Saudi Elections a Minor Concession to Internal Democratic Pressure

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Professor Toby Jones says the Saudi elections won’t affect the fundamental political order

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m in conversation with Toby Jones. He’s an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, where he specializes in the Middle East. He’s the author of the book Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. Good to have you back, Toby.

TOBY JONES: Thank you.

PERIES: So Toby, the elections are coming up in Saudi Arabia. One might want to snicker over that. But what is these elections all about, given it’s a kingdom that has ruled under the king for so long, and we haven’t seen the light of day when it comes to an election there?

JONES: Yeah. Well, Saudi Arabia reintroduced what they call municipal council elections in 2005. This will be the third election in a decade for these seats. They’re mostly marginal. They have no real authority. When I was last in Saudi Arabia, much of the discussion about them, and I met with several of those members who were elected in Riyadh, as well as in the Eastern province, most of them were fully aware that these were not meaningful political offices. Primarily responsible for things like garbage collection.

What’s most notable about this election, though, is that women have been both allowed to run as candidates and to vote. So we’ll see what kind of turnout is expected. Historically in these elections Saudi Arabia has not enjoyed tremendous participation. I expect it will be the same. And I don’t have any expectation that women will enjoy much in the way of a favorable return, although perhaps one or two candidates will be elected in some districts.

PERIES: Toby, this is very interesting. Do you think this is an effort to try to legitimize the kingdom and make it look more like the UK, where you could have a king and a royal family governing, and yet they could interface with democracy in some way?

JONES: No. No, this is a response to internal political pressure that emerged, not for the first time, it emerged most powerfully about 12 or 13 years ago following 9/11. It was the rise of the Saudi reform lobby, which pressured the then-crown prince Abdullah and King Fahd to steer through–I mean, some people suggested a constitutional monarchy. But they were imprisoned. There was no way the royal family was going to entertain a British model for their own, for their own system.

So the elections that are being held now for the municipal council seats were really a kind of a very minor concession. It was more cosmetic than anything. But what was meaningful about it was that it was a response not to external pressure, but to internal pressure. That the Saudis have maintained it is interesting. But I think they maintain it only because it’s not threatening and is not meaningful at all. So this doesn’t reflect any kind of serious effort on the part of the royal family or the power brokers to–that are really important inside Saudi Arabia to tinker with or to reengineer the political order. It’s a cosmetic, a cosmetic gadget, if you will.

PERIES: And what do you make of the efforts on the part of women that are now fighting to have roles in the domestic court system, for example to have women judges making declarations on domestic conflict and violence, and so on?

JONES: Well you know, look. Women activists in Saudi Arabia have, for quite a long time, been the most forceful and vocal and best-organized, who have taken aim at what they see as elements of an unjust system. We don’t need to state how much Saudi women seek to overthrow the Saudi political order entirely. Rather, you know, many have sought access, opportunities to participate.

And they–I think they’re dangerous. I think this is the third–I think they’re dangerous from the perspective of power, not from my perspective, but from the view from inside Saudi Arabia, they’re seen as problematic. The state has responded favorably in some instances, but in other instances it continues to be quite draconian in how it integrates or chooses not to integrate women’s political voices and to expand rights.

I do think, though, that Saudi women have raised some of the most fundamentally important questions that the kingdom has struggled with with respect to its political system. Not necessarily with respect to terrorism or regional war, or those kinds of questions. But about whether the current order of things is sustainable, or whether it’s likely to crumble, has less to do with ideology and more to do with who gets to participate, where the actual brainpower in Saudi Arabia resides, who’s best-educated, who’s best-prepared to handle 21st-century challenges in Saudi Arabia, such as the end of oil, environmental crises that the country faces, climate change and other things, often come from the voices of women.

PERIES: Yes, and you see some of those videos where some prominent Saudi women are actually unveiled and speaking out about what’s happening within the country. And I think those are very important moves.

JONES: Let me just add one thing. We tend to want to see this through the lens of Western feminism, right, that these are women demanding women’s rights. And I think Saudi women are demanding rights for themselves, but they’re demanding greater political rights. They’re primarily political activists who are pushing back against the autocracy that just happens to exclude them and a whole bunch of other folks. What they’re doing is remarkable. It deserves more attention, I think, collectively from us, than the kind of scaremongering and fearmongering about Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia as a pernicious actor.

PERIES: Yeah. I couldn’t agree with you more, Toby. It’s very heartening to see how active the Saudi women have been, actually, even at the COP21 conference against their own government. They are getting out there as well. So thank you for making that very important point.

And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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