Democracy in Saudi Arabia, New Evidence from V-Dem

Recently, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Mohamed Bin Salman launched Saudi Vision 2030, a project which aims at developing a strategy where KSA would no longer be dependent on oil, allowing Saudi Arabia to move from being a rentier state to a state with diverse incomes and resources, mainly investments inside and outside the country.   This vision comes as KSA and the whole Gulf region faces a challenge of oil prices, Iran as a regional power and the skepticism of Washington as an ally. While Vision 2030 is sure to have far-reaching economic, societal and political consequences, there is also a need for political reform before implementing the project.  It seems that Saudi Arabia, with assistance from European and American consultancy firms paying US$1.25 billion for them in 2016 alone, is trying to forge a National Transformation Plan. However, this plan is challenged by many factors, including women's issues, a conservative society, a huge middle class, low number of nationals working in public institutions, low women labor rates, etc. These challenges cannot be changed in a matter of a few years as such societal changes need decades, if not longer, to take place.

Last year, there was an outcry against the state of Saudi Arabia’s human rights policy, particularly in the area of women's rights. However, there has been little attention paid to other aspects such as exploitation of resources, mishandling of power, illiberal values, corruption, harassment of civil society and unfair judiciaries. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been restricting political participation, especially for women. Only last year, for the first time in its history, did it hold its first elections whereby women could vote. Only 18 women, out of one thousand candidates, made it to the local councils. Registered voters numbered 1.5 million, only 10% of whom were women. With women accounting for more than 40% of the Saudi population and less than 10% of the voters, the real problem seems to be both in the societal and political fabric. Women’s rights issues and their participation in society are among some important questions that need to be addressed. Saudi Arabia is based on a tribal system headed by the king and the royal family, where a few families own the bulk of the wealth and power of a country  reinforced with laws and conservative leadership. As such, women's rights is one of many issues that require further attention, as well as examining what is behind women’s rights violations.

Most indices of democracy and freedom of expression rank Saudi Arabia poorly. For example, it was rated as one of the worst states in the world by the Freedom House 2015 report.  In the corruption perception index, Saudi Arabia ranked 55 in 2015, 49 in 2014 and 44 in 2012.  In the Arab democracy Index, Saudi Arabia came last with a score of zero, where zero indicates a non-existence of certain elements of democratic indicators, more so than any other country in the Middle East and the broader region.

These indices do not provide a very detailed or deep measurement of many important aspects of democracy, such as female participation or universal suffrage across the years. The need for detailed measurements of democracy has become absolutely necessary. Political development in the Middle East and recent global changes in society present the need for broader measurements to see where exactly things go wrong, influencing the bigger picture. Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) is a new approach, started as a project and developed to be an institution within Gothenburg University, to conceptualize and measure democracy. What makes V-Dem different from other democracy indices is its multidimensional and disaggregated approach.

V-Dem has five high-level components of democracy: 1)liberal, 2) participatory, 3) deliberative, 4) electoral and 5) egalitarian. These indices are based on more than 300 indicators collected by V-Dem experts from around the world.  By having dozens of indicators that cover every aspect of democracy, policy makers, civil society workers, international aid professionals, UN agencies and  governmental bodies can closely monitor deficits in development and democracy, allowing them to then decide where funding should be channelled. V-Dem collects this data using local expertise where thousands of practitioners, civil society professionals and academics participate in coding the data. The V-Dem team consists of four principle investigators, two project coordinators, fifteen project managers, thirty regional managers, almost 200 country coordinators, several research assistants and about 3000 country experts.

As part of its work, V-Dem has collected data about Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries from 1900 to 2014, using more than a dozen experts. The coders were mostly academics and country experts knowledgeable about the country. According to V-Dem data, Saudi Arabia has not achieved much in terms of democratization, human rights, and the expansion of civil society or liberty. Citizens' participation in public affairs has declined, despite its increase for some time after 2005.

According to V-Dem data, (see Graph 1), Saudi Arabia has not reached the score of 3 in all indices except egalitarian rank, and this was only after 2005.  2005 was a milestone in Saudi political and social life. As King Abdulla came to power, he inaugurated Saudi Arabia's first gender-mixed university, issued a decree for local and Shura (consultation council) elections and increased the number of academic and educational scholarships to Saudis from all sects. Moreover, he was keen on fostering national and sectarian dialogue, not only in the kingdom, but also on a global and inter-faith level. Despite such progress, the general development of Saudi Arabia is still very low.  Freedom of expression, female empowerment and participatory component indexes are at their lowest points in a long time.

