When Saudi Arabia announced it will held municipal elections last year, the world was anticipating what would come out of the first ever elections at the conservative kingdom. Some observers, as well as some Saudis, were disappointed that half members of the new councils would be installed by the government, however, most Saudis think it is still a good first step towards democracy and reform. Women were excluded from the elections due to what the organizers called “logistics problems.” This excuse was not accepted by the people, but the organizers said they were committed with a deadline by the government and if they were to include women, they would not stick to the deadline. They also said women would participate in the next elections on 2009. Here is a quick review to the elections, and the most interesting moments of this event.
The first stage of elections took place in the central region, were the capital Riyadh is located, on February this year. The competition was tough, and about 150000 voters had only 12 days to choose only 7 out of 646 candidates, who has come from different backgrounds, ideologies and professions. The feeling of being in Riyadh during the electoral campaigns was weird because all streets of the city were filled with posters carrying faces of candidates, while usually human faces on billboards are blurred because the extreme teachings of Wahabism do not allow such thing. When results were announced, it was not surprising that liberals could not win a single seat. The seven winners in Riyadh were labeled by the press as “mild” Islamists. Before the elections began, I thought that money could provide an easy win to some candidates but I was wrong. The perfect example for this was the young wealthy real estate man Hasan Al-Mahdi. It was rumored he spent more than $5.3m, but that was not enough to give him a place in the new council.
The second stage, which took place in the eastern and southern part of the country, was more intriguing because lessons from the first stage were learned, and also because these two regions, especially the eastern region where they are the majority, have some Shiites minorities. Shiites, who were discriminated against along the history of the kingdom, wanted take the chance of the elections to prove their existence, and to share in the process of making decisions. They coordinated their efforts, and were very organized. Shiites candidates dominated the elections in the major cities of Hassa (aka Al-Ahssa) and Qateef, winning 11 out of 12 seats. However, even Shiites represent a large portion of population in Dammam, the capital of the eastern province, no Shiite candidate won there. Not even Ehsan Bu-Hlaiga, a famous financial figure and a former member of Shoura Council. Observers said this was because, unlike what happened in other cities, Sunnis in Dammam were coordinated enough to prevent it. There was some rumors about lists backed by religious scholars, but this did not seem to affect the elections the same way it did later in Jeddah.
As I come from Hassa, I participated in this stage of elections, and I was proud to be a part of this historical event. The process of registering and voting was clean, easy and quick (both took me less than five minutes). My only regret is that I had not the chance to attend most of the campaigns. However, I read a lot, and talked to many people in order to make my decision. According to MOMRA statistics, the majority of voters were people, like me, from the young generation, aged 21-24 years. However, not all young men had the same enthusiasm about the elections. “What elections? No thanks, not for me,” was an expression heard over and over during the registration period.
The last stage, which ended recently, took place in the western and northern regions. The elections in the major city of Jeddah was surrounded by controversy, as the seven members of a so-called “Golden List” dominated the elections. The “Golden List,” which included seven Islamist candidates, was backed by religious figures, and was circulated in SMS and internet forums. Losing candidates complained, saying the way clerics influenced the elections was unacceptable and illegal. “Next elections I will have to grow a beard in order to get elected,” a candidate who lost told the Associated Press.
In the northern region, there were some minor surprises, especially in the ultraconservative area of Qaseem, where it was expected that Islamists would gain an easy win. However, the list of winners included many businessmen and civil servants. Some people could not believe it, but I think such elections would always carry surprises.
In general, the elections were transparent and clean, but people in some regions (especially central region) were less enthusiastic about it than in other regions (eastern and western). Now the elections have ended, People of Saudi Arabia are looking forward to these councils to improve their everyday life. People are also looking forward to the day when these elections are fully elected, and to have a fully elected parliament. They are neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but they hope change is coming as soon as possible.