Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Saudi Shura Council is Not a Parliament | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Saudi Shura Council. (Asharq Al-Awsat Photo)

Of course I would like half of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council to be elected; but I stand by my conviction that the elected members would be no more competent than those who were appointed. As we know, in the world of politics it is not always the case that the most competent is the most likely to win a vote, otherwise elections would simply be another form of academic exam.

At this point I would like to stress the difference between the Shura Council and a parliament. The Shura Council is a consultative and advisory body, while a parliament represents the people, makes essential decisions, and carries out checks and balances.

When we talk about democratic practices in societies the world over, we have to recognize the structural problems of the developing world, particularly in the Middle East. These structural problems are related to the political systems and community structures in place, as well as the local culture.

On a previous visit to the British parliament in London, I was surprised to see a picture hanging of an Iraqi parliamentary delegation that visited Westminster in the 1950s. Yet the Iraqi parliament was in fact established before many countries in modern history established their own, having been founded ninety years ago. Iraq’s current situation demonstrates that its original parliament, founded by the British and staffed by Iraqis nearly a century ago, was more effective that the model created by the Americans after their invasion.

The history of Sudan, Egypt, and Syria is similar to that of Iraq. During the colonial era, the European powers administering these countries established parliamentary institutions. However, these institutions collapsed soon after the colonial era ended. These countries ended up with repressive regimes that overthrew the monarchies, which had been characterized by their inclusive political systems and moderate administrations.

We have all seen the problematic political transitions of the past two years. Of course it is still too early to judge the Egyptian, Tunisian, and Libyan experiences; we are in the first quarter of a long match and we cannot speculate on the outcome.

A country such as Saudi Arabia has limited experience in areas such as public consultation and trade union activism for example, but increasing attempts have been made over the past 80 years. This year, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz took a difficult step when he invited women into the Shura Council for the first time. The council’s percentage of women is now 20 percent, which is higher than the percentage of women in the US Congress (18 percent). If there had been public elections, perhaps not a single Saudi woman would have won. Remember that we are talking about one of the most conservative countries in the world. Some strongly opposed the king’s recent move; they drafted a nine-point petition protesting his decision to incorporate women into the council. This shows the nature of the enormous challengers to come, and the inherent contradictions within Saudi society.

However, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, throughout history and ever since its establishment, has always tried to develop society, albeit with extreme caution and in a slow manner. The leaders recognize that it is a pastoral state where the majority of citizens depend on the government.

I think that a Shura Council that incorporates a mixture of assigned, competent members and elected representatives would ease the pressure on the state. The Saudi government now has increased responsibilities in the country, for it is heavily involved in all aspects of the kingdom’s day to day life. In turn, citizens’ expectations and government accountability have also increased.

We have to note that the biggest obstacle hindering progress in Arab societies is inherent weaknesses in political culture. The quality of candidates, the voter turnouts, the nature of discussions, and the accountability of parliamentarians are all frustratingly weak. For example, in the last municipal elections in Riyadh, only 100,000 people voted out of half a million eligible citizens.