Don't celebrate Saudi women gaining the right to vote

Public political dissent is illegal in Saudi Arabia, which is rated as “Not Free” in Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties; Saudi Arabia is a mainstay of the 10 worst-scoring countries in the world. Citizens that even hint that political and human rights should be expanded have been tried as terrorists within a judiciary system that is closely aligned with the monarchy.

Meanwhile, elections have limited impact, to put it mildly. Political decision-making revolves around the King, who appoints his own cabinet and then ratifies the legislation that the body passes. Decision-making bodies like the Majlis al-Shura, the king-appointed 150-member consultative council, act in a consultative capacity. Local municipal elections were introduced in 2005. Half of the seats on these councils are determined by vote, and the other half by royal appointment. The votes that women will now have, then, are good for half of the seats for a largely advisory group in a system completely dominated by the palace…

All this means that while the Saudi government has touted the inclusion of women in municipal elections as a step forward in a larger process toward enhanced women’s rights, the idea of incremental change is a myth given the thoroughly closed nature of the Saudi system.