King Abdullah knows how to seize the initiative on Saudi Arabia's national day. In a speech that will have far-reaching consequences for the kingdom and the region, the king announced yesterday that women will for the first time be extended the right to vote and hold office. Just one day after the UAE's largest Federal National Council elections, the announcement is further indication the political change happening in the region.
The extension of political rights to Saudi women is a momentous step, likely to be remembered as a turning point in the country's political development. For the first time, King Abdullah said, women will be named to the kingdom's advisory Shura Council, whose appointed 150 members have always been male. Further, the king added, "women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote".
The decision, however, does not apply to the municipal voting scheduled for Thursday. Those elections, the first since 2005, were first planned for 2009 but were postponed to give time for the study of ways to "expand the participation of citizens in the management of local affairs". That raised the hopes of many, but just last March Saudi officials ruled out female participation in this week's elections.
The new royal commitment opens the door to the beginning of a role for women in the political life of the kingdom, a country where women's role in public life is still very limited.
Across the region, the political empowerment of women is an ongoing process. In the UAE's own elections, only one woman was among the 20 winners, although a healthy 19 per cent of candidates were female. It remains to be seen how many women will have the courage and capability to stand for municipal office or to accept a Shura seat in Saudi Arabia.
Change arrives differently in each country, and political change can precede or follow social progress. These reforms, King Abdullah said, were being introduced "because we refuse to marginalise women in society in all roles that comply with Sharia".
Saudi women who have been campaigning for other rights, prominently the right to drive, will see many interpretations of this statement. For King Abdullah and other reformists in Saudi Arabia, there certainly will be further momentous decisions made.
Saudi Arabia is moving along a road of political and social development at its own pace and in its own way. We certainly applaud if women do indeed have an influential voice in that process.