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."
Mowbray says this doesn't necessarily mean State Department officials "make decisions with visions of dollars dancing in their heads, but at the very least, they probably take a more benign view of the royal family that 'takes care of' their friends and former colleagues."
But even their friends at the State Department have been unnerved by reports that some Saudi royals have funneled money to terrorist organizations over the years. For example, they donated large sums during a very public Saudi telethon last year, which raised money for the families of suicide bombers who attacked Israel.
The most embarrassing link between the Saudi royal family and terrorism, however, came last November when the FBI discovered that Prince Bandar's wife had donated $130,000 to a man who helped finance some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
But the Saudis' real wake-up call came when nine suicide bombers hit targets within Saudi Arabia itself in May, killing 25 people including eight Americans. The Riyadh bombings, well coordinated and executed by terrorists linked to al Qaeda, were a huge shock to Saudi Arabia's rulers. After years of trying to focus Saudi radicals' hatred outward toward "infidels" abroad, the Saudi royal family now finds itself at the top of the enemies list of those same fanatics and terrorists.
It isn't likely that municipal elections will bring anything like true democracy to Saudi Arabia. But these elections could mark one tiny step forward in a region whose politics have been characterized by despotism, corruption and totalitarian-like control of the lives of ordinary people.