Saudi King Abdullah is poised to appoint* women for the first time as members of the country’s Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council).
The move is symbolically important, but the assembly itself lacks real power.
The king first announced his intention to appoint women to the Majlis al-Shura over a year ago, and, since that time, newspaper reports have typically indicated that around 30 women would be appointed to the currently 150-member unelected body. Of late, however, these expectations have been reduced to a possible 15 female appointees.
According to reports this week in the Saudi press, 12 of the prospective 15 are already consultants at the Majlis al-Shura. The allocation of female advisers to the assembly first occurred two years ago, as a first step in trying to create acceptance of the idea of women participating fully in the assembly.
Arguably, in a body in which men and women cannot sit together (women will only participate “virtually,” from another room), their conversion from the status of consultants is not that dramatic a move. However, it is also worth noting that the suggested women (namely, those mentioned in the press) are individuals from a highly educated background, often with a public profile. They, therefore, can be assumed to want to assert their voice in the ensuing debates.
“The inclusion of women in an all-appointed consultative body is relatively significant by Saudi standards….” – Pratibha Thaker, Economist Intelligence Unit
One of the prospective new entrants to the Shura Council is a deputy education minister, Norah al-Fayez, whose appointment as a minister a year ago, even though she is solely responsible for girls’ education, attracted the ire of the highly conservative religious establishment. How a minister can sit in what is officially presented as a legislative body is unclear, unless she is to be removed in a forthcoming cabinet reshuffle.
Nevertheless, appointing women to the Majlis marks another step forward in the king’s steady, albeit cautious, program to enhance the rights of women, and reinforces expectations that women will be allowed to participate in the next municipal elections (female suffrage was supposed to have been introduced at the polls in 2011, but it never happened).
However, it is equally important to note, whatever the significance of the appointment of women to the Shura Council, the assembly itself has little to no power: it acts largely as an advisory body, rather than a legislature, with key decisions still the preserve of the king, in coordination with a small coterie of advisers, including senior princes.
The inclusion of women in an all-appointed consultative body is relatively significant by Saudi standards, but is not expected to affect the structure and content of the government decision-making.
* King Abdullah announced the appointments shortly after publication of this article.
This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by Economist Intelligence Unit.
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Pratibha Thaker is regional director, Middle East & Africa for the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).