Hardliners Triumph in Saudi Local Elections

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Sitting forward on a powder blue chair in his ornate living room, Mohammed al Ammari makes his campaign pitch to a dozen men all clad in the traditional Saudi robe and headdress. As a member of Riyadh's city council, he vows, he would work to rebuild the capital's crumbling downtown into a modern urban hub. The setting and promise may lack pizzazz, but al Ammari jabs a forefinger into the air as he speaks, visibly thrilled to be a candidate in the Kingdom's first-ever nationwide election. Two days later, he is beaming after casting his ballot at a neighborhood school. “It's great!” he exclaims. “Finally, for the first time in my life, I voted. I love it!”

Like many Saudis, al Ammari believes last week's election is a long-awaited response by the Saudi royal family to demands for change that followed the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which featured 15 young Islamic extremists from Saudi Arabia among the 19 hijackers. Despite the vote's obvious shortcomings, Saudi newspaper headlines hailed the Kingdom's “historic” election day and speculated that next on the reform agenda would be balloting for the 120-member Shura Council, a quasi-parliament whose members are appointed by King Fahd bin Abdulaziz al Saud.

The men who voted were joyful, with many fathers bringing their small sons to experience and get a snapshot of the moment. Officials pulled off a smooth election, thankfully free of the terrorist attacks in the country by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization that have killed 221 since 2003. Yet women were barred from participating, while even male voters were allowed to choose only half the representatives on 178 toothless municipal bodies, the rest to be appointed.

Last month's election enthusiasm in Iraq didn't prove contagious, with only a quarter of eligible Saudis bothering to sign up for the vote in the greater Riyadh region, the start a three-stage election that will run through April. Nonetheless, argues Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi, “the culture of democracy is being introduced into Saudi Arabia.” Al Ammari, 55, a U.S.-educated food company executive and liberal reformer, agrees. “This election gave me the chance to raise my voice.”

After gathering with close friends to sing and dance to the warm strumming of an Oud player, Al Ammari watched the bad news on Saudi TV: he lost to an Islamic conservative opponent, part of a sweep of Riyadh's seven seats by the fundamentalists. As Al Ammari saw it going down to the wire, last week's vote was a test of support for Saudi liberals who have long been overwhelmed by conservatives loosely allied with the ruling Al Saud dynasty. A conundrum in President Bush's State of the Union call for democracy in Saudi Arabia, al Ammari says, is the risk that elections could entrench religious conservatives, not liberal reformers, in elected office. “They will make the country more conservative, while we want it to open up,” says Al Ammari. “We have to open our minds and be part of the world.”

For their part, conservatives were brimming with confidence even before the results were announced. “My friend, this is an Islamic country,” Suleiman Rashodi, a winning candidate who spent four months in prison in 1995 for militant activities, said as he relaxed at his east Riyadh home after voting. “Liberals are far from our society. They are like the West.”

Al Ammari and other budding Saudi politicians had thrown themselves into election campaigns that combined American-style spending with traditional Bedouin hospitality. Their promises included clean government, better services, and less pollution. Al Ammari spent $30,000 from his own pocket, mainly on campaign flyers, with his sister-in-law running his election website. Other candidates parted with hundreds of thousands of dollars, appealing to voters with lavish nightly lamb-and-rice banquets under canvas tents and ubiquitous billboards on Riyadh's modern highways. With political parties banned, the candidates broke roughly into four categories: urbane liberals like al Ammari; Islamic fundamentalists like Rashodi; Saudi tribesmen and plain opportunists — real estate developers were notable among those scrambling for council posts that might give them insights into zoning plans.

Al Ammari's was marked as a liberal by his lack of a beard, his background as a banker and his modernizing proposals. But some less cautious liberal contenders struck a defiant pose: One candidate boldly proposed legalizing movie theaters and giving women the right to drive cars, earning him a torrent of warnings about Judgment Day from Islamist hardliners. Conservative candidates stressed their credentials as technocrats, but energized supporters with appeals on Islamist websites and open backing from Islamist diehards like Sheikh Salman al Awdah, a onetime Bin Laden ally who argues “there is no place for secularism in the Muslim world.”

Al Ammari accepted defeat gracefully, offering congratulations to his conservative opponent. “I lost, but that's okay,” he says. “I am proud of what I did.” Al Ammari's wife Riqaiah, an elementary school teacher, was disappointed not only by her husband's defeat but her own inability to vote for him. Now, Al Ammari's 19-year-old daughter Farah hopes that she and her mother will be able to make their own history in 2009, the year Saudi officials say women may be given the right of suffrage. “We have been discussing the election at school,” says Farah, a medical student at King Saud University. “We have our own ideas, our own hopes. Not only men are capable of doing things. We are trying.” But, as Farah adds, changing Saudi Arabia won't be easy.