This year marks 10 years since the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia restarted in 2005. It also marks 10 years since I voted for the first time in the Kingdom, hopeful that this would herald the beginning of a greater voice for citizens in the day-to-day running of our cities.
The reality was far different, with lackadaisical candidates being elected to the councils across the country, and after the initial euphoria of the elections it seemed most people promptly forgot about their local councils.
In Jeddah the municipality embarked on a super-ambitious urban planning scheme of building tunnels, flyovers and bridges to cope with the ever-growing volume of road traffic. After years of annoying and often frustrating construction detours, Jeddawis are enjoying the fruits of such planning, whizzing around the city in greater comfort.
Of course, public transportation options are still very poor but with the planned metro, things should improve immensely. Riyadh on that front is already ahead with construction of its metro well under way.
Perhaps these municipal councils may have seemed rather boring in their obsession with urban planning concerns since these have traditionally been male concerns. And although these councils did have meetings that were open to the public, engagement with the electorate was sparse and not very rewarding.
Until this year Saudi women were not allowed to vote or run as candidates in the elections, but this year they are doing so.
Already foreign commentators have tried to diminish this achievement by saying that the councils don’t really do much to begin with. But we must ignore these usual Kingdom-bashers, who will never be pleased by anything we do.
For sure the women candidates for the municipal councils will bring new concerns to the forefront of public debate, which is long overdue. Hopefully they will talk about the many Saudi women that work for slave wages, as Al-Sharq daily recently reported about the ones working in the canteens of public schools making only SR300 a month each! What kind of exploitation wage is this?
It is outrageous that anyone, whether Saudi or not, can be paid that in our country and be expected to survive on it. It is impossible. There is a great need to debate a minimum living wage for all workers in our country. By all means allow higher wages for Saudis, but have a decent minimum wage that serves for everyone, with no exceptions.
I remember interviewing a candidate for the Jeddah council in 2005. He was a well-known businessman, had studied in the United States along with his wife, and was religious. When I asked him if he could work alongside women on the council he said “no,” maintaining that a woman’s makeup and perfume would be too distracting. I was surprised by his reaction, but times have changed and these same women are now both running for office and voting too.
The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) has long had many women members active within its ranks, helping Saudi women to become entrepreneurs and offering business ideas and support for women wishing to run their businesses from home. They have proven themselves to be excellent organizers and hopefully their participation in the municipal elections will give them another avenue to make their mark in civic and governmental affairs. May the best and most qualified ones win!
The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.