The electoral schedule has slipped and it remains to be seen quite how significant the impact of elections will be on the kingdom’s political environment. As always, there are dissenting voices questioning whether this is a truly revolutionary event or a more hollow gesture intended to placate both internal dissenters and external agitators like the US. There are also huge logistical problems to be overcome. For a start, Saudi Arabia lacks a registered electorate. The last national census was conducted in 1992, when the population of the kingdom was put at 16.9 million, of which 12.3 million were Saudis. The latest official estimates put the total closer to 22 million. Sure enough, within months of the September announcement government officials were quietly letting it be known that the rigid one-year deadline would need a certain amount of finessing.
Saudi Arabia’s first municipal elections since the 1960s will be held in three phases. According to a statement released by the Municipal & Rural Affairs Ministry on 11 September, the first phase – polling in Riyadh – will take place on 10 February 2005. The second phase – covering northern and central regions – will come on 30 March, the third – for the rest of the country – will be staged on 21 April. Voter registration for the Riyadh polls will commence on 30 November and will run through to 16 March for the other regions. No official explanation for the postponement has been given, though Majlis members have pointed to the strains imposed on the government by Ramadan and the Hajj pilgrimage season.
Claims of a compromise have to some extent been assuaged by a commitment by the UN to monitor events – a team of UN election experts has been visiting the country for briefings on the preparations and detailed arrangements for the vote. But, despite earlier indications that the principle of universal suffrage would be applied at the ballot box, social liberalisers are likely to be disappointed. According to some sources, male Saudis above 21 will be eligible to vote, including male members of the prison population. But women are expected to be barred, as are military personnel and municipal employees.
A number of other questions remain unresolved. In particular, it is unclear whether political parties will be introduced, or whether all candidates will stand as independents – let alone what their political powers will be when they reach office. SPA in August announced that there would be a ‘media campaign to promote awareness about election processes’ and to outline rules governing the polls, in September and October. So far, the public information available remains fragmentary. As in so many other countries making their first experiments with the democratic process, the election is likely to be an education process in itself.
The gradual mobilisation of the government’s civil machinery takes place in a period of relative calm for the kingdom. Since the attacks on the Al-Khobar Oasis compound in May, the authorities have been pursuing a war of attrition against insurgents. However, tensions still remain, and reports about confrontations between security forces and militants continue to appear in the local press on a regular basis – usually triumphing new security successes. On 3 September, for example, an Interior Ministry source announced tha