Linda Chavez

An historic election will take place next year, and I'm not talking about the U.S. presidential contest. This week, Saudi Arabia announced that it will hold its first ever elections to create local municipal councils. The Saudis announced the plan in response to growing criticism of their regime. The House of Saud -- a medieval-style, hereditary monarchy -- rules the country with an iron fist, with the aging and infirm King Fahd the titular head, while his more robust half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, actually runs the affairs of state.

Elections will be held in 14 towns and cities, with half of the new municipal councils to be elected by the people and the other half appointed. The Saudis have yet to explain who will be allowed to vote or how the elections themselves will be conducted. Women in Saudi Arabia aren't even allowed to drive cars, for example, so it will be interesting to see whether women will be given any voice in choosing members of the new councils. Since there is no free press in the kingdom, and freedom of assembly is unheard of, campaigning won't be easy, either.

It's tempting to chalk up this week's announcement to a good public-relations effort on the part of the Saudis. But let's hope the proposed elections signal something more promising. The Saudis have become acutely aware that American patience with their tyrannical regime is growing thin.

Polls show that most Americans have unfavorable attitudes toward the Saudis, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when 15 of the 19 hijackers turned out to be from Saudi Arabia. In one poll last August, barely one in 10 Americans said they viewed the Saudis in a positive light.

Anti-Saudi sentiment, however, hasn't traditionally extended to Foggy Bottom, where State Department officials have sometimes behaved as if the Saudis, rather than American taxpayers, were paying their salaries.

Joel Mowbray, author of the new book "Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens American Security," notes that many former State Department officials, in fact, end up on the Saudi payroll when they leave their jobs. Mowbray quotes Saudi Prince Bandar -- the regime's longtime ambassador to the United States -- saying, "If the reputation then builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office, you'd be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office."

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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