Sunday, February 13, 2005

Saudi Democracy: Is It a Time for Celebration, Then?

Election time in Saudi Arabia! While voters registered for the first municipal elections in half a century, scores of young men and women were discussing their concerns, hopes and demands in the National Dialogue Forum last week. They were allowed to question taboos, and demand power sharing, better education, women’s rights, and more. The media is reporting, analyzing and debating these issues in increasingly free-speech mode, and a more tolerant society is opening up to different and differing ideas.
In the same week, Prince Sultan, second deputy premier and minister of defense and aviation and chairman of Saudi Arabian Airlines announced that Saudi women would join the airline workforce soon.
Companies, factories, hospitals and government departments, including security forces and foreign services are now hiring women in areas that were not open to them in the past such as police stations, prisons, passport departments and embassies.
In Riyadh and Jeddah, businessmen are opening women-only factories and telemarketing sections. Companies and government offices are following banks’ lead in setting up women service divisions. Department stores are hiring women in back and front office positions.
In Riyadh, women were finally allowed to vote in the chamber of commerce elections. They went in person without having to authorize men to vote on their behalf. Other cities are expected to follow suit. Lubna Olayan was elected a board member in a major bank — the first woman ever. Hospitals are hiring Saudi female doctors, nurses, managers, receptionists and operators.
This is good news. We are moving forward, if slowly. Grievances are considered, problems admitted, solutions explored and reforms are under way. Is it a time for celebration, then? Not quite yet. Let me explain.
When I was a little boy, I had pigeons imprisoned in a wooden cage. I felt guilty, and someone told me that if I put food and water in there and let them out, they would most likely return. I took the risk and decided to free them. When I opened the door I expected them to fly in my face. They didn’t. I waited and waited, but they wouldn’t leave. When the night fell I got tired, and left. The next day they were gone, and never returned. I remembered this experience waiting in vain for women callers when Sumaya Alshibani and I were discussing women’s issues and rights in a live radio show, but none did. Only men were calling even though my hostess, Sumaya, was urging women to show up. I remembered my pigeons again when I learned that fewer people than expected registered to vote for the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia in half a century. That is less than in the first municipal elections of the 1920s, which also included the Shoura Council. The earlier elections, by the way, were for all the seats, not for half the number as today.
People get used to certain routines in life. It is hard to change people’s mentality and habits, especially if the stakes are not high enough. As I told Christopher Durrance of the American Public Broadcast Service, you can always change the rules, but you can’t always get people to follow them. Old habits die hard, and unless self-interest is at stake, and you know that your vote can make a difference, most people don’t care enough to vote. While a new team leading a chamber of commerce may help your business or hurt it, a new member in a largely consultative board to a city mayor, with look-alike agenda and promises, might not affect you directly. Even if you got one good member to the board, you don’t have much control over the rest, and that might not make a difference. If it were the mayor you were electing, then you would care. So, how do we get people motivated enough to break with their old habits, and get out to vote?
I suggest democracy education through school system and the media. I suggest explaining to the public what is at stake: Why would one vote for one member make a difference? What good those people would do for everyday concerns? Let them know exactly and clearly how their votes can translate into better, cleaner and well-served neighborhoods. How this one, small step on the democracy road would lead to bigger steps toward a brighter future for our kids and us.
Only when we get this close to people’s interests and concerns can we make them care enough to make democracy work.
SMS: My dear American friends, I am sorry beyond words for the attack on the US Consulate in Jeddah last week. I don’t know how to express my anger, shame and sorrow for the loss of life and wanton destruction. I love you all. Salam, Peace.

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