September 26, 2011

SAUDI ARABIA has been a major reactionary force in the Arab Spring. It backed the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to the bitter end and pressured the Obama administration to do the same. It sent troops to neighboring Bahrain to help suppress a popular uprising there. It has used huge cash grants, to its own people and to other autocracies such as neighboring Jordan, to forestall demands for reform.

The announcement by Saudi Arabia’s ruler, King Abdullah, of a small but potentially significant expansion of political rights for women on Sunday was consequently a pleasant surprise. The king said that, beginning in 2013, women will be appointed to the shura council, which offers policy advice to his regime, and that in 2015 women would be allowed to voteand run for municipal councils.

It’s easy to describe the smallness of this step. The municipal councils are only half-elected, and toothless; the shura council is not elected at all, and it lacks legislative powers. Women probably won’t be able to declare their candidacies unless they obtain permission from a male guardian. And would-be female politicians still cannot drive: In fact, an activist who has campaigned for driving rights was summoned by a prosecutor for questioning on the same day King Abdullah made his announcement.

Saudi women’s rights activists nevertheless appeared thrilled by the change, which they see as a possible first step toward easing what may be the world’s most oppressive gender discrimination. In the Saudi context, King Abdullah is seen as a reformer willing to do battle with more conservative forces in the clergy and his own family. During his time as ruler, he has taken significant educational initiatives, investing billions in a new coeducational university. Now he appears to have responded to rising pressure from Saudi women for rights that women in other Arab kingdoms, not to mention the rest of the world, obtained long ago.

The danger is that this is simply another palliative meant, like the $130 billion in salary hikes and social spending ordered by the government this year, to defuse pressure for more far-reaching change. Saudi reformers don’t expect an Egypt-style democratic transformation, but they are asking for more meaningful steps in that direction — such as an elected shura council that would have some oversight powers.

Arab reformers in other countries want to see Saudi support for a negotiated political liberalization in Bahrain and for the implementation of promised political reforms in Jordan and Morocco. The Obama administration, which has had rocky relations with the Saudi regime in part because of differences over the Arab Spring, understandably rushed to publicly praise King Abdullah’s initiative. In private, it should be telling him that it is not enough.