Optimists Like to Vote: Even in Saudi Arabia

One of the cool things about being an optimist is even dumb stuff looks good.  Events and ideas that you know aren’t worth much are still shiny bright when you see them through rose-coloured glasses.  I know full well, like every optimist, I have a disconnect between heart and head, but I can’t help it.  Sometimes, despite all the real-world evidence, I just sit back, give a bad impression of The Fonz and think, “Okay, we’re not doomed after all.”

Last weekend, amid the groaning pains of a childish world that refuses to have an adult conversation with itself, there was a minor event that made my cup runneth over like foam on a latte.  I know it’s all just frothing air, bubbling out of a glass of steam-shot milk, but it looks good to me, and I like it.

On Sunday, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia came tottering out (nobody even knows how old this guy is – 86? 87? 101?) and announced that women in the kingdom have been given the right to vote.  Whoa!  Cover me with mustard and call me a hotdog: I didn’t see this one coming!  But there’s more – and hold on to your keffiyehs, boys: not only can women vote but they can also stand as candidates in the municipal elections.  At this point, there was no stopping his Majesty, and he went on to say that women could now also be appointed to the Shura Council, that special group that advises the king.  Talk about rocking the Casbah!  However, before feminists all over North America grab their intellectual burkas and head for Riyadh a la Kate Millett in the Iranian Spring of ’79, the king had some unspoken caveats.

First of all, women will get to vote in the next election, not the one that’s coming up on Thursday.  Thursday’s affair is still stag.  This is possibly to insure that the ladies have time to acquaint themselves with the issues.  It should be noted that Saudi elections are not held as regularly as we’re used to.  This particular one was supposed to take place two years ago but didn’t – oh, well.  The one before that was in 2005, and the one before that was somewhere around 1962 (but nobody’s really sure because no records were kept.)  Either way, if the next election is held and if it’s on time, in 2015, Saudi women will get to vote … perhaps….

Unfortunately, in his statement, the king made no provision for the electorate actually getting to the ballot box, and unless it’s going to be an on-line e-vote, that could be a problem.  Odd as it might seem, Saudi women aren’t allowed out of the house.  To be fair, that’s not strictly true, but there are enough restrictions that if dad, spouse or even older brother doesn’t think it’s a good idea, the girls aren’t going anywhere.  The question is not can Saudi women vote as much as will Saudi women be allowed to vote.  The reality is, come Election Day, democracy is going to depend a lot more on whether Omar and Ahmed give their approval rather than any royal fiat.

This brings us to the other half of what King Abdullah didn’t say.  Saudi Arabia can have elections every Thursday from now until the oil runs out, but it’s not going to make all that much difference to the kingdom.   The operative word here is kingdom: Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy.  Voting there is kinda like emailing your congressman; it’s a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t actually do any good.  Power — absolute power — rests with King Abdullah and his family.  That’s how he could stroll over to the microphone yesterday and simply say: “Okay, ladies!  Get your bums to the polls.”  Again, to be fair, I’m sure he talked it over with his advisors, a prince or two and maybe he even asked a couple of his wives their opinions.  However, in the end, Abdullah can do and say as he pleases.  He can give cypress trees and pomegranate bushes the vote if he wants to.  It’s not like anybody is going to question his authority.  In the Arab peninsula, if Abdullah sneezes, the whole country gets a cold.  It’s the law — regardless of who votes, who gets elected or who thinks it’s a sham.

So how come I’m optimistic about a less-than-meaningless gesture in a kingdom so feudal it makes the Dark Ages look enlightened?  Because it’s cool!  It’s yet another step into the Arab Spring.  Up until a couple of years ago, most people didn’t even know the Saudis had women.  They thought they were like leprechauns – mythical creatures that were good for the tourists but nobody had actually ever seen one.  These days you can download pictures of Saudi chicks driving cars — strictly illegal in the magical kingdom.  Just as an aside: don’t you think it’s brilliantly ironic that these not-so-petty little criminals are driving in burkas so they can’t be readily identified?

The point is my head realizes that King Abdullah’s pronouncement is a sop to keep Hillary Clinton and the Europeans off his back, but my heart knows everything has to start somewhere.  My heart sees “beyond the picture, through the picture” and says, “For once, then, something.”

And I’m glad for the women of Riyadh.  Heyyyy!!