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No Explicit Right to Vote for Saudi Women

Nina Shea

Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah issued a vaguely worded decree about women’s political rights that has been widely reported as meaning that women have been given the right to vote in municipal elections and can be appointed to the king’s consultative council. But there is less to the king’s announcement than meets the eye.

The king did not use the word “vote” and granted no explicit right to vote for women in his kingdom. The key operative phrase is “participate in the nomination of candidates.” What this means exactly is unclear, but it certainly does not guarantee a right to vote. Whether women’s voting rights are implied will depend on how it is interpreted by the king in four years.

Under the king’s new decree: Women can nominate other candidates or be nominated themselves for municipal council elections, during the next election cycle in 2015 (not the one taking place this week). The elections have two parts: the first is a process of nominating candidates that requires a certain number of supporters; the second entails the actual voting by the electorate. The king did not specifically state they could ever actually vote in the second phase of these future elections. This may be implied or it may not. It should also be noted that the municipal councils have no policymaking authority, such as giving women the right to vote, or even to drive. 

Under the decree, they can also now be appointed by the king to the consultative Shura Council, what the New York Times calls a “toothless body that avoids matters of royal prerogative, like where the nation’s oil revenue goes.

A translation of the relevant section of the decree follows:

“. . . So we have decided the following:

“First: women’s participation in the Shura Council as members in the next round, according to legal parameters.

“Second: starting in the next round, women are entitled to nominate themselves for membership in municipal councils, and they are also entitled to participate in the nomination of candidates, according to the parameters of the true law.

“Your due, imperative for us O brothers and sisters is that we strive for the fulfillment of every instruction (or command) in which is your dignity, your honor, and your well-being. Our due, imperative for you, is perspective and counsel, according to legal parameters and the certainties of [the Islamic] religion, and whoever departs from these regulations is arrogant and he will have to bear the responsibility of these actions.”

Though the Shura and municipal councils have no policymaking power, women’s suffrage would be an important symbolic step in Saudi Arabia and resonates in the West, where recognizing women’s voting rights was a critical step in obtaining legal equality. 

We’ll just have to wait till 2015 and see whether the octogenarian King Abdullah interprets this decree as meaning women can vote. Or, for that matter, if he or his successor abides by the plain meaning of the decree, that women will be able to nominate themselves and others as candidates to the municipal councils. We can all agree, however, that this was a good public relations move during this endless Arab Spring.

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