CAIRO – King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia surprised his ultraconservative nation Sunday by announcing bold reforms that for the first time give women the right to vote, run for local office and serve on the Shura Council, the king’s advisory board.
The measures by an aging monarch who has battled Islamic hard-liners for years will marginally improve the standing of women in a country that still forbids them from driving or leaving the house without their faces covered.
“Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Shariah (Islamic law), we have decided … to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from the next term,” the king said in a speech to his advisers.
He added: “Women will be able to run as candidates” in the 2015 municipal election “and will even have a right to vote.”
The announcement suggests that the ailing 87-year-old king seeks a legacy as a reformer, despite making only modest inroads on human rights. Abdullah built the country’s first coeducational university and has granted 120,000 scholarships to students, many of them women, to study outside the country. Each move was opposed by clerics and religious ultraconservatives in the royal family.
Allowing women to vote is “hugely significant,” said Lubna Hussain, a Saudi writer. “The king is implementing the reform promises he made when he became leader. It shows he is not willing to pander to religious fundamentalists … who are quite weakened and don’t seem to have the voice they used to.”
The new rights for women come as Saudi Arabia has bristled at demands for political freedoms that have spirited rebellions across the Arab world and toppled such longtime allies of the king as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. When rumblings of revolt echoed in Saudi Arabia, the government, whose security forces are omnipresent, promised $130 billion in salary raises and spending for social and religious programs.
Such largesse and attempts at modernization have kept Abdullah popular even while challenges to the royal family have been quickly crushed.