Saudis approve of women winning the vote

Nationals believe suffrage is just the start of new phase of reforms, but experts warn voting decision may be undermined before 2015 polls.

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DUBAI // Most Saudis support women's right to vote, a poll has revealed, but women are more optimistic than men about the effect they will have on politics.

Last month, King Abdullah announced Saudi women will have the right to vote and stand in the next municipal elections, and even to take places in the 150-member Majlis Al Shura, the consultative assembly.

Many Saudi nationals living in the UAE hope this heralds the start of reforms that will eventually allow them to enjoy some of the freedoms they have here when they return to their home country.

In a survey conducted in Saudi Arabia for Al Aan TV's Nabd Al Arab ("Arabs' Pulse") programme by YouGov Siraj, 762 respondents - including 486 Saudi nationals - expressed their views on reforms in the kingdom.

Male and female residents were in favour of women voting, at 73 and 71 per cent respectively. The genders also agreed on keeping the sexes segregated, at 76 and 72 per cent.

But despite the overall support for the right to vote, there was a divide on what effects it was likely to have.

Saudi men were more likely (23 per cent) than women (15 per cent) to believe women would play a minor role in government after the 2015 elections, the first in which they will vote.

More Saudi women (35 per cent) than men (21 per cent) said their role would be major.

On average, Saudi women predicted 27 women would be given seats on the Shura Council, while men expected them to take 15.

"Political participation is still limited for both men and women in Saudi Arabia," said Dr May Al Dabbagh, the director of the gender and policy programme at the Dubai School of Government.

"We need to understand that the scepticism about women's involvement in politics may reflect a scepticism about the utility of political participation in general."

Across the GCC, many women have run for office but few have won. In the UAE, 85 ran in last month's election to the FNC, and only one made it.

In Oman last weekend, there were 77 women among the 1,300 candidates for the Shura Council elections, and again only one winner.

Dr Al Dabbagh, a Saudi social psychologist, has studied women in the GCC for more than a decade.

"Social attitudes towards women don't change overnight," she said. "But that is even more of a reason to start as early as possible and to commit substantial resources to support women's inclusion in public life."

The survey also found most Saudis - 65 per cent of men and 72 of women - believe equal voting is just the start of a new stage of reforms.

Most thought letting women drive would be the next most important step, but that reforms would continue to be met with "quiet protests behind closed doors" by conservatives.

That was not surprising, Dr Al Dabbagh said, pointing out that conservatives were up in arms when Saudi Arabia introduced formal education for women in 1960s.

But with strict lists of requirements being outlined for Saudi women wishing to run for office, the decision could yet be undermined.

"Often you find a big disconnect between a decision that is made at the highest levels and the process of implementation on the ground," Dr Al Dabbagh said.

"For example, after the king's decision to grant women equal membership rights in the Majlis Al Shura, a long list of mundane issues were raised, such as which door will women use to enter the Majlis, where they will sit, and how they will speak."

Dana Shadid, a producer and project manager of Nabd Al Arab, said it was noteworthy so many Saudis supported women's right to vote.

"What struck me the most is that 72 per cent of women respondents support segregation of men and women," Ms Shadid added.

The poll was conducted from September 29 to October 6.