- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Women are turning out to be an invisible force in Saudi Arabia’s first election in more than 40 years, a two-month process that begins Thursday with local balloting in the capital, Riyadh.

Women will not be permitted to participate in the elections, which come after international pressure to democratize in a conservative kingdom, where political parties are banned and the press is restricted by the government.

But the daily newspaper Al-Iqtisadiah last week cited a survey that found 20 percent of the men who registered to vote in the Eastern Province had been persuaded to do so by their wives.

Bandar Al-Saleh, who is running for a seat in the Riyadh Municipal Council, told The Washington Times that women’s concerns are foremost among his campaign pledges, which range from improving home pickup of trash to establishing safe and clean public exercise areas.

Mr. Al-Saleh, who receives visitors from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily in a 10,000-square-foot tented and carpeted area near a major highway, said he has formed a team of 25 women who go door-to-door to speak to women in his district and ask about their concerns.

Cardamom-flavored Arabic coffee and dates are served to visitors during the day, while evening visitors get a lamb-and-rice extravaganza.

“I’m not a rich businessman,” Mr. Al-Saleh said. “I’m a real estate manager who is trying to improve the lives of my constituents.”

The three-stage elections — which start in the capital Thursday, followed by balloting in the Eastern Province in March and ending in the Western region on April 21 — are seen as a response to both internal and external pressures.

The September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington by mostly Saudi terrorists proved a turning point for the Al-Saud ruling royal family, who realized the need to devolve some of its power to the people after ruling the country as an absolute monarchy for more than 70 years.

President Bush has been publicly and privately pressing the kingdom to adopt political reforms for the past two years, with his latest prod coming during his State of the Union address Wednesday night.

“The government of Saudi Arabia can enhance its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining its future,” Mr. Bush said.

The elections have provided a platform for candidates like Dhafer Al-Yami, who is running for the Riyadh council on an anti-corruption platform. A lawyer by profession, Mr. Al-Yami is calling for financial transparency and accountability in municipal affairs.

Candidates are barred from advertising on television and radio, which has proved a bonanza for local newspapers that are full of color advertisements for the various candidates. Most ads feature a photo of the candidate along with his main campaign pledges.

Many also carry Web site addresses and the candidates’ mobile phone numbers so voters can reach them directly.

There is no cap on how much candidates may spend on their campaigns, but they are not allowed to accept donations or financing from outside sources.

There are more than 600 candidates vying for seven seats on the 14-seat Riyadh council. The other half of the seats will be filled by government appointees.

But some Saudis are cynical of the whole electoral process, calling it too little, too late.

“What municipal elections are you talking about?” said one U.S.-educated academic who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Do you really think that they will make a difference?”

Only 150,000 men registered in Riyadh to vote in the elections, out of 400,000 qualified to vote in the Riyadh region.

Some have blamed the lackluster response on a government deemed reluctant to advocate the devolution of some of its powers, and to the fact that democracy is still a novel concept here.

It remains to be seen how much power the municipal councils will have, and whether the government will heed calls by leading Saudi women to appoint women to the councils.

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