25 August 2015

Saudi Arabia Expands Its Meaningless Franchise

The Short History Of Municipal Elections In Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia abolished slavery in 1962, at which time there were about 300,000 slaves in the country (which had a much smaller population than it does now).

Fifty-three years later, it has gotten around to giving women the right to vote (although in fairness, the right to vote in Saudi Arabia for anyone is only ten years old).

This year, Saudi Arabia is, for the first time, allowing women to register to vote in municipal elections under electoral reforms adopted by the King in 2012, following Saudi Arabia's second municipal election.  The 2012 reforms also allowed women to be full members of the 150 member advisory legislative body that makes policy suggestions to the King, if appointed by the King to do so.

The first two municipal elections in Saudi Arabia were all male affairs held in 2005 and 2011 to elect half of the members of a largely powerless municipal council, which is presided over by the regional governor for the region in which the municipality is located and by appointed members making up the other half of the membership of the municipal council.  In those elections, male citizens aged 21 and older who registered to vote were allowed to vote.

In 2011, there were 1,056 council seats with six year terms filled in 285 municipalities (up from 178 municipalities in 2005).

Turnout for municipal elections in Saudi Arabia is a bit lower than turnout for off year local elections in the United States (about 18% of eligible voters and just 2% of the total municipal population in the capitol city of Riyadh in 2005), which is to say, not very high, and the electorate is very conservative.  There was a three week period during which voter registration took place, followed by a single work week during which candidates could file to be placed on the ballot, followed by the election itself held on a single day three and a half months later.

Municipal councils are probably less powerful than a typical American home owner's association with significant regulatory power, assessment rights and property under their control.  Instead, they are more like Denver's neighborhood associations or a typical American student council at a middle school or high school, which provide a means to allow notable people to monitor and to provide friendly input in an organized and recognized manner to a governmental body that has real power  (in Japan and Korea and many institutions of higher education in the U.S., student council's often have more real power).

The Secular Government of Saudi Arabia

The general public in this nation of 30.77 million people will continue to have no right to vote for national government officials (political parties are also banned), as the King in this absolute monarchy has all of the powers of both a European President or constitutional monarch (i.e. "head of state") and of a Prime Minister (i.e. "head of government"). The King has supreme executive, legislative and judicial power. The King appoints a couple of dozen cabinet members, the 150 members of the advisory national legislature whose sole power is to make suggestions to the King, and the thirteen regional governors.  Regional governors, like feudal lords, have judicial as well as executive and legislative powers.

Only four other countries in the world are rated as more authoritarian by The Economist magazine.

The King serves for life and is chosen from the roughly two hundred adult patriline descendants of the first Saudi Arabian King, Abdul Aziz Al Saud, who are "technically" eligible to serve as King.  The ranks of this group of "technically eligible" Princes are narrowed by an "Allegiance Council" (formed in 2007) composed of the first King's sons, the eldest sons of brothers who have died, and the sons of the King and Crown Prince, for a total of 28 members lead by Prince Mishaal, who serve in a capacity similar to a corporate board of directors. The Council generally appoints the person named "Crown Prince" by the previous monarch at the time of his death, generally based on a line of succession that allows a current King to skip the next person in line for good cause.

The current King of Saudi Arabia, who took office in January of this year, is the seventh to serve since the first King created Saudi Arabia through a series of conquests from 1902 to 1932. Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia six year later in 1938. So far, all six of his successors right up the present day, have been his sons, although the current Crown Prince is a grandson of the first King.

Most other leading positions in government in Saudi Arabia are also chosen from the Royal family, although a handful of key positions have been held by exceptional commoners.

Recall that as a state governed by Islamic law, that men can be married to up to four women at a time and can easily divorce and remarry, and affluent royal family members are particularly likely to do so and to have many children. So, it isn't uncommon for older Saudi Arabian men in the royal family to have more than a dozen sons.  The first King had 45 legitimate sons.
The royal family dominates the political system. The family's vast numbers allow it to hold most of the kingdom's important posts and to have an involvement and presence at all levels of government. The number of princes is estimated to be anything from 7,000 upwards, with the most power and influence being wielded by the 200 or so male descendants of King Abdulaziz. The key ministries are generally reserved for the royal
family, as are the thirteen regional governorships. With the large number of family members seeking well paying jobs, critics complain that even "middle management" jobs in the Kingdom out of reach for non-royal Saudis, limiting upward mobility and incentive for commoners to excel.
There is roughly one male Prince in Saudi Arabia per 40,000 people, and, presumably, a similar number of, often closely related, women who were born as Princesses (excluding commoner women who have married Princes).

