King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud made a surprise announcement during his opening address at the Shura Council (the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia appointed by the monarch, with only limited advisory powers): indeed, the "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" declared that henceforth women would have the right to vote and run in local elections. Carried away by his enthusiasm, the sovereign also added that he would not hesitate to appoint women to the 2013 Shura!
Flabbergasted by such audacity, the Western powers gushed in praise and adulation. William Hague, British Foreign Minister, celebrated "a significant step forward for the Saudi people." For its part, France saluted "a landmark decision [which] is part of a reform effort that meets the expectations of Saudi society and youth." The representative of the German government stressed that Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the "important step in the march towards reform conducted under the guidance of King Abdullah."
In 2009, the king already had the boldness to appoint a woman to his council of ministers: he transferred the responsibility for the education of girls from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to the Ministry of Education, and appointed Ms. Nour Fayez secretary of state, a position that her liberal husband had authorized her to accept.
His Highness underscored that, after consultation with the Ulama (Muslim legal scholars), these new rights granted to women would be exercised in accordance with Sharia law. For instance, women candidates for municipal office must present a written authorization from their husbands, while women voters must be accompanied by their guardians at the polling station.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and one of the most authoritarian political regimes in the world, but also one of the best allies of the West in its tireless struggle for democracy. The King concentrates all legislative, executive and judicial powers in his hands. He personally exercises the functions of head of state and prime minister. The Kingdom has no state budget, but is administered by the supreme ruler as his private domain without being accountable to anyone.