Paul Pillar

The Old Man and the Women of Saudi Arabia

The decision by Saudi King Abdullah to grant women the right to vote and to run as candidates in local elections, as well as to appoint women to the national consultative council, the Majlis al-Shura, is a big deal—in the Saudi context, of course. In a kingdom where slow and incremental are the applicable adjectives to apply to any political change, this is one of the bigger changes. It not only is the right thing to do in terms of human rights but also represents the sort of top-down reform that, if it can continue long enough before the Saudi system succumbs to either its own fragility or Arab Springtime winds blowing in from neighboring countries, may help to save the kingdom from some very unattractive scenarios.

Some, including Saudi women themselves, have contrasted this move regarding municipal elections and the Majlis al-Shura with the fact that women in Saudi Arabia still cannot legally drive cars. The issue of driving has gotten increased attention lately, with a few women flouting the law in protest. The ability to drive would have far more immediate effect on the daily lives of Saudi women than the announced political changes. But over the longer term participation in a political process, even in a toothless consultative council, has the potential to draw increased attention to a wider range of possible social reforms.

King Abdullah has shown repeatedly that he recognizes the need for significant change in the system that he heads if that system is to survive. He currently represents the best hope for would-be Saudi reformers. His sense of the direction Saudi Arabia must go is represented most visibly in the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2009. It is the kingdom's first mixed-gender university. The religious police do not operate there, veil-less women attend classes alongside men and women can even (unlike on public streets) drive on campus. One of the main sources of resistance to Abdullah pushing the envelope of social reform any harder than he already has comes from within the royal family, including elements of it that for their own reasons have formed alliances with the conservative religious hierarchy.

Abdullah's other big limitation is his age; he is 87. Next in line for the throne are some of those same elements that are less partial to reform, including his ailing half-brother Sultan and Sultan's not-as-old and not-so-ailing full brother Nayef, the longtime interior minister. Saudi Arabia is one Middle Eastern country whose political future will rest, just as much as those of secular, non-monarchical dictatorships, on the health and other vagaries of individual leaders. We should all wish King Abdullah an unusually long life.