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Thu 29 Sep 2011 08:57 AM

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Men-only election shows limits of Saudi reform

Gulf kingdom bets $130bn of extra spending will keep Arab Spring from its door

Men-only election shows limits of Saudi reform
Saudi Arabia business

Saudi Arabia is excluding most adult citizens from Thursday’s
elections for municipal councils, betting that $130bn of extra spending will do
more to halt Arab unrest at the kingdom’s borders.

Women can’t vote or stand as candidates, and the councilors
chosen by Saudi men age 21 and over who aren’t in the military will enjoy few
powers. Still, the fact that the ballot is taking place is an advance from two
years ago, when the election was first due and King Abdullah postponed it.

In between came the Arab revolts - mass protests that
toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia and spread to Saudi neighbors Yemen
and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, holder of the world’s biggest oil reserves, has
relied chiefly on extra money for jobs and housing to ward off unrest.
Permitting today’s vote, only the second in half a century, may be another part
of that plan.

“The Saudi leadership is anxiously looking at what is
happening in the rest of the Arab world,” said Paul Sullivan, a political
scientist specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University in
Washington. “There are considerable unemployment and other social tensions in
the country. Holding these elections may be one of the leadership’s ways of
trying to calm some of those tensions.”

The jobless rate was 10 percent last year and the country
needs to create five million jobs for nationals by 2030, Labor Minister Adel
Faqih said in January. The country may cut oil output if falling prices
threaten the financing for its budget- stretching stimulus plan, HSBC Holdings
said this week.

Brent crude is trading at about $105 a barrel, down 15
percent from its 2011 high in April. HSBC forecasts an average price of $90 a
barrel next year, and that’s about the level that may prompt Saudi rulers to
reduce supplies, the bank’s head of Asian oil and gas research, Sonia Song,
said on Sept 26.

Saudi Arabia largely escaped this year’s Arab unrest, though
its benchmark Tadawul AllShare Index fell as much as 20 percent in February and
March as the revolts spread. Saudi rulers sent troops to Bahrain to help quell
demonstrations there.

There were some rallies in the mostly Shiite Muslim east of
Saudi Arabia, including in the village of al-Qatif where Mohammed al-Shayoukh
is standing.

In his campaign tent, as aides fire off messages on Facebook
and Twitter while tea is served at a stand outside, the candidate admits it has
been hard to generate voter interest.

“People were disappointed with the previous municipal
council,” elected in 2005, al-Shayoukh said in an interview. Still, he said,
the campaign is “the only election process that people can participate in” and
“a small window to make changes.”

If elected, he says he will work to mediate between the
people of al-Qatif and local authorities, and expand the “little power” that
the council currently has.

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More than one million Saudi men are registered to select
from 5,323 candidates for 1,632 council posts, according to the kingdom’s
elections commission. Ballot boxes open at 8 a.m. local time and close at 5
p.m.

Political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy
ranked as the least democratic country in the Middle East by the Economist
Intelligence Unit in its 2010 Democracy Index.

The role of the municipal councils involves scrutinizing and
discussing policy more than initiating or executing it, according to the
election commission at the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs.

The government is working on a revision of the guidelines
for council duties, said Hamad al-Omar, supervisor of public relations and
media at the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs. Any public disappointment
after the 2005 elections is down to the people who won them, he said.

 “People were looking
for results from the candidates,” al-Omar said in a Sept. 26 interview.
“Promises made by candidates weren’t met.”

To ensure a strong turnout, the commission is running
advertising campaigns in local newspapers. “Your voice is your duty,” said an
ad in Al-Riyadh newspaper.

The government needs to broaden participation and the role
of elected officials to engage more people, said Khalid al- Dakhil, a political
science professor at King Saud University. “We are only allowed to elect 50
percent of the members,” he said in phone interview. The government appoints
the rest.

When the last elections were held in 2005, Saudi forces were
battling al-Qaeda militants who were attacking foreign nationals and government
institutions and infrastructure.

 “The situation has
become more challenging, more in terms of the regional dynamic than a hardcore
internal al-Qaeda threat,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the
Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. Elections “may
satisfy potential domestic opposition and discontent.”

Some activists say they aren’t satisfied and won’t vote.
They include Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, president of the Human Rights First Society,
and Sayed Hassan al-Nemer, a prominent Shiite cleric.

Saudi women will be allowed to join in the next election,
due in 2015, as voters and candidates, King Abdullah said this week. Abdullah,
born in 1924, has promised to improve the status of women and opened the first
co-educational university in 2009.

“Giving women the right to vote and to run for office may
also be a strategy to reduce some of the social and political tensions,”
Sullivan said. “The leadership sees slow reform as the best, given the
conservative nature of most of Saudi society.”

Two days after the decision, two Saudi women were punished
for breaking the ban on female driving: One was arrested, and the other was
sentenced to 10 lashes by a court in Riyadh.

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