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In Saudi Arabia, ‘Change Is Coming, but It’s Not Going to Come Quickly’

September 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Saudi Arabia held elections for seats to some 300 municipal councils on Thursday, but only men were allowed to vote. Margaret Warner discusses politics in the region where women will soon be able to vote, but still can't drive with GlobalPost's Caryle Murphy.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret Warner has the second part of our Arab spring update.

MARGARET WARNER: Now to the key power on the Arab Peninsula, Saudi Arabia, which in word and deed has expressed its misgivings about popular dissent in the region.

At the same time, the kingdom is looking for ways to let some steam out of the political pressure cooker. Today, it held elections for seats to some 300 municipal councils. But only men were allowed to vote, and turnout was low.

To explore all this, we turn to Caryle Murphy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The Washington Post. She is now a fellow at the Wilson International Center for Scholars and has just returned from three years in Saudi Arabia for GlobalPost.

And nice to see you again, Caryle.

CARYLE MURPHY, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Nice to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: So fair to say that Saudi Arabia is still doing whatever it can to prevent infection from the Arab spring, from — whether it’s to its own neighbors, like Bahrain, or at home?

CARYLE MURPHY: Absolutely.

I mean, it was very rattled by all these events earlier in the year, especially by the downfall of Mubarak. And so it came up with certain strategies. One of them was, as your report said, to send troops into Bahrain.

A second one was to give a $130 billion financial package of benefits to the citizens, including things like unemployment insurance. And I would say a third thing was the king’s surprise announcement Sunday that he’s decided to appoint women to what is now an all-male advisory council called the Majlis Al-Shura, and, in four years from now, to allow women to vote in the same election as the men held today for municipal council.

MARGARET WARNER: So is he responding to a level of discontent, at least among Saudis who aren’t members of the royal family? You have just spent three years there.

CARYLE MURPHY: Definitely.

I mean, many, many Saudis are very happy with the royal family. They do not want the royal family overthrown. But many of those Saudis also want more participation in their own government. That’s why we saw earlier this year four or five petitions signed by a wide array of the population, from secularists to Islamists, asking for a constitutional monarchy. And the government so far has not indicated that it’s willing to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, now, take these municipal councils. This is only the second time they have had these elections. At least they were open to all men, yet, from all reports, the turnout was pretty low. Now, is that because people are — you just said they’re not satisfied with their level of participation. Or is it because they’re — they’re — they think these councils are meaningless?

I mean, what explains that?

CARYLE MURPHY: I think a large explanation for the low turnout today is that these councils have not really proven to be effectual at all. They’re not given big budgets. They’re not given power. And I think the Saudis, you know, saw that last time when they were elected, they didn’t have much power to do anything, so why should they vote again?

And I must say, also, not every male is allowed to vote in this. Certain — you have to be at least 21, and you cannot be a member of the police or security.

MARGARET WARNER: So, fair to say that these municipal councils are nothing like a city council we might know in the United States?

CARYLE MURPHY: No, no, really. They are mostly to give advice to city officials and maybe to make decisions about festivals.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you mentioned that, over the weekend, the king did say that, four years from now, women can vote in these elections. What most people also know a lot about here in the States are all the other restrictions on women, whether it’s their right to vote or the right to dress certain ways.

The king also made an interesting move today about a woman who had been sentenced to 10 lashes for daring to drive. Tell us about that and what that means.

CARYLE MURPHY: Well, the king’s announcement Sunday is potentially historic, and whether or not it is…

MARGARET WARNER: About voting.

CARYLE MURPHY: About voting and about participating in the Majlis.

And whether it becomes historic and important and landmark will depend on how it is implemented. Now, how it’s going to be implemented is important because it’s going to run up against the country’s strict gender segregation and the system called guardianship, where a man – a male relative has to give permission for anything important a woman does outside the home.

Now, two days after the king said this, a judge in Jeddah imposed this sentence of 10 lashings on one of the women who was participating in this grassroots campaign to lift the ban on female drivers. This was seen by many people as sort of a slap at the king by someone who didn’t like what he did on Sunday.

MARGARET WARNER: Oh.

CARYLE MURPHY: So…

MARGARET WARNER: So the judge reacting to the king?

CARYLE MURPHY: It’s possible. It’s very much possible, because it’s the harshest sentence meted out to any woman driver since this campaign began in June.

And the king made clear that he wasn’t going to tolerate that. And a day later, reports, which are pretty accurate, I think, say that he has vacated that sentence.

MARGARET WARNER: So, does this tell you, though, that the king really one, wants to and, two, can drive a greater kind of liberalization for women’s rights in general, or is that going too far?

CARYLE MURPHY: The king is, obviously, one of the progressives in the royal family. He knows the challenges Saudi is facing, especially when it comes to modernization and advancing women.

But he has a very, very conservative population to take care of and a very conservative religious establishment. So he doesn’t want to — he wants to drag them along. He doesn’t want to make them so angry that they become even more openly in dissent to him.

MARGARET WARNER: So, bottom line here, what do you think the prospects of for just great political liberalization of Saudi Arabia, period, for men and women? I mean, you said people that you know there want more political participation, but are they angry, upset enough to demand it?

CARYLE MURPHY: I think that, because Saudi Arabia has to integrate even more than it already is with the rest of the world, it cannot stay the same.

Change is coming, but it’s not going to come quickly. It’s going to be maybe a decade or two before you see an elected parliament there. That’s what I think.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you for sharing what you think. Caryle Murphy, thanks so much.

CARYLE MURPHY: Nice to be here.