Alwasat Newspaper invited Jafar Alshayeb, the Chairman of Qatif Municipal Council of Qatif in Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, to discuss the Saudi municipal experience. Alshayeb stressed on that “it is a worthwhile experience; especially it had occurred at the same time of social and political developments in the Saudi society”.
He showed his confidence in the support that the municipal experience receives from the Saudi government which is led by King Abdullah. He referred to the Saudi society acceptance for expanding the range of public participation in monitoring the executive systems in order to enhance their performance.
Alshayeb mentioned that there are 179 municipal councils in Saudi Arabia and that requires great efforts from the government as well as the people to succeed in achieving democratic process. Once again, he showed his support to the draft plan of establishing an association for the municipal councils in the Gulf.
It was noted that religious trend had dominated the municipal elections although different other trends and orientations participated in the elections.
In fact, the laws of municipal councils in Saudi Arabia issued in 1977; after the issuance of an act that regulates municipalities’ work and organizes the administrative geographic distribution in various provinces in the Kingdom. However, this act was not applied since its enactment.
Due to external and interna transformations in Saudi Arabia, that act was activated in 2004 through holding general elections for the first time in the Kingdom where 50% of the councils’ members are elected and the other half are appointed. This change occurred within a set of transformations such as forming a governmental commission for human rights and adopting the National Dialogue initiative.
In the beginning, in Saudi Arabia, there were concerns and reservations over elections as well as one prevailed conservative perspective that does not approve holding elections as a means to represent people. Municipal elections were divided into three stages. The first one included the Central Province whereas the second included the Eastern and the Southern Provinces. As for the third stage, it involved the Northern and the Western Provinces.
The first stage resulted in a state of assurance and a positive stand that supports the experience. In general, municipal elections were fair, in which the authorities did not intervene; therefore, the second elections stage showed more effectiveness.
There were several distinctive factors that distinguished elections in the Eastern Province such as its closeness to Bahrain.
The candidates benefited so much from the municipal experience in Bahrain in which many training programs were carried out for the candidates.
Another factor, the society was motivated to participate in elections in order to get used to this democratic process regardless of municipal councils’ roles.
Actually, many private committees were established to educate people about elections and facilitate their participation in them, besides holding meetings with various social and intellectual elites.
However, some people had reservations over the municipal elections because they did not realize their benefits but after Riyadh municipal experience, they noted that municipal elections are real chances for participating in making decisions.
This is why the highest percentage that is recorded in Saudi Arabia was in Qatif; forty percent in compare with twenty percent in Riyadh.
The system of elections was associated with some problems that naturally occur with any democratic transformation process due to social developments.
For instance, women were not allowed to participate as well as employees of the military sector. There were, also, several shortcomings in the voting system, and it is believed that they will be addressed in the next term of elections; after two years.
There are various issues that held back the development of municipal councils.
One of them is that the Ministry of Municipality Affairs was not fully prepared; therefore, it postponed forming municipal councils for several months in order to prepare laws and regulations, and to choose appointed members. That period of time created a state of unconcern. Then municipal councils were formed after selecting the appointed members according to the geographical distribution of each province. Moreover, those members are not enthusiastic, motivated and effective although they are highly competent.
Since the beginning of this experience, the municipal councils faced many problems as unclear regulations which created a sort of powers’ contradiction e.g. the head of municipality became the chairman of the municipal council in some regions. Alshayeb believes that this situation weakens the council because of the contradicted powers.
Alshayeb mentioned that there are 179 municipal councils in Saudi Arabia.
Their members range between 4 and 14 members; evenly divided to appointed and elected members. However, they are not fully devoted to municipal councils and they are required to hold one meeting every month at least, and this way is not considered an efficient one because municipal work needs full devotion and several committees. It, also, requires coordinating between different municipal councils in order to exchange experiences.
Qatif Municipal Council consists of te members; five of them are elected and the other five are appointed.
The Council was responsible for carrying out several significant projects like founding neighborhoods councils, administrated by its people who observe and mark down the society’s needs. Furthermore, the Council organizes Beautiful Qatif Campaign which aims to involve all official and private institutions in cleaning the region and educating people over its importance. It is, also, the first municipal council that established its own website.
Alshayeb indicated that the m problem is in the centralized administration.
There is cooperation with some branches of ministers at the city level, but there is, also, a draft, which is currently being studied, over giving regions more powers. For instance, each region can offer an integral balanced draft instead of being offered by central ministries.
When King Abdullah visited Jizan Region, he made a statement on the negligence of reconstructing that area which is remote from central cities and called for a balanced development plan.
As for the developments in the draft of establishing a Gulf municipalities association, Alshayeb stated that this draft was discussed in Manamah, Bahrain, in the first GCC Municipal Conference.
This idea was largely accepted by members of Gulf’s municipal councils who were participating in the conference. He believes that Gulf’s municipalities’ union project is significant and will play a vital role.
Alshayeb referred to two approaches to improve the municipal councils. One of them is reviewing the current panels and making recommendations which the ministry, already, presented the panels for being reviewed and that offered members of municipal councils the opportunity to participate in reviewing regulations.
However, there is almost a total consensus upon the necessity of reformulating some of those regulations such as expanding elections to include all members of the society, such as giving women the opportunity to nominate themselves and making members’ total devotion as a condition.
The other approach is holding bilateral and collective meetings to councils’ members. Those meetings are so important for exchanging experiences.