RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, considered a reformer by the standards of his own ultraconservative kingdom, decreed on Sunday that women will for the first time have the right to vote and run in local elections due in 2015.
It is a "Saudi Spring" of sorts.
For the nation's women, it is a giant leap forward, though they remain unable to serve as Cabinet ministers, drive or travel abroad without permission from a male guardian.
Saudi women bear the brunt of their nation's deeply conservative values, often finding themselves the target of the unwanted attention of the kingdom's intrusive religious police, who enforce a rigid interpretation of Islamic Shariah law on the streets and public places like shopping malls and university campuses.
In itself, Sunday's decision to give the women the right to vote and run in municipal elections may not be enough to satisfy the growing ambition of the kingdom's women who, after years of lavish state spending on education and vocational training, significantly improved their standing but could not secure the same place in society as that of their male compatriots.
That women must wait four more years to exercise their newly acquired right to vote adds insult to injury since Sunday's announcement was already a long time coming — and the next local elections are in fact scheduled for this Thursday.
"Why not tomorrow?" asked prominent Saudi feminist Wajeha al-Hawaidar. "I think the king doesn't want to shake the country, but we look around us and we think it is a shame ... when we are still pondering how to meet simple women's rights."
The announcement by King Abdullah came in an annual speech before his advisory assembly, or Shura Council. It was made after he consulted with the nation's top religious clerics, whose advice carries great weight in the kingdom.
It is an attempt at "Saudi style" reform, moves that avoid antagonizing the powerful clergy and a conservative segment of the population. Additionally, it seems to be part of the king's drive to insulate his vast, oil-rich country from the upheavals sweeping other Arab nations, with popular uprisings toppling regimes that once looked as secure as his own.
Fearing unrest at home, the king in March announced a staggering $93 billion package of incentives, jobs and services to ease the hardships experienced by some Saudis. In the meantime, he sent troops to neighbor and close ally Bahrain to help the tiny nation's Sunni ruling family crush an uprising by majority Shiites pressing for equal rights and far-reaching reforms.
In contrast, King Abdullah in August withdrew the Saudi ambassador from Syria to protest President Bashar Assad's brutal crackdown on a seven-month uprising that calls for his ouster and the establishment of a democratic government.
"We didn't ask for politics, we asked for our basic rights. We demanded that we be treated as equal citizens and lift the male guardianship over us," said Saudi activist Maha al-Qahtani, an Education Ministry employee who defied the ban on women driving earlier this year. "We have many problems that need to be addressed immediately."
The United States, Saudi Arabia's closest Western ally, praised the king's move.
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said it recognized the "significant contributions" women have been making in Saudi Arabia. The move, he continued, would give Saudi women more ways to participate "in the decisions that affect their lives and communities."
The king, in his own remarks, seemed to acknowledge that the Arab world's season of change and the yearning for greater social freedoms by a large segment of Saudi society demanded decisive action.
"Balanced modernization, which falls within our Islamic values, is an important demand in an era where there is no place for defeatist or hesitant people," he said.
"Muslim women in our Islamic history have demonstrated positions that expressed correct opinions and advice," said the king.
Abdullah became the country's de facto ruler in 1995 because of the illness of King Fahd and formally ascended to the throne upon Fahd's death in August 2005.
The king on Sunday also announced that women would be appointed to the Shura Council, a currently all-male body established in 1993 to offer counsel on general policies in the kingdom and to debate economic and social development plans and agreements signed between the kingdom with other nations.
The question of women's rights in Saudi Arabia is a touchy one. In a country where no social or political force is strong enough to affect change in women's rights, it is up to the king to do it. Even then, the king must find consensus before he takes a step in that direction.
Prominent columnist Jamal Khashoggi said that giving women the right to vote in local elections and their inclusion in the Shura council means they will be part of the legislative and executive branches of the state. Winning the right to drive and travel without permission from male guardians can only be the next move.
"It will be odd that women who enjoy parliamentary immunity as members of the council are unable to drive their cars or travel without permission," he said. "The climate is more suited for these changes now — the force of history, moral pressure and the changes taking place around us."
Hendawi reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report from Cairo.
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