A poll conducted in early 2011 and just now released found that Saudis tend to be confident that their government can tackle the country’s problems over the next five years.
When asked to what extent the government could address the challenges identified by the survey, 30% replied to a great extent and 31% said to an average extent, while 19% replied to a limited extent and 11% said it couldn’t address them at all; 9% declined to answer.
An overwhelming majority of respondents expressed trust in the government and its main institutions. More than 50% said they trusted the government, the judiciary and the armed forces to a great extent, while about 3% said they do not trust these institutions.
Respondents gave the government high marks on performance: 78% said it was either good or very good, while 4% rated it bad or very bad. Moreover, 73% expressed confidence in the government’s economic management and 75% said it had improved basic health services, while 55% said it was narrowing the gap between rich and poor. But only 49% said the government’s performance at creating employment opportunities was good or very good.
The survey found that 59% of Saudis were confident that the state was undertaking far-reaching and radical reforms in its institutions and agencies, though it was conducted before the Royal Decrees issued in February and March 2011.
The poll contained mixed messages on Saudi attitudes toward democracy. Fifty-four percent of respondents agreed that a democratic system, while it may have problems, is better than other systems, and a majority rejected an authoritarian political system, with around half saying it was absolutely inappropriate for their country. Only 12% said an authoritarian system was either appropriate or very appropriate in Saudi Arabia.
But the rejection of authoritarian systems shouldn’t be seen as support for a Western-style democracy in Saudi Arabia. Approval of such a system declined significantly when Saudis were asked if it was appropriate for their own country. While 28% said it was appropriate or very appropriate, 27% said it was absolutely inappropriate, and 30% said democratic systems aren’t effective at maintaining order and stability.
The data showed significant support for giving Saudi women more rights, with 82% of respondents expressing support for married women working outside the home and 69% saying women should have equal rights in divorce cases. While 82% also backed women’s right to be ministers, only 50% agreed they should have the right to be judges and 41% said they should be allowed to become prime minister or president of Muslim countries.
The findings are based on data collected last year between Jan. 5 and Feb. 6, 2011, by Arab Democracy Barometer, an organization established by scholars in the Arab world and the U.S. to produce reliable pubic opinion data in the Arab world. A random sample of 1405 respondents was chosen to represent the broader Saudi population; the margin of error is plus-or-minus 3 percentage points.
The survey found that Saudis are neither generally in favor of a system in which only Islamist parties compete in parliamentary elections, nor of a system in which only secular parties are allowed to compete. But when asked about the appropriateness for their country of a political system that is governed by Islamic law without elections or political parties, 51% said this was either appropriate or very appropriate, while only 16% considered such a system to be absolutely inappropriate.
Fully 86% of Saudis consider themselves to be religious or somewhat religious, and 26% of respondents said democracy contradicts the teachings of Islam; of those, 93% disapproved of a democratic system.
The apparent discrepancies in Saudi attitudes toward a democratic system might stem in part from the fact that a majority define democracy in socioeconomic rather than political terms. For instance, 54% of respondents said the main features of democracy are providing basic items such as food, housing and clothing to every individual.
The combined economic effects of poverty, unemployment and inflation are the most important challenges facing Saudi Arabia, according to nearly half of the respondents, but more than 70% were optimistic about the country’s economic outlook.
Financial and administrative corruption were identified by 16% of respondents as the most important challenges facing the country, while 9% cited divorce and spinsterhood and 6% pointed to the financial burdens of marriage.
Saud al-Sarhan is a visiting fellow, LIVIT Project, Exeter University.