There is good and bad news this week from the publicity-shy Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The good news is that thanks to King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz's announcement on Sunday, Saudi women will be able to vote in municipal elections four years from now and even become full, voting members of the "Shura" Council that advises the king. The bad news is that unless women are given the right to drive, they will have to ask their fathers, husbands, brothers, or sons to take them to the polls.
King Abdullah's decision is vintage Saudi – long overdue, bound to be controversial, and Bedouin shrewd.
To be sure, the king's announcement was immediately praised by many progressive Saudis and Arab watchers within and outside of the kingdom.
First among them was the Obama administration, whose White House called the move "an important step forward in expanding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia." Human Rights Watch, which is normally critical of many of the absolute monarchy's policies, particularly on gender issues, also welcomed the move as a "long overdue step towards greater participation of women in public life."
Caryle Murphy, the veteran correspondent who lives in Riyadh, called the move "potentially the most important advance for Saudi women's rights in decades," and noted that it has been hailed by Saudi reformers, male and female alike.
Almost all the hosannas, however, contain caveats. And the "buts" and reservations being expressed by Saudi bloggers and other critics, particularly outside the kingdom, are daunting.
Sarah Leah Whitson, of Human Rights Watch, notes that the king's decision will not enable women to vote in the upcoming municipal elections. She is also skeptical because the king initially promised that women would be able to vote in the 2009 elections, which were conveniently postponed due to "technical" difficulties that supposedly barred women from participating. The broader problem, she notes is the conservative kingdom's system of male guardianship under which women cannot made basic decisions about their lives –decisions to travel, work, get health care, be educated, or open a business -- without approval from a father, husband, brother, or even a son.
In June, 2009, Riyadh promised the U.N.'s Human Rights Council that it would abolish that guardianship system, but has yet to do so. Presumably, if a male guardian decides that his daughter, wife, or sister should not vote, she will not be able to cast a ballot even in 2015.
Ali AlAhmed, director of the Gulf Institute in Washington and a Saudi activist, said that the king acted to prevent planned protests by women later this week. He also called the municipal councils "meaningless," noting that neither they nor the national "shura" council could dictate policy to the king.
Another veteran Saudi watcher had a backhanded compliment for the ruling Al Sauds: "Congratulations!" he told me. "The king has now invited women to be as politically impotent as Saudi men. This is gender equality in the kingdom."
But many Saudi reformers call such cynicism unwarranted. Hatoon al-Fassi, a women's activist in Riyadh and university professor, told Ms. Murphy that she was "so excited" she could barely catch her breath. The decision, she said, was "the response to our demands" and "the first step in our long struggle to get our rights."
My favorite female blogger in Arabia, Eman Al Nafjan, a young mother of three when we met in Riyadh in 2010, whose Saudi Woman's Web Blog appears in English, said she, too, was hopeful. Though she had wanted decisions that would affect Saudi women's everyday lives, still, she added, the king's move was a "major step forward" that she hadn't seen coming, and "a step in the right direction."
Even this decision, however, is likely to be opposed by some in the religious establishment. After Manal Al-Sharif, a Saudi computer security consultant, was arrested for driving last May, part of a broader protest by women demanding the right to drive and other civil rights, Shiekh Abdullah Al Mutlaq, a member of the highest Saudi religious council, declared that while women driving was allowed in Islam, so too was another dangerous practice – trading weapons. And like the arms trade, he wrote, permitting Saudi women to drive would have "dangerous consequences on the security of the country and safety of society," Eman Al Nafjan reported in her blog.
Saudi Arabia is a complex country, riddled with internal contradictions. In a country where women are not permitted to drive, 45,000 Saudi women nonetheless have licenses which they got abroad and 40% of cars purchased in Saudi are bought by women. Eman also reported in her blog that over 1.2 million foreign men have been "brought into this country for the sole purpose of driving our cars instead of the women owners," despite the fact that two million Saudi men are jobless and have filed for unemployment benefits. In a kingdom of 27 million, a third of the work force is foreign.
During my most recent visit to Riyadh in 2010, I was impressed by King Abdullah's personal popularity, particularly among women. Many Saudis told me that Abdullah, and his daughters, in particular, were promoting the integration of women in society, what is known as "gender mixing." Indeed, hardly a day passed without an article in the press about another breakthrough for women – be it the opening of the nation's first "mixed" university in Jeddah, or the appointment of a woman to the post of vice minister for women's education, then the only high-ranking woman to serve in government.
To a great extent, the king's move is also a response to the Arab Spring revolutions that have engulfed much of the Middle East and toppled three Arab dictators so far. The very old, canny king has responded to largely subdued Saudi protests for greater political rights by offering over a $100 billion worth of benefits -- wage increases and housing subsidies, to his overwhelmingly young, restive population.
While he has sent troops to neighboring Bahrain to help repress protests by the majority Shiite population there, he has denounced Syrian President Bashar al Assad's killing of civilian protesters. The Al Sauds move cautiously. They have no intention of being forced out of the kingdom that bears their name. Spreading around a little more of the kingdom's huge wealth and bringing Saudi women into the 21st century may be a small price to pay for retaining the right to rule Arabia.