Courtesy Reuters

Why Granting Saudi Women the Vote Is An Empty Gesture

Riyadh's Half-Measures Toward Equality

King Abdullah's surprise announcement late last month that Riyadh would grant Saudi women a handful of the same political rights as men was a prime example of how his government intends to respond to the clamors for political reform pulsing through the Arab world: promise potentially historic moves that will occur at some point in the distant future, but avoid immediate, tangible change.

In his announcement, Abdullah said that he intends to appoint women to the 150-member Majlis al-Shura, an unelected advisory body, beginning with its next term, 18 months from now. He also promised that women would be able to run as candidates and to vote in elections for municipal councils, starting when those elections are next held, in 2015. Together, the two moves, at least in theory, give women the same political opportunities as men -- limited though they may be. The Majlis has no legislative or budgetary powers. The municipal councils also have very little power, and only half of their members are elected; the rest are appointed by the government. This feebleness may be why turnout was low in many areas during the most recent elections, which were held last week.

Abdullah's response is calibrated to achieve two goals. First, it placates the small but growing slice of the population calling on the ruling royal family to share power and to end the second-class treatment of women. The ban on women driving has become a flashpoint in Saudi society. Second, the King's move seeks to avoid a backlash from religious conservatives, who, because of their influence among the kingdom's population of 21 million, can agitate against the government and pose bureaucratic roadblocks to royal decrees bringing changes. The long lag before both reforms are enacted seems to be intended to give opponents time to get used to them. To be sure, whether Abdullah's decrees are remembered as landmarks will depend on how they are implemented when the time comes. His announcement left unclear whether women would be appointed to the

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