fear of the whole
A recent article suggests that women will be allowed to vote in Saudi Arabia in 2009. It further gives apparent reasons why women were not allowed to vote this time round:
...the "Chairman of the General Committee for Municipal Elections explained that the only reason women were not allowed to vote in this round was because municipal elections are a new experience and the short time given to prepare for them made it impossible to allow women’s participation this time."
I showed this article to one of my girlfriends, and she said: "You see, you can stop complaining now, there is real progress... women will be allowed to vote in 2009."
My response to her was something along the lines of the following:
Assuming the chairman did in fact say these things, the positive thing here seems to be that the government is in principle not opposed to women voting (although it is unfortunate that no mention was made of women standing as candidates).
But apart from the amusing (considering pregnancy) implication that women are less capable of handling new experiences than men, I simply don't buy the point that insufficient time was given to the organizers of the election.
It is difficult to accept that a policy requirement that women should be part of the vote would have carried less weight than an arbitrary schedule. In other words, it is clear that if the government really wanted women to participate in these elections, arrangements would have been made to make it happen.
One apparent subtext of the explanation seems consistent with a careful strategy of 'piecemealism' on the part of the government.
To do things piecemeal is to do them (i) a small amount at a time; in stages or (ii) in pieces; apart. In the context of political reform, 'piecemealism' amounts to a strategy or practice by the government of making small political concessions over time. This is a conservative approach which involves testing the environment and the forces at play within and without the body politic, seeing how they react, and then adapting to their reaction.
The usual reason why this strategy is justified is that "non-piecemealist strategies are radical and Saudi Arabia is simply not ready for radical reform which can destabilize the country." The typical counter-argument is that "insufficient reform will destabilize the country anyway."
Frankly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this strategy. But it should be obvious that some reforms are useless in isolation, only properly functioning as part of a larger system of reforms and depending on other reforms to be effective.
It should also be clear that the chances of this strategy working are increased if each 'concession' is part of a well thought out and systematic plan or program for political reform, and if each step sufficiently resolves the pressing needs of society at the time.
I don't suppose an interested citizen would be out of line by asking about: whether such a plan exists, and if it does, how is it constituted, how is it updated, how is it communicated etc..
She would also want to find out about how a citizen is supposed to know whether a reform is effective or not. What are the metrics to measure success? Are there targets which are set and published? Who is accountable if specific reforms fail to achieve their objectives?
Furthermore, many reforms are only meaningful if they are conceived and implemented in the spirit of the principles that inspired them. This also leads to another series of questions: just what are these principles that provide a conceptual and/or moral foundation for reform? Can I read about them and freely debate them in public? Who are the initial, intermediate, and final arbiters of what is a legitimate principle? How do they get selected? What are their qualifications? etc..
That the present elections are so limited (no women, half appointed), and that the initial response has been so lukewarm is perhaps an indication that a bolder approach could have excited the population to take a more active interest in self-governance. One can only speculate that this would have helped a government that has its hands full dealing with pressing security and employment issues.