Saudi Arabia’s Majlis al-Shoura has emerged as Arabia’s most effective legislative body.

A member of Saudi Arabia’s 150-member Majlis al-Shoura (Consultative Council) aligned his fists to make a point during a meeting in his Riyadh office in September.

‘The majlis now has equal power to the cabinet,’ he said. ‘But it is working with the government to get things done, not making angry speeches to please voters.’

The latest fruit of the partnership is a law passed on 11 September to establish an executive commission that will press ahead with a crash low-cost housing programme. All relevant government departments are represented and the commission has been given a budget. Initial efforts will focus on 450,000 low-income Saudi Arabians who receive state welfare payments. About 200,000 homes are needed each year to meet demand for affordable accommodation in a country where less than a quarter of the national population own homes.

Saudi Arabia is seen as being the Middle East’s least politically developed country. Power is concentrated in the hands of King Abdullah, who is both head of state and prime minister, as well as being head of the ruling Al-Saud family and imam, or a leader of the kingdom’s religious community. The 1992 basic law guides the way Saudi Arabia is governed, including how its ruler is selected, but sharia law is still supreme. The first national elections in the kingdom’s modern history were held in 2005, but these were for municipal councils and women could not vote. The Majlis, first formed in December 1993 and now half-way through its fourth four-year term, remains an appointed body.

But there is an impressive sense of urgency in the Majlis’ deliberations. King Abdullah has declared that all cabinet measures must get its approval. Majlis members are prominent personalities who speak their minds with a degree of freedom that is sometimes shocking, even to outsiders. In contrast to many parliaments elsewhere in the region, there is no cheerleading for the government in the Saudi Majlis.

And yet, this is an unfinished political initiative. The cabinet announced in October 2003 that it planned elections for a third of the majlis. These are yet to materialise.

The enthusiasm four years ago for direct elections among champions of Saudi political modernisation has largely evaporated. Some Majlis members cite developments in Bahrain, where the directly elected lower house is dominated by anti-government representatives of the majority Shiite population, and Kuwait, where the elected parliament is at permanent loggerheads with the cabinet and the ruling family.

An unsuccessful candidate in the 2005 municipal poll also expresses disillusion with the democratic deficit in Western countries. ‘We see people elected in the West promising one thing and doing another,’ he says. ‘It is not an appealing model.’

The Majlis may not be perfect. But if it’s not broken, why fix it?

A bigger shadow has been cast by events in Iraq, where the US attempted to hot-house a model parliamentary democracy into existence. Two national elections held in 2005 launched Iraq in a new direction, but not one Washington envisaged. The polls were sectarian headcounts. The priority of parties representing the Shiite majority has been to rectify what they see as historic wrongs and settle scores. The Sunni minority fought back. Instead of bringing peace, the elections of 2005 caused unprecedented inter-communal violence.

Elections allow people to have a say, at least when they vote. But they tend to increase rather than reduce tensions in divided societies as alienated minorities resist the rule of hostile majorities. That is why so many infant democracies, including the US, have degenerated into civil war or dictatorship. Tragic Iraq is the latest example of the noble idea going wrong.

Paradoxically, the collapse of America’s first attempt to create a fully