Low registration for first-ever women vote in Saudi Arabia

Friday 28/08/2015

LONDON - Registration for Saudi Ara­bia’s December 12th mu­nicipal elections got off to a slow start, despite the fact that women will be allowed to seek office and vote for the first time in the kingdom’s history.

Low voter registration has been attributed to many voters hav­ing previously registered for other elections. They only have to regis­ter again in the case of a change in address. The scorching heat of the kingdom’s summer has also been blamed, along with voter apathy.

Hamad al-Omar, spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, admitted to Al-Riyadh newspaper, that voter registration was slow but said he believed that it would pick up. Registration is to end September 12th.

“It is difficult to judge from the first day, especially in light of the participation of women and the greater number of candidates. We are optimistic that the participation of women will boost voter turnout,” he said.

The late king Abdullah bin Abdul- Aziz Al Saud granted women the right to vote in a royal decree in 2011 and in the following year, the kingdom announced that women would have the opportunity to run as candidates in the 2015 elections.

“It is about time,” businesswom­an and publisher Bayan Essam, 31, said. “It will be interesting to see women influence on the mu­nicipalities affairs, not only that women have strong opinions, they are also very efficient and they get things done.”

However, some in the kingdom’s female populace are less hopeful, “It is a positive step, but I can’t help thinking to myself the women in the US got this privilege almost 100 years ago,” said Lena Ahmed, a 32-year-old marketing executive in Jeddah.

“While considered a progressive act, granting women only some opportunities in political participa­tion is not enough to ensure Saudi women’s stance in public life,” she said.

“Nevertheless, we are opti­mistic. It is a sign of progress in a coun­try with a strict system over women and their rights. We hope this step in the right direction will open doors for women in Saudi civil so­ciety,” she added.

Echoing similar sentiments, an editorial by a Human Rights Watch researcher lauded the move and emphasised that it “sends an im­portant message to all sectors of Saudi society: That women, as well as men, have a stake in the country and are qualified to make decisions that affect the public interest.”

However, the organisation recommends that, in order for women’s rights in the kingdom to make serious headway, authorities should scrap the male guardianship system, which it described as a ma­jor obstacle for meaningful progres­sion.

According to local reports, the kingdom has set up 1,263 registra­tion centres in 284 different munic­ipalities, with a capacity to cater to 4 million voters.

Jamal Al-Saadi and Safinaz Abu Al-Shamat made history August 16th by becoming the first two Sau­di female registered voters for the elections.

Speaking to the English-language Saudi Gazette, Saadi, who regis­tered to vote in the holy city of Medina said: “The participation of the Saudi women in the municipal elections as voters and candidates was a dream for us.” She empha­sised that this would allow Saudi women to have a say in the deci­sion-making process.

Saudi Arabia had its first mu­nicipal elections in 1939 and again beginning in 1954. These efforts ceased in 1962. Following an initial burst of enthusiasm in 2005, voter participation fell, particularly after the 2009 contests were postponed until 2011.

In the September 2011 municipal elections about 1.2 million Saudi men were eligible to vote for 5,323 candidates vying for 2,112 council seats. But in Riyadh, only about 300,000 new voters bothered to register, a sharp drop from 800,000 registrants in 2005. Many Saudis cited a lack of transparency by mu­nicipal councils, access to public meetings and the perceived ineffec­tiveness of councils to implement policies for the decline in interest.

In Saudi Arabia women are for­bidden from driving and need a male guardian’s written permission to travel or work, which leaves fe­males in the kingdom in a state of perpetual codependency.

Despite this, according to gov­ernment statistics, more than half of Saudi university graduates are women. Since 2010 the number of employed Saudi women jumped 48%, more than twice the rate of the male counterparts.