A basic law has run through transitional Saudi Arabia and royal decrees since 1992. This basic law underpins Islamic Law, Sharia’a, as the source of governing and running the country.   Since the establishment of current Saudi Arabia, there has been neither a constitution nor basic law. However, changes since 1992 did not signify a political will of the ruling family of openness towards the Saudis but rather was a result of requirements to follow neo-liberal economics that that also necessitated political reform.

The only positive development that can be identified in the last half decade is in the egalitarian and civil society indices. Development in the egalitarian dimensions of democracy in Saudi Arabia can be explained by several reasons:  an increased number of educated Saudi males and females, pressure from international non-governmental organizations, and deep-rooted informal charity organizations led by the younger generation, which were inspired by their counterparts in other parts of the world.

Egalitarian index is based on eight indicators(Graph 2) that mostly focus on different aspects of equality in society.  The change in Saudi Arabia’s egalitarian component comes primarily from an increase in educational and health equality.  Graph 2 shows that educational equality has improved at an unprecedented rate. Health equality has been improving since the seventies, but has yet to reach a high score. Five to ten percent of citizens are unable to exercise their rights because of poor-quality health care.

The indicators of access to justice show a negative trend since 2000.  Since 2001, the Saudi judicial system has not been transparent and efficient, and pretexts of terrorism have been used to harass minorities and certain factions, which in reality enjoy less civil liberties than the general population.

Nor has there been a noticeable change in the last seventy years in power distributed by gender, socio-economic position and per social group.

In conclusion, upcoming elections in Saudi Arabia will be a true test for the conservatives and the Saudi regime. They will be a good indicator as to which direction Saudis want their country to go, as well as whether the government will implement transparent measures concerning political and economic reform. Saudi Arabia still has much to achieve in all aspects and indicators of democracy.

In graph one, the female empowerment index is formed by taking the average of women’s civil liberties index, women’s civil society participation index and women’s political participation index. It reflects the process of increasing capacity for women, giving them a broader set of choices in taking part in societal and political decisions.

Participatory component measures the extent to which the ideal of participatory democracy is achieved, (which appears to be very low), while civil society participation index indicates whether or not major civil society organizations are routinely consulted by policy makers, and how large this involvement is.

 The more important index is the egalitarian component, which reflects the extent to which the ideal of egalitarian democracy is achieved. According to V-Dem, the egalitarian principle of democracy holds that material and immaterial inequalities inhibit the exercise of formal rights and liberties, and diminish the ability of citizens from all social groups to participate.

Graph 2 Equality in Saudi Arabia 1940-2014



Dr. Abdalhadi Alijla

Abdalhadi Alijla is a Palestinian academic, writer  and essayist. Abdalhadi is the Executive Director  for The Institute for the Middle East Studies Canada (IMESC). He has a PhD in Political Studies (comparative politics and public policy) from State University of Milan, Italy and holds an M.A. degree in Public Policy and Governance from Zeppelin University- Friedrichshafen, Germany. He was a visiting scholar at Gothenburg university, Sweden in 2014-2015. He is the Regional Manager for Gulf Countries at the Varieties of Democracy Institute in Sweden, as well as the advisor and program manager on religion and public affairs at Adyan Institute in Beirut. Abdalhadi was involved in political research on volunteerism at United Nations Volunteers in Bonn, Germany. In 2010, he was a visiting researcher at ICCOM in Rome, Italy. He also worked as a sessional lecturer at Alazhar University- Gaza. Abdalhadi is a fellow of the Soliya network for dialogue and was selected as a junior scientist at the 3oth Alternative Noble Prize by Right Livelihood College. He is a DAAD fellow of Public Policy and Good Governance and a fellow of Royal Soceity of Art and Science, UK. Furthermore, Abdalhadi is the author of “Social Movement, Political Party or Armed Militia: Hamas as an informal institution". His writings have appeared in many local and international platforms about culture, politics and society. His main research interests are divided societies, democracy, social capital, Middle East studies, comparative politics and philosophy of religions.