Majlis al-Shoura: Parliament of progress

31 January 2003
There is a new political power in the kingdom, rising up from the existing structure of the state. The Majlis al-Shoura (consultative council) is pressing for fresh powers to make it a true parliament and there is even talk, albeit whispered, of elections.

The majlis, as its name suggests, is an advisory body and has never been seen as much more than a rubber stamp for cabinet decisions. While Saudis nod approvingly at the quality and seriousness of debate on a number of issues - particularly those relating to the economy - they must wonder whether the council has any real clout. When it was created in 1993, the majlis was given a mandate to provide expert advice to the government on policy matters. Over the years, it has doubled in size: the original 60 members, were joined by an extra 30 in 1997 and again in 2001. However, they are still all appointed by the government.

'Our decision, like that of the cabinet, is entirely a recommendation,' says one council member. 'If the majlis agrees with the cabinet, then the king will act upon our joint recommendation. If we do not agree with the cabinet, it will be up to the king to make a decision himself.'

According to the law that set up the council, members must be scholars and men of knowledge, expertise and specialisation. Typically, they represent business, the security forces, academia and the ulema (legal bodies). The council is also composed to give scope to regional and tribal representation.

There is now keen speculation that the Majlis al-Shoura will be elected within two years. Furthermore, there are growing signs that its mandate is to be extended and that its confidence is at an all-time high.

At a meeting of the Royal Court late last year, the majlis requested new powers from Crown Prince Abdullah. In January, the crown prince himself said the Arabs should have more political participation if they were to compete seriously on the international stage. And then, on 12 January, the majlis actually threw out a major government bill - the first time it has publicly done so.

'The majlis is growing more independent and more confident all the time,' says a member who was appointed at the start of the council's most recent term. 'The government now passes increasingly important policy decisions to us and our own judgements are gaining more weight. Ministers now actually come to us to lobby for their bills.'

This confidence has been lent extra weight by the increasingly public role played by the majlis. Journalists will now be able to attend council meetings, making it harder for their decisions to be ignored or overruled.

The combined strength of public opinion and majlis feeling was felt sharply last summer, after schoolgirls died in a fire. Regulations governing girls' schools and the role of the Committee for the Prevention of Vice & Promotion of Virtue were both debated in the press and in the majlis. Eventually, the head of the Presidency of Girls' Education was replaced.

The majlis' next four-year term will start in late 2005, and there has been strong speculation that the kingdom will follow the example of neighbouring Bahrain and select members through direct elections. Many members are enthusiastic about the possibility of such a development, and some believe it is a serious possibility.

'In the same way we were surprised when the majlis was created in 1993, we may be surprised by the introduction of elections in 2005,' says a junior member. 'When you look at the rate of change over the past 10 years it is staggering - and that is real, non-cosmetic change.'

However, Crown Prince Abdullah has consistently said Saudi Arabia does not need Western-style elections to uphold the principles of democracy. 'As for elections and democracy, what suits the US and some other countries does not necessarily suit us,' he said last summer. 'In the kingdom, the selection of members of the Majlis al-Shoura emphasises one's responsibility to God Almighty, to the country and to the nation.'

His position is supported by some members. 'If we have elections, we will end up with people who are less qualified than they are now,' says one majlis member. 'Having said that, it's a practice that is used around the world and our international image suffers without it. So maybe we should introduce an element of elections into the system.'

Indeed, Western - and in particularly US - pressure on the kingdom has been mounting in recent months. Since it transpired that Saudi citizens were involved in the 11 September attacks on the US, many Western commentators have suggested that the lack of democracy was leading young Saudis to turn to militancy.

Some members agree the kingdom needs to work harder at convincing the West that the Saudi system is representative. 'We in Saudi Arabia have done very little in the past to convey not just the message, but also the correct image abroad,' says Usamah Kurdi, a new member this term and former chairman of the Saudi Chambers for Commerce & Industry. 'When we satisfy the principles of a thing but not its rituals, we are criticised for not doing it at all. Democracy is a case in point. The basic principle is to solicit the opinion of the people before the government makes a decision - and the majlis does just that.'

But if the government does decide to introduce elections for the majlis, it will face a number of other questions. Will women be allowed to stand or even vote? The signs suggest not, but given the extent of Western pressure on the kingdom at the moment, that could come across as even worse than not having elections at all.

However, majlis members contend that although women are not formal members, they do play a key role.

'People who think that women do not participate actively in the majlis are just plain wrong,' says Kurdi. 'Since the majlis was formed, women's opinion has been solicited whenever there is an issue concerning them. They are invited to the majlis where they deliberate a question and then make us a recommendation. Whether or not they are members, their opinion is solicited. More women are coming to the majlis and I hope that will lead to their further participation.'

Increasing the public's role in government can be done in other ways. Members suggest that some seats could be elected, while the main body remain largely appointed. And there are other possibilities that echo existing moves to increase representation.

'The majlis is a major democratic institution - and it's not the only one we have. When it was created, the government also created regional and municipal councils,' says Kurdi. 'Perhaps another way to increase participation is by asking cities, regions or tribes to select members from among themselves.'

A further possibility could be to enlarge the body for a third time, with the new members selected through some kind of electoral system. But some members feel the majlis is already large enough.

'I don't think we need enlargement, but we need to select members better,' says one. 'We need to have more private-sector representatives and fewer ex-government retirees.'

Aside from the size of the majlis and the extent of public participation in it, there are new moves to increase the organisation's power. At present, the council is seeking three fundamental powers: the right to invite ministers to appear before it to answer questions; the right to review the budget before its publication; and, most importantly, that its decisions should not merely be advisory, but binding on the government.

The three rights would make the majlis eligible to join the international parliamentary association and would mark the true beginning of representational Saudi politics.

'I believe that these three rights are much more important than the question of how to appoint candidates,' says a veteran member. 'Our discussions are unbelievably open - it covers everything from corruption to government spending. But with these extra rights, we will become a real parliament.'

Just when these rights will be granted is still unclear. 'I believe we will be granted all of these rights eventually,' says the veteran. 'I think probably we will get the rights to review the budget and question ministers by the next term in 2005 and our decisions will be made binding perhaps in the term after that.'

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