Gulf's liberal shift is more than sop to Arab Spring

Canny GCC states Saudi, UAE see voting rights as step on the path to taxation
Gulf's liberal shift is more than sop to Arab Spring
Saudi Arabias King Abdullah granted women the right to vote for the first time in new ruling
By Reuters
Tue 27 Sep 2011 04:54 PM

The king of Saudi Arabia has lived up to his reformist reputation by giving women the right to vote in future elections.  A day earlier, neighbouring UAE held the country's second elections.

The changes mean both countries are still far from Western concepts of democracy and nearby revolutions, but the reforms have financial benefits too.

It is easy to pick holes. The right of Saudi women to vote and be part of municipal councils renders them as powerless as their male counterparts: elections only fill half the seats, which have limited powers to start with.

As it stands, women would still need a male driver to reach the polling station - though that may also change by the time they are allowed to exercise their new freedom, in 2015.

Next week's vote, which has been delayed since 2009, will remain a men-only affair.

Women, or at least some, were able to vote and run in the UAE elections for half of the 40-seat Federal National Council held at the weekend.

But the expanded electoral roll remained limited to just 129,000 of the population of roughly 1 million that count as Emirati nationals. And the authorities didn't give any clue on criteria of voting eligibility. Turnout was mere 28 percent.

But Saudi's decision to give women the vote and the UAE's earlier move to expand the electoral roll for its elections are more than sops to the Arab Spring. Bringing women into the political arena provides at least some hope they will be meaningfully involved later.

Furthermore, increasing representation is vital as the six Gulf oil exporting nations seek to reduce their economic dependence on oil.

There are plans to introduce a value-added tax by 2015. VAT at 5 percent could generate 6-9 percent of Gulf budgets, the bloc estimates.

At current rates of government spending and energy consumption, both the UAE and Saudi will eventually need to implement some type of income tax. The tiny steps to democracy in these Gulf countries are about insuring stability.

But they may also be financially prudent, as governments may have come to realise that taxation works better with representation.

(Una Galani is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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