Reflections on the Direction of Gulf Elections

The following is not a rejection or an inspection of the direction of the recent Gulf elections; it is more of a resurrection of reflections, best served with a grain of salt.

(I was seriously not trying to rhyme but no non-tion words came to mind at the time)

Recently Saudi Arabia held its first elections that involved women. Anyone familiar with Saudi Arabia’s track record in regards to women knows how huge this is. I found this news strange. Saudi Arabia has not made many bold steps to reform itself politically. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, there is no parliament and there are no political parties. Which makes me wonder the direction Saudi Arabia is hoping to go with this.

True political reform requires restructuring from the ground up. You need a parliament and you need political parties at the very least if you hope to integrate society into the political sphere and I am positive that Saudis want to participate in such a process. But these recent elections were for the board of directors of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, whilst still an important job and a bold move with two women actually winning, I am looking at the larger picture. The “where do we go from here” picture.

Is this the first step in the kingdom for reform; a stepping stone towards introducing political participation on a parliamentary level? Was this a testing of the waters? Or was it, as part of me fears, a way to appease the United States and critics of its lack of political (and social) reform?

Not to be out-done, the UAE has announced plans for its first elections, a mind blowing step for the economically progressive gulf nation. They’ve made some small steps towards political reform in the last year or two, even having the first female minister, although she was a member of the royal family.

Of the 6 members in the GCC, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman, none have political parties and nearly all of them have parliaments which are strictly on an “advisory” or “consultive” level.

As quoted from the BBC article on the UAE’s decision to hold free elections:

The 40-member council serves only in an advisory capacity and has no legislative powers.

Sheikh Khalifa hopes the reforms will encourage political participation by citizens of the UAE.

However, the election will be limited to a number of citizens, appointed to local councils by the rulers of the seven emirates – who would then be able to choose half the membership of the national council.

The other half of the council will be appointed by the ruling families.

Kuwaiti women only recently were given rights to vote back in May through what was called the Blue Revolution, and I wondered then as I wonder now whether it was true reform or external influences. As quoted back then from a BBC article:

The cabinet’s insistence on voting on the women’s suffrage amendment took some lawmakers by surprise as they were expecting only to discuss moves to allow women limited participation in municipal elections due in 2009 [source]

I question these moves mostly because of the level of criticism some of these countries have recieved (especially Saudi Arabia) concerning their lack of political freedoms. Especially at a time when there is a war in Iraq and the western media’s spotlight is shining on the gulf nations in a rush to point out backwardness or the Bush administration’s double standards. This, it seems, has pushed the latter force to put a little pressure on its partners in the Gulf who showed little to no initiative in reforming from the get-go

We are all in the same boat more or less, some have it better than others but it’s all the same boat. Would the Muslim Brotherhood not win the elections today if Egypt decided to really hold free elections instead of throwing its members in prison? Many of the same problems the Gulf nations face resonate through out the Arab world as a whole, but I personally have a special envy towards Arab nations who have an abundence of wealth but lack little to no reform. It’s like blowing my tuition money on lottery tickets.

Western Democracy vs. Arab Democracy


  • In regards to the Saudi election, I dont think it makes a real difference. Window dressing. See, the bodies that these people are being elected to have no real power, so it isnt a big deal in the first place. Second, the women that are going to win these “elections” for bodies with no power are already part of the ruling elite, in one way or another. “wasta” connections is everything. Any independent women who ran would never win, even if she did, none of these bodies can make any real changes anyways.

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  • Abu Sinan, I agree with you and I hope that things will change for the better although that requires that most of these countries to abandon their shells behind entirely and not rennovate them.

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