AP
A Saudi official checks papers of elderly voter Abad Al-Magrashy, left, at a voting center in Jiddah on Thursday.
By Reporter
NBC News
updated 4/21/2005 8:12:09 AM ET 2005-04-21T12:12:09

Despite the Bush administration's push for democracy in the Mideast, Saudi Arabia is not racing to join the democracy party and many Saudis are suspicious of U.S. pressure.

While many Saudis are in favor of democracy eventually finding its way into the kingdom’s political system and believe that change is necessary, they don't share the Bush administration’s sense of immediacy.

But with increasing global pressure, rising unemployment and an already burgeoning population, how long can the desert kingdom, an important U.S. ally, resist the momentum for change?

On Thursday, the final stage of the kingdom’s first nationwide elections was under way in the commercial capital of Jiddah, Islam’s holiest cities of Mecca and Medina and some of the kingdom’s most conservative towns.

The elections are part of a cautious program of political reform in the world’s biggest oil exporter which has faced pressure to change since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, carried out mainly by Saudis.

Reformers are seeking more sweeping changes, saying instead of partial elections to local councils with limited powers the royal family should open the kingdom’s appointed consultative Shura council to a popular vote.

Recent election met with apathy
“Yes, we would like the right to vote,” said Mohammed Al Essa, an American-educated engineer, speaking before the latest round of voting. “But we would also like the right to decide when and how. I think that the recent local elections have been a step in the right direction and are important in that we are beginning to learn the ropes of the actual process.”

In the first round, voters in 13 regions across the country went to the polls in February in municipal elections designed to allow greater participation in local decisions. A total of 592 seats in 178 municipal councils were contested.

But despite the goals, the election was flawed. Women were excluded and in general, the move was met with apathy and a poor voter turnout.

Dr. Faisal Mohammed, a physician at the Armed Forces Hospital, expressed a sense of defeatism and frustration echoed by many. “I feel resentful at the manner in which we are being forced to reform ourselves. Such pressure will only contribute to bringing about a false change.”

But if average Saudis are suspicious of an external hand dictating internal policy matters, how can they realize their hope for reform?

“There is always a larger portion of society that is not ready to accept change,” said Yasir Ali Reza, a young Saudi filmmaker. “There is never a right time for it.”

“What is happening right now in the rest of the Middle East will affect us in Saudi Arabia," said Ali Reza. "We just can’t keep stalling and preparing for change. If there is an honest intention to proceed with democratizing our country, then the fear of the hurdles we have to face has to be overcome.”

Women resist outsiders' views on ‘progress’
At a traditional majlis, where Saudi women gather and discuss issues, many women said they did not appreciate interference in their affairs by Americans, particularly President Bush.

“Why is it that [Bush] is allowed to make us all swallow his opinion like it is the only one that exists?" said Reem Al Hassan, an IT professional. "He talks about democracy and how important it is for people to have their own say, on the one hand, and then on the other hand he does exactly the opposite by forcing us to accept what he thinks is the right interpretation. We want progress. But we are capable of deciding our own future.”

When asked if this meant that women were happy with the way things were currently “progressing” for them, Nouf Al Rasheed, a young entrepreneur, pointed to a common misunderstanding she felt pervaded the Western media.

“For me, most of the points that are highlighted about us in the West are so superficial and I am sick of hearing about them. We are fine wearing the abaya and many of us have managed to survive without driving,” explained Al Rasheed. “What we want is the opportunity to work. To be given the opportunity of equal employment.”

Slow but definite progress
According to Sarah Al Seghayer, things have improved considerably for women.

“We’re not a perfect country, by all means no. But if you ask me how I feel about what’s been going on, I think there has been a definite opening up of things,” said Al Seghayer. Progress is slow, she said, but at least the process has started, “the hardest thing is getting over the first hurdle. We seem to have done that now and the rest will be a natural progression.”

Afaf Al Hamdan, Director of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority’s women’s center, agreed that while some form of democracy will inevitably reach Saudi Arabia, the Saudis themselves will have to dictate the pace and form of change.

Women “want the opportunity to be in charge of our own destiny and our education system," Al Hamdan said. "We don’t want to be answerable to men in the way that we are at the moment….  We don’t want to be changed into Westerners, but at the same time we don’t want to be held back either.”

Reform at their own pace
In general, the predominant mood among Saudis is one of confident optimism that reform will happen slowly, at their own pace.

Sultan Al Bazie, former editor of the popular daily paper Al Yaum and media advisor to the election committee, said the movement toward change has been under way for some time. “The push for democracy in many countries is not new. The Lebanese and Syrian issues have been there for a long time, so why should Saudi Arabia be affected by them now?”

But, for Al Bazie, change is clearly under way. “The process for reform has started in earnest and we hope it will be allowed to continue unimpeded," Al Bazie said. "Ideas and change need to grow gradually, evolution as opposed to revolution.”

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