Sep 282011
 

A royal decree allowing women the right to vote can’t hide the decay in the House of Saud.

SEPTEMBER 26, 2011

Articles enumerating the advances in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have, until now, tended to be rather short. There simply hasn’t been much to write about: Saudi women haven’t had many rights, at least not in terms Westerners usually understand — the right to vote, the right to drive, or the right to travel without a male guardian. But with King Abdullah’s royal decree on Sunday, Sept. 25, granting women the right to vote in municipal elections, there has now been a river of commentary placing this reform in the context of the upheaval elsewhere in the Arab world. This news, however, does not justify the tediously high word counts that the commentariat will undoubtedly reach over the next few days.

King Abdullah’s edict is certainly a change. It might even be progress. But some caution is necessary. Women will not actually be allowed to vote until municipal elections in 2015 — when they will also be allowed to stand as candidates. In Saudi Arabia’s nascent parliament, the appointed consultative council, change will come earlier: Women will be allowed to serve in the next session, which will begin in 2012.

The delay might matter. King Abdullah is 88 years old and has a variety of ailments. He might not be around this time next year. His nominated successor, Crown Prince Sultan, 87, is even less likely to be alive then; he currently resides in a New York City hospital and is believed to be terminally ill. The apparent next in line, the conservative Prince Nayef, likely has a different attitude toward women’s rights. In the past he has spoken out against the nascent campaign to allow women to drive.

Saudi watchers, certainly including yours truly, didn’t see this announcement coming. King Abdullah’s reputation as a reformer has dimmed in recent years. He doesn’t seem to have the energy to push for the needed consensus in the royal family and, more particularly, from the kingdom’s orthodox Sunni Islam clerical hierarchy. But the monarch did attempt to bridge these divides by painting the change as completely compatible with Islamic tradition. “All people know that Muslim women have had in the Islamic history, positions that cannot be marginalized,” he said, going on to note women’s contributions since the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

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