Considering the great emphasis that the United States and the administration of president George W. Bush are placing on promoting political reform and democracy in the Middle East, as their panacea for the anti-American feeling throughout the Muslim world, one might have expected more fuss about the holding of historic elections in the Saudi kingdom, the tribal state currently administering the Hijaz, site of the holiest places in Islam. The country’s first elections for more than 40 years, the first stage of a three-phase election process for members of municipal councils, took place in the Riyadh region on February 10.
Despite a mild effort to promote the elections in the international media, interest quickly fizzled out as it became clear that they were so limited as to be meaningless, and impossible even for the most enthusiastic supporter of Bush to seriously present as grounds for celebration. Even an attempt to raise controversy over the results of the elections, saying that the seven candidates who were elected were Islamists -- briefly raising reminders of the Algerian elections in 1991, which were aborted when it became clear that FIS, the Islamic party, would win -- came to nothing, given the general scepticism and indifference to the political process.
The problems with the elections can be seen at two levels, firstly the extremely limited nature of the reforms introduced to the Saudi system, and secondly the problems of western- style processes of political liberalisation and democratisation in Muslim countries generally. The polls in Riyadh stem from a process of political restructuring that was first announced in October 2003, when the government said it would put half of all municipal council seats up for election within a year. Little more was heard about it until the following summer, when vague election rules were announced in August, followed by a timetable for elections in October 2004. International attention immediately focused on the question of whether women would be permitted to vote. The elections rules were gender-neutral and deliberately vague. It was later clarified that women would not be permitted to vote because of what the authorities described as procedural grounds: the election rules said that voting would be limited to holders of Saudi identity cards, which very few women have because they do not need them in a system where everything is determined by the male members of families.
However, the focus on the question of whether women would vote distracted attention from even more fundamental issues. The first of these was that they are only for local municipal councils, which have extremely limited powers, even at the local level; real power still rests with governors appointed by the central government. The new councils will be able to discuss issues such as the state of local roads, street lighting and sewers, without taking any decisions or getting involved with “higher politics”, as one Saudi official was quoted as saying. Even so, only half of the seats on these municipal councils would be elected; the other half would continue to be appointed by the government.
The second problem with the polls as announced was that women were by no means the only people excluded from voting. Although the formal election rules stated only that voting would be open to all males who were not in the military and who had lived in their constituency for at least a year, this excluded huge numbers of people, as the vast majority of people in the country are not full citizens because of the strict tribal rules on who can be a citizen. The result was that out of a population of 24 million, only 3 million were eligible to take part in the elections. Even in this small electorate, interest has been negligible. Only about 140,000 of the 600,000 eligible voters in the Riyadh region bothered to register, and official figures suggest that only about 70 percent of these actually went to the polls, giving an effective turn-out of about 16 percent of eligible voters (who were themselves only about 12.5 percent of the country’s population). This is hardly a massive endorsement of a process widely described as a significant turning point in the country’s political history.
This general indifference to the elections -- despite international reports of intense and idiosyncratic styles of campaigning by candidates -- clearly shows that the vast majority of people in Saudi Arabia know better than to expect the cosmetic political reforms to effect any real change in the structures of power in the country. They have clearly realised for themselves what academic analysts of processes of political change in Arab countries have long argued but Western politicians, commentators and journalists refuse to acknowledge: that top-down political reforms in Arab countries, as previously seen in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait, for example, serve only to adjust and refine the channels through which existing regimes exercise their power, rather than constituting any broadening of political involvement or transfer of power to the people.
Contrary to popular perception, the politics of authoritarian and oligarchic countries are no less complex than those of open and pluralistic political systems. The power in these systems still needs to be negotiated, allocated, channelled and administered. It tends to be controlled by elite institutions such as ruling parties, the military and the bureaucracy; in Saudi Arabia the royal family can be thought of as the ruling party, which firmly controls both the military and the bureaucracy. Other sectors in society, to achieve their objectives, be they selfish or altruistic, need to deal with these state institutions, mainly by lobbying them for influence and patronage. The institutions support whichever of these sectors acquiesce in the existing system, without challenging the established order. Well administered, such a system leaves plenty of room for particular sectors within society to engage in informal and back-door politics for their own ends, in the cases of businessman and economic elites, and even for what they genuinely regard as the common good of society as a whole, as in the case of professional groups, academic and civil society institutions, and so on.
In this situation, political reforms such as those that the West is encouraging in Arab countries, in the name of freedom and democratisation, do not in fact result is anything like popular sovereignty or representative and accountable government. Instead, democratic-style institutions, called councils and parliaments, and often involving some sort of limited elections, contested by established social elites re-organised as rudimentary political parties, simply become fresh channels for interaction between the same established political institutions, and the same social and economic elites, as previously negotiated influence and power through other means (many of which also remain in place).
This is why the vast majority of those who are running for election in Saudi Arabia are businessmen or professionals with agendas to pursue. As one Saudi commentator told the Guardian newspaper, “there some who think they can do something, and [others] who see a business opportunity.” One wealthy property developer in Riyadh, Hassan al-Mahdi, reportedly spent $1 million of his own money trying to be elected to one of the seven council seats up for election in the capital; he failed.
Another advantage of this situation for the established regimes is that it tends to absorb wider political protests and demands. Where genuinely popular political movements have taken the new institutions at face value, and tried to work through them, such as the Islamic movements that have become political parties in Egypt and Jordan, they have been absorbed into the system instead of managing to enforce any significant change in it. By accepting the rules of the systems, they have legitimised the authoritarian regimes’ claims to be introducing reforms, and emasculated themselves in the process. In return for the minuscule and cosmetic changes they achieve within the system, they are forced to abandon their condemnation of the system as a whole and any aspirations to overthrowing it. They also open themselves up to political patronage from the elites, in return for which individuals who may have entered politics with the most genuine and sincere of intentions find themselves increasingly unable to rock the boat.
The ubiquity of this sort of political reform in the Middle East, and the fact that Western countries continue to celebrate it despite its evident failure to deliver any of the ideals they claim to uphold, suggest that it is being deliberately promoted as an acceptable alternative to the dangers of really permitting Muslim peoples to determine their own governments and policies. It is difficult to imagine governments all over the region, and the Saudis in particular, discovering the benefits and acceptability of this sort of approach without it being made crystal clear to them by their Western masters. The people of Arabia seem not to have been fooled by this deception, for the time being at least. Whether any meaningful alternative political approach exists for addressing the problem of the Saudis’ control over the Arabian Peninsula (especially the Hijaz) remains to be seen.