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Saudi Elections To Offer A Small Step Toward Democracy


Saudi Arabia is taking a limited step towards democracy next month. For the first time, women can vote and run for office in municipal elections. More than 900 women are vying for seats across the country. But voter registration for women and men is very low. NPR's Deborah Amos is in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and joins us now. Good morning, Deb.


WERTHEIMER: Now, campaigning started this week for an election next week. Could you describe what this looks like, Saudi's first campaign that includes women?

AMOS: Well, let me say this, that no one expected so many women who run. You know, women don't really have a public role here. And it wasn't easy to sign up. It wasn't easy to register to vote. But still, this is Saudi Arabia. So there's lots of restrictions - no pictures on campaign literature. Women can't use social media to reach out to the voters. And they can't talk to men when they're campaigning. Three women candidates were barred from running, no reason given. But all three are well-known activists who challenge the government's ban on women driving.

WERTHEIMER: So is this a breakthrough for Saudi women, a change for the kingdom's conservative society?

AMOS: There's been differences of opinion on that. The odds are stacked against any of them winning. You know, voter registration for women is very low. It's about 136,000 compared to 1.2 million men who registered to vote. But there are others, like Fawzia al-Bakr. She's a professor, a writer. She was one of the first to register. And for her, it's the process that matters. And you can hear the excitement in her voice.

FAWZIA AL-BAKR: At least we're there (laughter). I mean, you know, at least we're going there. And I think we have no choice. We just have to get, you know, step-by-step toward more - you know, more participation and more democratic, you know, representation of the people. I think most of our population is young, well-educated - actually - we have no choice.

AMOS: That's Fawzia al-Bakr. And she's part of this growing number of educated working women. And if you add to that a powerful business community, that's the lobby for modernization and political liberalization.

WERTHEIMER: The election comes in turbulent times for Saudi Arabia. There are wars across almost every Saudi border, and oil prices are at an all-time low. How does that background play into this limited step towards democracy?

AMOS: The Saudis are locked in a war with Yemen. And they're in a regional competition with Iran. So at the same time, Saudi Arabia's deputy crown prince - this is the 30-year-old son of King Salman -he's overseeing an overhaul of the economy. It's a belt tightening because of these low oil prices. So for the first time, Saudi Arabia will impose a tax. They've never done it before - 2.5 percent a year on undeveloped land. There's a housing crisis here. There's lots of undeveloped land. There's also a plan to cut government subsidies here. Gasoline is cheaper than bottled water. Electricity costs almost nothing. But it costs the government billions. And they just can't afford it. So this is a new era for the kingdom.

WERTHEIMER: And how do Saudis feel about belt tightening? This is a country that's always been one of the richest places on Earth.

AMOS: It's a new compact between the rulers and the ruled. You know, with social media here, Saudis are more aware than ever of just how the government spends that money. There's poverty here. There's struggle in the middle class. You really need a two-income family to keep up. So there is going to be grumbling. This limited move to open up the political process is part of giving people a say. But the royal family still controls all of the important levers of power. So here's the question. This election is for seats on a local council that has very little power. So is that enough of a voice in these troubled times?

WERTHEIMER: That's NPR's Deb Amos, reporting from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Deb, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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