, which the older sections are opposing.

Some frustrated youth are also going towards Islamic fundamentalist organisations and groups. Most are concern about jobs, because there are very few jobs available to the educated youth. In many regions unemployment and poverty has increased in last decade. There is also strong Arab nationalism developing among the youth. Many people now oppose the presence of immigrant workers who exist in large numbers in Saudi Arabia. They are also demanding to impose a ban on the employment of immigrant workers in certain sectors of economy to employ immigrant workers. The regime is under pressure and trying to reduce their numbers. The Saudi government has announced the plan to cut the number of immigrant workers and will expel 400 000 workers. That means these jobs will go to local people but with higher wages and less skill. It is not easy for Saudi companies to employ local workers instead of foreign immigrant workers, which is a source of cheap labour and super-exploitation. This issue will remain to be very important and most debated in the near future.

The Political Divide and Reforms

The municipal elections clearly show the divisions in the society. The different conflicting currents not only exist but are becoming more accentuated especially as frustration grows at the slow pace of reforms. There are two clear trends, one pressing for wider public freedoms and others jealously defending the kingdom’s Islamic identity against US pressure for reforms. One voter expressed his views in these words “I came to vote for candidates with an Islamic orientation. And I want this message to reach the United States and the entire west”. One businessman Aref al Ghamdi said, “There are external pressures to introduce reforms here. It’s all in preparation for Americanisation. That’s why I have voted for Islamic candidates”. On the other hand schoolteacher Saleh Abdul Razzaq said: “We want freedom, basic human rights, trade union rights and democracy in our country. We need to have elected professional unions, for teachers, doctors, workers and government employs, to uphold these people’s rights. We also need to be able to demonstrate peacefully”.

One lawyer commented “We want the Shura council to be elected, that should respect the opinion of our people”. The question of reforms has become a contentious matter between different currents. It is just the beginning of a long process, which will take many twists and turns. The Royal family is also divided on this issue. Differences are developing between Crown prince Abdullah and the brothers of king Shah Fahad. This reflects the fact that the older generation of the Royal family want to continue to rule the country with iron hand without giving any sort of concessions to liberals and pro- democracy sections of society.

But new generation want to give limited reforms to keep their control over country, which they now find impossible to rule in the same old way. According to a senior Saudi official “We are battling a campaign of violence by suspected Al-Qaeda militants over the past two years, which is a danger to the stability and progress of our country. We do not want to fight two battles at same time, one with militants and the other with the pro-democracy reformist movement. Now our strategy is to fight against militants to wipe them out, and engage liberals in a process of cautious reforms which is tailored to domestic specifications. We have explained our strategy to the Americans.”

It is clear from these elections that the traditional Wahabi religious hierarchy, which is linked closely with the state has started to lose its control and dominance which they enjoyed for nearly 75 years. The most respected and popular clerics are those who are not directly linked with the state and Royal Family, and not preaching blind loyalty to rulers, but talking about the responsibilities of the rulers towards their people. They also campaign on social and political issues. This shown by a recent verdict given by some senior clerics in which they allow women to marry freely and by their own choice, and also declared forced marriages un-Islamic and inhuman.

A few popular clerics have also issued decrees to give permission to women to drive cars, which is still not legal. In the absence of a working class or left alternative, these clerics with the help of more moderate Islamists can fill the vacuum on the basis of a radical social and economic programme. They can become the popular voice of the Saudi people who want a change in the present political system. These clerics with the support of sections of the middle class can move in the direction of a more radicalised position despite having an Islamic colour to their political views.

Liberal Reformist Movement

The reformist movement in Saudi Arabia is facing a very difficult period. In 2003 this movement was at its height, and dominated the political scene, but in2004 it was weakened and suffered some serious blows from a combination of different reasons.

The increased high prices of oil, increased violence from hard-line Islamic militant groups, increased state repression, and the continued importance to the regime of Islamic political currents are the main reasons in the fall in support for liberal reform activism. According to the well known Saudi journalist Jamal Ghashugi “The issues raised by the reformers, more political participation , the role of the women, democratic rights, and constitutional limits on the powers of the Al-Saud, have not gone away, but at least for now the house of al-Saud thinks that it does not have to address them. In October 2004, the cabinet dashed hopes among more liberal sections of society that women would be allowed to vote in the 2005 elections. In September last year, in a clear signal that for the regime political activism has its limits, the cabinet issued the stern reminder that state employees were prohibited from opposing state policy, even to sign petitions that called for such changes. Given that the vast majority of Saudis in the labour force work directly for the state, or indirectly through state owned companies, this warning had the effect of declaring political activity out of bounds for most Saudis”.

The case of three defendants who refused to participate in court proceedings in October last year, because they objected to the fact that the presiding judge had ordered the trial to be closed to the public, after earlier sessions had been open, is seen as representing “in miniature the dashed hopes of Saudi liberal and moderate Islamists Reformers over the past year”. These three defendants were part of a group of 12 activists arrested in March for organising a petition calling for a constitutional monarchy and for trying to establish an independent human-rights monitoring group. Hundreds of supporters of these activists came to hear the proceedings in court, and they also organized a demonstration in the support of them. Now the activists face a closed court proceeding which has been held inside the prison they are incarcerated in. According to Jamal Ghashugi “the withering of the Riyadh Spring can be attributed to a number of factors, but the two most important are the security and the economic situation. In both cases, a combination of short term success alleviating immediate pressures and long term issues that will be more difficult to deal with have created the circumstances under which rolling back the tentative liberalisation was a plausible strategy for the rulers. The Saudis are enjoying their most lucrative years of oil exports ever. In 2004 the projected deficit turned into 35$ billion surplus, which enabled the rulers to announce new development projects worth 11 $ billion. There have been steady stream of announcements regarding new labour regulations aimed at discouraging employment of foreign workers, opening up job opportunities for nationals and increasing the participation of Saudi women in the workforce. While the long term prospects for substantial change in the Saudi labour market are uncertain, this new influx of money has given the government confidence that it can deal with the short-term consequences of unemployment in the country, while also greasing the wheels of patronage that make the Saudi political system work”.

There are many people in Saudi Arabia who have lost their fear of state repression and prosecution, and one of the side effects of the economic improvement may be that sections of the population begin to fight for their rights. Out of this process it will be the emerging Saudi working class that starts to put its stamp on the situation as it realises the potential strength it has at its disposal.

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May 2005