The government has made it clear it is a one-way street. Over the coming years, across 14 municipalities, democratic participation will be cautiously tried and tested at the grassroots level, before being extended to the Majlis al-Shoura (consultative council). In the meantime, and for the first time, say Shoura members, women will be appointed to the council and to senior posts within the Saudi government. 'Our leaders are not experimenters, they are only seeking to do what is the wish of the Saudi citizen,' Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said following the 13 October announcement. 'Definitely we have reached the stage of development where the participation of the citizens of Saudi Arabia is a requirement now.'
That drive for reform has a number of catalysts. The first is external pressure from Washington, although difficulties in the relationship can be overstated. 'Saudi Arabia has got to open up economically and politically and has got to allow its women greater freedoms if it wants to succeed,' Liz Cheney, head of the US' Middle East Partnership Initiative, told MEED in September. 'But Saudi Arabia will do it at its own pace. The US government can't instruct them or any other government about the pace they should go.'
Politicians in Riyadh and Washington alike may be surprised at how quick that pace has been recently, but there is a strong domestic imperative. Tallies of unemployment levels among Saudis vary - the government has put out an official estimate of 8 per cent - but unless drastic action is taken the problem will get a lot worse. The focus of the reform programme may be on job creation, but there is also a clear need to alleviate internal social pressures.
A break with tradition
'What is important is that the process has started now,' says businessman Abdulrahman al-Zamil, a member of the Majlis al-Shoura. 'This will have a tremendous impact on municipality work, with the public being able to oversee the distribution of land and usage of land, as well as overseeing social programmes and the allocation of funds for services. But more importantly, it is a psychological break.'
The driving force behind the reform programme is Crown Prince Abdullah, whose high-profile visit to a Riyadh slum in January signalled a radical reassessment of the social contract between the ruling family and its 22 million subjects. This was followed weeks later by the 'Arab covenant', which contained an unexpected call for more political participation across the region. The first sign this would become an explicit directive came in a speech made by the crown prince to the Majlis al-Shoura in July. Even then, many members were surprised by how quickly it became a reality.
'There has been a lot of heated debate about what is going on in our society, and a lot of debate about how you improve conditions for the people,' says Basheer al-Ghorayedh, vice-chairman of the majlis' foreign affairs committee. 'The speech to the council by Crown Prince Abdullah at the start of our session, four months ago, was very important, and it paved a way for a lot of these developments.'
The decision to hold municipal elections is the most concrete outcome of that speech, but a number of social reforms have been introduced recently that have gone largely unnoticed by the outside world. A new criminal code forbids torture and suspects are now allowed access to a lawyer. 'My daughters are now able to hold ID cards, and for the first time they have outside contractors working in the women's university,' says a local businessman. 'A month into the latest academic year, some of the religious books were replaced and some of the more radical statements removed. These may not seem like big developments in the West, but here they mark a huge change.'
'In Defence of the Nation' - a petition signed by 300 prominent Saudis calling for democratic reform - was submitted to Crown Prince Abdullah in late September. The document was unprecedented, not only for its message, but for the fact that it had been signed by 51 women. There are signs that this gradual pressure has been registered at the top. 'The next thing you will almost certainly see is women being involved in the Shoura council,' says one senior political adviser. 'There is also discussion about appointing women to high levels in the foreign service, as diplomats.'
Municipal elections are a radical break for Saudi Arabia, and conservatives warn that an elected majlis may be a bridge too far. But there are clear regional precedents for an elected council, in Bahrain, Qatar and, most recently, Oman (see box). 'This decision was very important, as it marks a significant change in Saudi Arabia, not only in terms of introducing elections, but also because it confirms the intentions of the government regarding reform,' says council member Osama al-Kurdi. 'I expect that at some time in the near future - perhaps two or three years - we will see these reforms being extended to the Majlis al-Shoura.'
The most appropriate time for this would be in either 2005 or 2009, when the majlis is convened for new four-year terms. 'This is really the start of the process. There are more people in Riyadh than there are nationals of the other GCC countries combined, so it may take some time. But I can see that Oman provides a model for Saudi to follow,' says Al-Zamil. 'My prediction is that it will take two more sessions to go from municipal elections to regional elections to council elections. But with the leadership there are always surprises. No-one expected this decision, so it might take even less time.'
The council has been a work in progress since it was first established in 1993. In the last decade, it has twice been enlarged and now includes 120 members. Although it holds only advisory powers and - for the time being - is appointed directly by the king, the body has grown in confidence. Over the last year, members of the council have called for new rights, including the power to impose binding decisions on government. In January, the council took the unprecedented step of rejecting a significant government bill aimed at imposing income tax on foreigners.
Democracy carries some inherent contradictions, however. If in time the council becomes a fully elected body, there are concerns that it may hinder rather than help the reform process. In Kuwait, the reintroduction of an elected National Assembly has effectively stalled a number of economic and political reform initiatives over the last decade, with new proposals ending up snarled in political debate. A key question is what constraints will be placed on the executive powers of an elected Saudi council. Crown Prince Abdullah has repeatedly said that US-style democracy may be suitable in the West, but is neither desirable or workable in the kingdom. The Quran enjoins Muslim rulers always to consult their people, he points out, and this provides an Islamic parallel for democracy.
For the time being, the democratic experiment will be tested at municipal level, and shoura members stress that the main challenge will be educating the public at large about the political process. 'This is really a testing ground, and it is all to do with orientation, socialisation and education, and providing information about candidates, their policies and what it means if you vote for them,' says Al-Ghorayedh. 'The tendency may be for people to elect their elder tribesmen, or vote for a name they recognise, even if the name is not on the ballot - this has happened before in chamber of commerce elections. These are just some of the obstacles. Like everywhere else, it will take some time to settle in.'