The real politics in Saudi Arabia are mostly power struggles between various factions within the Royal family, and between religious and secular authorities in Saudi Arabia.

Islamic Religious Leadership and Law In Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has lots of well educated citizens from Royals down to the middle classes, both men and women, but a large share of them have degrees that have no economic utility.

Islamic theology is probably the most common of these.  This makes more sense when one recognizes that pretty much the only path to significant power in Saudi Arabia for a non-Royal is to become part of the "ulema" (which is the collective group of Islamic religious leaders and jurists).  Heredity plays an important part in the ulema as well, however.
The ulema have historically been led by the Al ash-Sheikh, the country's leading religious family. The Al ash-Sheikh are the descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th century founder of the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam which is today dominant in Saudi Arabia. The family is second in prestige only to the Al Saud (the royal family) with whom they formed a "mutual support pact" and power-sharing arrangement nearly 300 years ago. The pact, which persists to this day, is based on the Al Saud maintaining the Al ash-Sheikh's authority in religious matters and upholding and propagating Wahhabi doctrine. In return, the Al ash-Sheikh support the Al Saud's political authority thereby using its religious-moral authority to legitimize the royal family's rule. Although the Al ash-Sheikh's domination of the ulema has diminished in recent decades, they still hold the most important religious posts and are closely linked to the Al Saud by a high degree of intermarriage.
Most "everyday" criminal and civil law is vested in the Islamic courts with a combined 700 or so ordinary religious trial court judges. In the Islamic courts, however, in addition to heredity, geography and ideology play a powerful role:
Saudi judges come from a narrow recruitment pool. By one estimate, 80% of the 600+ Saudi judges and almost all senior judges come from Qasim, a province in the center of the country with less than 5% of Saudi's population, but known as the strict religious Wahhabi heartland of Saudi Arabia. Senior judges will only allow like-minded graduates of select religious institutes to join the judiciary and will remove judges that stray away from rigidly conservative judgments.
Secular courts handle claims against the government, criminal corruption charges, and administrative law in areas like labor and commercial law.  A secular anti-terrorism court was created in 2008, and regional governors and the kings also directly resolve significant civil disputes within the jurisdiction.

Foreign Technocrats and Menial Workers

Technocratic positions that Saudi Arabia lacks people with the skills to fill, and jobs deemed to menial for any Saudi Arabian citizen are carried out by a huge number of foreign workers with temporary work visas.
[A]s of 2013 foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia made up about 21% of the population. Other sources report differing estimates. Indian: 1.3 million, Pakistani: 1.5 million, Egyptian: 900,000, Yemeni: 800,000, Bangladeshi: 500,000, Filipino: 500,000, Jordanian/Palestinian: 260,000, Indonesian: 250,000, Sri Lankan: 350,000, Sudanese: 250,000, Syrian: 100,000 and Turkish: 100,000. There are around 100,000 Westerners in Saudi Arabia, most of whom live in compounds or gated communities. 
Foreign Muslims who have resided in the kingdom for ten years may apply for Saudi citizenship. (Priority is given to holders of degrees in various scientific fields, and exception made for Palestinians who are excluded unless married to Saudi national, because of Arab League instructions barring the Arab states from granting them citizenship.) 
As Saudi population grows and oil export revenues stagnate, pressure for "Saudization" (the replacement of foreign workers with Saudis) has grown, and the Saudi government hopes to decrease the number of foreign nationals in the country. Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemenis in 1990 and 1991. and has built a Saudi–Yemen barrier against an influx of illegal immigrants and against the smuggling of drugs and weapons.In November 2013, Saudi Arabia expelled thousands of illegal Ethiopians from the Kingdom. Various Human Rights entities have criticised Saudi Arabia's handling of the issue.
No Taxation And No Representation

One of the rallying cries of the American Revolution was "no taxation without representation" and it turns out that this is pretty much a global norm at the root of most new democracies not imposed by colonial powers.

But, in Saudi Arabia, the nation has chosen to path of no taxation and no representation, rather than taxation and representation.  It will be interesting to see how this balance changes as Saudi Arabia's oil supplies and sovereign wealth funds are gradually exhausted.

Citizens of Saudi Arabia and select regional allies pay no individual income taxes other than Zakat (a religious tax similar in concept to a tithe), although there is a corporate income tax.  This is possible because the Royal family owns the country's most valuable economic assets, its oil and gas resources and sovereign wealth funds, personally.

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