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Last Updated: Monday, 4 July, 2005, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Saudi Stories: Candidates

Bill Law
Reporter, Saudi Stories

The recent nationwide elections in Saudi Arabia were a striking example of the conflict felt by the ruling family between the pressure to change and the urge to leave things just as they are.

It was just a municipal poll; half the councillors were government appointees; and less than 10% of the population and no women were eligible to vote.

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On the eve of the vote in May in the Red Sea port of Jeddah, I witnessed elections Saudi style.

Dr Hussein al-Bar was one of over 500 candidates vying for the seven seats in the sprawling coastal city.

As we sipped mint tea and munched Madinah dates at his home, Dr Bar's mobile phone bleeped incessantly.

"It's messages coming to me from other candidates, asking for my vote, " he chuckled.

'Golden' candidates

Dr Bar, a wealthy businessman, was quietly confident of victory. Not only had he run very successful tent rallies featuring speeches from powerful religious leaders, but his team had fired off a staggering 100,000 mobile messages.

Considering the eligible voters in this restricted election numbered just 80,000 in Jeddah, it can be said that Dr Bar well and truly reached out to his electorate.

Saudi election gathering
Coffee and dates in tents were a feature of this first Saudi election
Dr Bar was fortunate too to be one of the so-called Golden Seven given the stamp of approval by influential sheikhs.

As he poured me another cup of tea, he told me he hadn't solicited their support, and that it had come as a surprise to him.

"These religious scholars, they said who they wanted. And they have the right like other people to state their opinion. This is democracy you know."

I thought afterwards he probably had a point. Given the welter of candidates and the fact that elections were an utterly alien concept, it was unsurprising that voters in this ultra religious country should turn to their sheiks for guidance.

Women's challenge

Dr Bar and the other golden six all won comfortably in Jeddah.

Myself and the other female candidates were very optimistic about being able to go all the way through to the actual elections
Nadia Bakhurji
But for another candidate the experience couldn't have been more different.

Nadia Bakhurji is an interior designer who lives in the capital city Riyadh.

This bright, tough and articulate businesswoman spotted a loophole and launched herself as a candidate when the government announced elections would be held.

Like all other women she was denied the vote but one of the crucial stipulations for people who wished to run was that they be Saudi citizens and wasn't she one?

Her bold approach encouraged five other women to stand. The government was caught out and didn't know what to do.

While the women put together comprehensive election platforms, the officials floundered.

"In the very beginning, myself and the other female candidates were very optimistic about being able to go all the way through to the actual elections," Ms Bakhurji told me.

Election promise

Finally, though, the government found a way out of what was proving a deeply embarrassing situation.

Saudi women in a market
Women struggle to play a full role in Saudi society
"The officials told us they didn't have the logistical systems in place," Ms Bakhurji told me, her eyes flashing with wry amusement.

"For example, polling stations for women, and women that were trained to supervise polling stations."

In a country where segregation of the sexes is vigorously maintained, that proved an insurmountable obstacle.

Still Ms Bakhurji is undaunted.

"I wasn't surprised, but I was disappointed. As women we expect a certain amount of opposition to being empowered even though legally and religiously we're completely within our rights as citizens."

She plans to run again in 2009, the next time elections are scheduled. And she intends to hold the government to its promise to allow women to both vote and run.

"The reaction I got this time was very positive and a lot of men said we liked your platform. They said: 'We'll vote for you', which was very encouraging."

Bill Law's series, Saudi Stories was first broadcast in June and July 2005 on Radio 4 and World Service.

The Saudi Stories programmes are available to listen online or to download in two installments as part of the BBC Podcasting trial.

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