- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

DAVOS, Switzerland - A top Saudi diplomat and member of the royal family pre- dicted that women will be allowed to vote in future elec- tions, giving women in the strictly segregated Islamic nation a political voice for the first time.

The Saudi government has responded to international pressure to democratize the Middle East by promising municipal elections across the nation, with the first stage on Feb. 10 in the capital, Riyadh. The elections, in which only men can participate, will be the first since the 1960s, when local polls were held in a few cities.

Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the country’s former intelligence chief and current ambassador to Britain, said late Friday that the United States, France, Switzerland and many other countries waited many years after giving men the right to vote before extending that privilege to women.

“Since this is our first election, probably we will be better and have women vote the next time around,” he said after a dinner on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum.

Abdulrahman Al-Tuwaijri, secretary-general of Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Economic Council, said the law adopted for the municipal elections “doesn’t make any distinction between the voter, between men and women.”

“It just says a voter in a very neutral sense,” he said.

Mr. Al-Tuwaijri said he thinks the voting right for women “is coming” because the organizers of the municipal elections said the only obstacle to female participation was “organizing the places, how they vote.”

“It’s not because the law doesn’t allow,” he said.

“I think [in] the next election, women will be there, so it’s a big step, yes,” Mr. Al-Tuwaijri said.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with an unelected consultative council that acts like a parliament. Political parties are banned, and press freedom is limited.

But the elections for the municipal councils will give Saudi men the chance to participate — if only in a limited manner — in decision making.

The Saudi government announced in October that women could not compete or vote in the elections, dashing the hopes of progressive Saudis, including some women who had planned to run for office.

Some women saw the move as acquiescing to conservative fears that the kingdom is moving too fast on reforms and considered it yet another indignity in a country where they need their husbands’ permission to study, travel or work.

About 150,000 men have registered to vote on Feb. 10. Polling in the eastern and southwestern regions will start March 3. Voters in northern parts of the country will cast ballots April 21.

Prince Turki did not indicate whether women might vote in the later municipal elections or in subsequent elections, possibly at the regional and national level.

For women to vote, registration centers and polling stations operated solely by women would be needed, and women would require photo identity cards.

Many women in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and ruled by Shariah law, have balked at getting the ID cards — introduced three years ago — because the photographs would show their faces unveiled.

Women are allowed to vote in most other Middle East countries where elections are held and men vote, including Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt.

In Kuwait, where women serve in senior government posts, there has been a long tug of war over women’s suffrage. Despite support by the emir, tribal conservatives and religious extremists have blocked attempts in parliament to amend a more than 40-year-old law restricting to men the right to vote and run for office.

Hanaa Alsyead, general manger of Olayan Financing Co., which has its headquarters in Riyadh, said the prospect of women voting in future elections in Saudi Arabia was “excellent” but that the matter should be decided soon to give time to prepare.

For the municipal vote, she said, “there were no facilities made for women to go and vote.”

“We stand by our men, and we have trust in them,” she said. “Next time we’ll vote. It’s simple as that — [Prince Turki] said it.”

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