JEDDAH – At least 20 female candidates captured municipal council seats in Saudi Arabia in stunning victories despite restrictive campaign rules and criticism from the religious establishment.
The victories accounted for a fraction of the 2,100 council seats on 284 councils nationwide and were seen by Western critics of the kingdom as modest gains at best. But the victories mark a significant repudiation of religious conservatives, including the popular cleric Abdul Aziz al-Fawzan, who argued that only men should vote and that having elections imported Western values.
“The religious conservatives are fully aware that the days of having their unlimited say in sustaining the obscurantist nature of their polity are numbered,” said Ehsan M. Ahrari, adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, Army War College in Pennsylvania, and who has researched Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Middle East. “But they, under no circumstances, will not go down without a fight.”
Women candidates faced huge disadvantages. Only 130,637 females registered to vote in contrast to 1.35 million men. Abdullatif al-Shaikh, minister of Rural and Municipal Affairs, said that 979 women ran among 6,917 candidates. In all, 702,542 voters cast ballots, representing an overall 47.4% voter turnout, according to Shaikh.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that many female winners won seats in traditionally conservative rural areas such as Tabuk in the remote north-west, where 80% of the registered female voters cast ballots and 44% of the registered men voted. Indeed, Saudi results reflected elections worldwide in which large voter turnouts, spurred by well-organised campaigns, could sweep in candidates often not favoured to win.
Among the newly elected council members were Salma Al-Oteibi in Madrakah; Hinuwf Al-Hazmi of Al-Jouf and Mona el-Emery and Fadhila al-Attawy, both of Tabuk. In Jeddah, where 80% of the registered women voters cast ballots, Rasha Hefzi and Lama al-Suleiman won council seats in separate districts. Elected members will comprise two-thirds of all councils.
Saudi journalist Maha Alqeel said the keys to the rural victories were the candidates’ well-run campaigns and knowledge of their communities.
“The wins have been in small towns and big cities,” Alqeel said. “Despite the media problems of getting out the vote, they are known in their local communities. Voters probably know them or know of them. In the end the voters looked at the person.”
Preliminary returns indicated that Hefzi claimed 131 votes in a field of eight women and ten men in the second district in Jeddah. She said her experience and name recognition swayed voters.
“Voters from previous elections know their communities and usually vote in groups and vote for people they know,” Hefzi said. “The most difficult part was entering those communities and promoting our programme and credentials and who we are.”
Municipal council campaigns are highly regulated, making efforts to spread candidates’ messages difficult. A tent is set up in a community and candidates have ten days to host events. Candidates also use street advertising, door-to-door canvassing, call centres and marketing techniques to get out the vote.
Rima al-Mukhtar, a social media and public relations specialist in Jeddah, said Hefzi and Suleiman have strong reputations in the community.
“Rasha is a big volunteer and she is a good reflection of the community she represents and Lama is very experienced and has worked in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. She will represent entrepreneurs,” Mukhtar said.
Election observers, both in the West and in Saudi Arabia, were sceptical that women would make much of a showing in the election. But Saudi women have come a long way in gaining male allies to run for public office since a 2005 poll by the Riyadh-based Asbar Centre for Studies, Research and Communications reported that 59% of the surveyed Saudis opposed women voting and 72.5% said they didn’t want them on municipal councils.
But a decade has made a difference. Hefzi said her strongest supporters were men. “Most of my votes were from men,” she said.
Municipal councils possess little power and have no control over funds. Councils serve in an advisory role to municipalities, which are responsible for garbage collection and park and road maintenance among similar tasks involving infrastructure.
The involvement of local municipal councils in keeping neighbourhoods maintained vary greatly from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.
Candidates argued that if women fit anywhere in the decision-making process in Saudi Arabia it’s at the municipal level in their own neighbourhoods where their children play and they shop for the family.
Hefzi said she sees her role as a council member to provide better communication between the council and their constituents. “We want to create an advocacy with a new structure on the council to hopefully have better plans,” she said. “I hope to have a very key role in developing better service and contact with the community. As an advisory council we should represent the voice of the public.”
Rob L. Wagner is an independent journalist and author covering Saudi Arabia for print and digital media. He currently writes for the London-based The Arab Weekly, which provides news analysis of the MENA region, and covers Islamic tourism for Thomson Reuters. His work has appeared in numerous English-language daily newspapers in the Gulf region, most notably in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Wagner was previously the managing editor for the Jeddah-based Arab News and Saudi Gazette daily newspapers. This website is an archive of his published articles and photos.