The Shoura is not Parliament
I would have been pleased if half of the seats in the Shoura Council were allocated to elected members, although I expect that whoever were elected, would be no more efficient than those who have been appointed, but it is all about impressions and convictions. In politics, we know that it is not necessarily the most qualified who is more likely to win, otherwise elections would be replaced by educational and cultural examinations.
Of course, we must differentiate between the Shoura Council and Parliament. The former is advisory and the latter representative. The first advises and the second decides; the first completes and the second balances, and so on. When talking about democratic practices in societies, we have to admit the existence of structural problems in the developing world, and specifically the Arab world, with regard to political systems, communities and local culture.
It was strange to see a picture of an elected Iraqi parliamentary delegation on a visit to the British Parliament in Westminster, London, in the early 1950s. Strangely, the Iraqi Parliament came into being much before many countries in modern history had one, for it was founded 90 years ago. Of course, today’s experience demonstrates that the Parliament, which was founded by the British and practiced by the Iraqis about a century ago, was far better than today’s Parliament, founded by the Americans.
The history of Sudan, Egypt, Syria, is similar to that of Iraq. Parliamentary institutions established by the colonial powers collapsed as soon as they left and these countries ended up with repressive regimes overthrowing monarchies, which ruled with a comprehensive political system and moderate administration.
We all have witnessed the problematic political transitions in the past two years, although it is too early to judge the Egyptian, Libyan or Tunisian experience, for we are actually in the first quarter hour of a long game and cannot predict the outcome so early.
For countries such as Saudi Arabia, union and Shoura experiences are limited, although there were old attempts nearly 80 years ago. This year, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah made a difficult decision when he brought women to the Shoura Council, the proportion of women being 20 percent, more than the US Congress which has 18 percent. But if there were elections, perhaps not even a single Saudi woman would have won, for here we are talking about one the most conservative countries in the world with a history of strong opposition to women’s participation in public life.
The reaction of some was neither unexpected nor strange as a number of conservatives wrote a petition to protest the decision of the introduction of women in various fields. This shows the nature of the enormous challenges and contradictions within Saudi society and the political arena, but historically the Kingdom tried, since its inception, to be a leader of change in its society with great caution and gradual steps, taking advantage of being a welfare state where almost everyone in the population relies on the government.
I believe that the Shoura Council being a mixture of recruited members with extraordinary talent and elected representatives of different social groups raises accountability for the growing state, which is justified because the state has more responsibilities and thus the expectations of citizens have grown.
What remains to be said is that the biggest drawback in many Arab societies is the weakness of political knowledge and sophistication. The type of candidates, the percentage of voters and the nature of the discussions and accountability of parliamentarians themselves are abysmal. For example, in the last municipal elections in Riyadh region, only 100,000 people voted, from about half a million qualified citizens.