Country Report Saudi Arabia May 2011

The political scene: Election fever fails to mount

The upcoming municipal elections, in which will see half of the members of the kingdom's councils elected in late September, are attracting criticism within the country. In particular, differences have arisen over the exclusion once again of women from voting, despite support for this step by the municipal and rural affairs minister, Mansour bin Mitab al-Saud. The official reason is the need for separate voting booths for women, a problem that the passing of six years has seemingly not been able to overcome. However, the mayor of Riyadh, Abdel-Aziz al-Ayyaf (an appointee of the governor of Riyadh province, Salman bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud), stated in April that he might allow women to participate in the election in the capital, although he lacks the legal authorisation to do so. Meanwhile, the National Society for Human Rights (ostensibly a non-governmental organisation, although the government authorised its founding) has responded to the exclusion of women voters by announcing that it will not be monitoring the poll. Consequently, it has, unusually, been strongly criticised by the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs.

It is likely that, regardless of the issue of women voting, turnout on September 22nd will once again be low, given the lack of powers afforded to the municipal councils and the largely apolitical nature of many Saudis. The turnout in Qateef, which was unusually high last time around, will be particularly closely watched. It appears that disaffection is growing in the Shia town and more widely among Eastern Province's Shia community over their leadership's co-option under King Abdullah, especially in the wake of the aggressive putting down of recent Shia protests. In late April a leading religious and political figure among the Saudi Shia community, Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, previously known as a supporter of the national dialogue launched by King Abdullah in 2003, publicly condemned those who he said support revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world but do not criticise the harsh treatment of Shia in Qateef.

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