RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia held its second nationwide vote ever on Thursday, a male-only election for powerless municipal councils. The balloting comes just days after the king decreed that women will be able to participate for the first time in the next local elections in 2015, a measure likely aimed at heading off Arab Spring-style dissent in the kingdom.
The election and Sunday’s decree to give women the vote are two examples of the baby steps King Abdullah has been taking to reform and modernize his oil-rich nation since he ascended the throne in 2005. Though small, they are significant by the standards of his ultraconservative country — home to Islam’s holiest shrines and vastly influenced by the clerical establishment.
Still the reforms signal the ruling family is not ready for deep change, even as popular uprisings are transforming the face of an Arab world long accustomed to absolute monarchs — like the Saudi king — dictators and fraudulently elected leaders.
“They are glacial changes,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Center in Doha, Qatar, said of the recent decree on women. “But King Abdullah is the only man who can push change. Unfortunately, it has been too slow.”
The Saudi kingdom is nowhere close to any of its Arab neighbors, not even those in the conservative Gulf region, when it comes to basic rights, freedoms and gender equality. The king rules with absolute power and shows zero tolerance for political dissent.
The ruling Al-Saud family has a near monopoly on top government posts and does not answer to anyone outside the family. Women are barred from driving and they cannot be members of the Cabinet. They cannot travel either, be admitted to hospital or take a job without permission from a male guardian.
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the king’s announcement giving women the right to vote. U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement that Ban “believes that these represent an important step in the realization by women in Saudi Arabia of their fundamental civil and political rights.”
If giving women the right to vote was hailed as a courageous step by the king, some saw it as almost purely symbolic.
“It was a bold and unexpected move,” said blogger Eman al-Nafjan. “It is a start, but what we really need are reforms that improve women’s lot in their everyday life.”
Official turnout figures were not available for Thursday’s vote. But Saudi media and activists said it was a small slice of the 1.2 million registered voters, a possible reflection of the insignificance Saudis attach to the toothless local councils that operate in the shadow of provincial governments led by powerful members of the ruling Al-Saud family.
Some 5,000 people ran for the more than 1,000 seats on 285 councils across the kingdom. The voters elected half the members of the councils, the other half will be appointed by the government.
The local council vote was initially scheduled for 2009 but was postponed. The first one was in 2005.
Abdullah, 88 and known to have health problems, is hailed among many Saudis as a reformer because of several bold moves he has taken since coming to power. He set up the Shura, or consultative, council in 1993 and even though it is an advisory body, it allowed some popular voice in government. All 150 members of the all-male chamber are appointed by the king, but women will be appointed to sit on the council when it starts a new term in 2013.
The justice minister said in comments published Thursday that future female council members would not share the same chamber with male peers, suggesting that closed circuits could be used to allow them to participate in discussions. The arrangement would conform with the country’s rigid segregation of the sexes.
King Abdullah’s reform-minded policies are best evidenced in the education sector. He established the kingdom’s only university where men and women attend classes together — and in the economy, which he has significantly liberalized.
Saudi Arabia’s 18 million citizens are mostly conservative and, like their king, don’t want to see Western-style reforms change the traditions and customs of a society heavily inspired by the teachings of Islam.
Moreover, the Al-Saud family has had an enduring understanding with the powerful clergy that dates back to the early years of the last century, under which the clerics’ views are heard on what does and does not conform with Islam.
What the Saudi clerical establishment has to say is not only heard in the kingdom, but resonates across the predominantly Sunni Muslim Gulf region, where most follow the austere Wahhabi doctrine born in Saudi Arabia.
“What King Abdullah did for the women was practically throwing into the bin what his religious establishment had to say for years about women’s place in society,” said Sami Alfaraj, chairman of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “I suspect that more restrictions on women will be lifted, but the conservative nature of Saudi Arabia would not allow women to exercise all the rights they may win.”
It is against this backdrop that King Abdullah must tread carefully as he pursues even slow and gradual reforms: a powerful clergy, a conservative segment of the population, the high expectations of the majority of the population that is under 25 and guarding against a possible spillover from the Arab Spring revolts that could provide his subjects with models to follow.
The Saudi monarch has given contradictory signals on how he views the Arab Spring, dispatching military forces to neighboring Bahrain to prop up the ruling family there against a campaign for equal rights launched by the tiny nation’s Shiite majority. Last month, however, he withdrew his ambassador from Damascus in protest against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on anti-government protesters.
Hendawi reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.