Shoura decision ushers in new era
The decision by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to grant women 20 percent seats in the new Shoura Council underlines two factors that have characterized the Saudi experience in governance so far: Evolution, not revolution and that the government actually leads the way in that direction.
Over decades, a number of steps that may be taken for granted in other environments, but in Saudi context they represent breaking new grounds. From allowing radio and television services’ transmission to women education, the government has been leading the way.
However, the timing of this decision seems significant. It comes close on the heels of the popular uprising that swept across a number of countries in the region — in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and probably Syria — and where the Islamists have been successful in demonstrating their strong political presence. It is interesting to note that in the two leading countries, namely Egypt and Tunisia, where the new political system has taken some major steps, the women’s place in the new system is being questioned. The measures taken by previous regimes are under threat of being compromised, if not completely rolled back.
Kingdom’s decision to empower women is significant in a sense that it comes at a time when even in many Western countries with entrenched democratic institutions, representation of women has hardly reached that percentage. Such move will help women and the political forces back their cause citing the Saudi example. It will help strengthen their hands in their endeavor to empower women, who in most cases have proven worthy of the trust and can do better job than men.
This evolutionary trend is not restricted only to the social aspect, but even it was clearly evident in the most sensitive area with far reaching international dimension, the oilfield. The Kingdom is one of the founding members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and over the years it has been a voice of moderation calling on fellow member countries to take into consideration the interest of consumers as well.
Two cases demonstrate that position clearly. In the 1970s, confiscation and nationalization slogans were raised high in the Arab world, Riyadh opted for a cautious way to control its oil industry. It ended up years later keeping control over its oil industry, while those who rushed to put their hands on the industry had to lure back the very foreign companies they kicked out and provided their expertise in form of services or consultancy to keep the industry going.
However, every country has its own tradition and its right to choose the way to move forward. The Saudi experience is based on evolution and that is attributed mainly to the system, which enjoys a strong legitimacy. That legitimacy in itself reflects a broader support base for the regime and it also instills a sense of confidence in the country’s leadership to take some bold decisions. Leadership and governance is all about making decisions which sometimes can be termed as too daring or out of sync with the rest of the society. But such decisions carry forward the aspirations and feelings of the mainstream trends in the society and that is why they are welcomed.
The Arab summit that Riyadh is scheduled to host, will although focus on economic issues, but it will also provide the participants from all over the Arab world to have a first-hand experience with the Saudi way of going through evolution, not revolution in almost every walk of life.
That does not mean it is a call for each country in the Arab world to adopt such approach for evolution and gradual change. Political experiences differ as well as the socioeconomic setup, but countries can share their experiences, respect each other’s system and hope to forge ahead for the common interest that bounds the Arabs together. The change is ultimately meant to meet people’s aspirations. That is an ongoing challenge that requires opening up to other experiences and making use of various lessons.