Advancing a Free Society

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Women’s Suffrage in Saudi Arabia

Monday, October 10, 2011

(This post appears in full at The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Saudi Arabia has not been immune to the demands for change sweeping the Arab world. On September 25, 2011, King Abdullah announced that within the next few years women would be appointed to the Consultative Council and be allowed to vote and run for the municipal councils. But is this a significant advancement for Saudi women's rights, or just another instance of the kingdom’s "two steps forward, one step back" reform policy?

The so-called Arab Spring raised expectations for liberalization and democratic growth throughout the Middle East. Observers also expected such developments in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The royal family responded to the challenge primarily by using its massive oil wealth to distribute funds to its subjects via salary increases, housing subsidies and several other programs totaling about $120 billion. Demonstrations were rare, limited primarily to the minority Shiite population in the Eastern Province.

But while it seems that nearly no Saudis seriously entertain the notion of replacing the monarchy with democracy, demands for change appear regularly and have intensified as a result of the demonstrations in the region that began in late 2010. These demands have tended to focus on greater participation in decision making and on women’s rights, as for many modern Saudis, the current status of women in the kingdom is an embarrassment.

On September 25, 2011, King Abdullah announced that women would eventually be appointed to the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) and, beginning in 2015, would be allowed to vote and run for municipal councils. But is this really a step forward for women in Saudi Arabia?

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