All the King's Women

A royal decree allowing women the right to vote can't hide the decay in the House of Saud.

Articles enumerating the advances in women's rights in Saudi Arabia have, until now, tended to be rather short. There simply hasn't been much to write about: Saudi women haven't had many rights, at least not in terms Westerners usually understand -- the right to vote, the right to drive, or the right to travel without a male guardian. But with King Abdullah's royal decree on Sunday, Sept. 25, granting women the right to vote in municipal elections, there has now been a river of commentary placing this reform in the context of the upheaval elsewhere in the Arab world. This news, however, does not justify the tediously high word counts that the commentariat will undoubtedly reach over the next few days.

King Abdullah's edict is certainly a change. It might even be progress. But some caution is necessary. Women will not actually be allowed to vote until municipal elections in 2015 -- when they will also be allowed to stand as candidates. In Saudi Arabia's nascent parliament, the appointed consultative council, change will come earlier: Women will be allowed to serve in the next session, which will begin in 2012.

The delay might matter. King Abdullah is 88 years old and has a variety of ailments. He might not be around this time next year. His nominated successor, Crown Prince Sultan, 87, is even less likely to be alive then; he currently resides in a New York City hospital and is believed to be terminally ill. The apparent next in line, the conservative Prince Nayef, likely has a different attitude toward women's rights. In the past he has spoken out against the nascent campaign to allow women to drive.

Saudi watchers, certainly including yours truly, didn't see this announcement coming. King Abdullah's reputation as a reformer has dimmed in recent years. He doesn't seem to have the energy to push for the needed consensus in the royal family and, more particularly, from the kingdom's orthodox Sunni Islam clerical hierarchy. But the monarch did attempt to bridge these divides by painting the change as completely compatible with Islamic tradition. "All people know that Muslim women have had in the Islamic history, positions that cannot be marginalized," he said, going on to note women's contributions since the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

This reform, however, was the exception rather than the rule. In fact, King Abdullah hasn't seemed to be making any decisions recently. A diplomatic friend recently described the monarch as "lucid for only a couple of hours a day." And last week, there was what seemed to be the height of Saudi indecision: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was allowed to return home from a Saudi hospital after recovering from injuries sustained nearly four months ago -- despite an apparent agreement between Riyadh and Washington that, for the future good of troubled Yemen, this shouldn't happen.

Whoever made the decision to ship Saleh back to Yemen is as of yet unclear, but credit for women's voting rights should probably be given to the king's daughter, Adila, who has been a known advocate of her gender's increased participation in public life, particularly driving, for several years. Adila was also seen as being the moving force in the 2009 appointment of Norah al-Faiz as a deputy minister of education -- the first woman to achieve such prominence in government. But, apart from allowing Adila to speak out, King Abdullah himself has hardly been noted for behavior toward women that would pass for enlightened in most other parts of the world.

In my 1994 study of Saudi royals, "After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia," I included a cheeky footnote pointing out that then Crown Prince Abdullah had the full Islamic complement of four wives, "two of whom were semi-permanent and the other two 'rolled-over.'" Good taste inhibited me from including the same information in my updated 2009 study, "After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia."

The king's replenishment of wives, however, is having a notable effect on the House of Saud's ever-growing family tree. The king's youngest son, Badr, was fathered when the monarch must have been in his late 70s. And I have since discovered that Sahab, the daughter who married (or was married off to) a son of Bahrain's King Hamad this summer, was only born in 1993, when King Abdullah would have been 70 years old.

How did King Abdullah manage to be so (pro)creative? No sniggering please but, via WikiLeaks, the State Department has provided us with a possible answer. A 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh reports that King Abdullah "remains a heavy smoker, regularly receives hormone injections and 'uses Viagra excessively.'"

So, the essential question remains: Is this the country Saudi women want to vote for?

-/AFP/Getty Images


Doha Is Dead

But do we really need multilateral institutions anymore to kick-start international trade?

This past weekend, the world's central bankers and finance ministers gathered in Washington with the grandees of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for their annual meetings. Their attention was, quite naturally, focused on the European debt crisis. Officially, the world's economic leaders remained committed to concluding a global trade accord, although only the leaders of the developing world reiterated that commitment over the weekend. But instead of embracing old commitments, they should all recognize that those trade talks (the so-called Doha round) are dead, the negotiating agenda is out of date, and international business has moved on. Efforts to expand trade on other tracks, however, are far from dead.

It would be difficult to repeat the string of multilateral trade successes that characterized the first 50 years after World War II. The achievements reflected a confluence of circumstances that no longer exist: U.S. economic and military dominance and unrivaled political leadership of the Western world, the weakness of the developing countries as a group, and, finally, the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. led-coalition and the Soviet bloc, which paradoxically produced stunning achievements in multilateral diplomacy.

In the field of trade diplomacy, this era reached its apogee in the 1990s with the conclusion of the Uruguay round in 1994 and the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Since then, the international economic consensus has progressively disintegrated, with the Doha round as a notable casualty. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is another victim. In both cases, entrenched national interests and the rise of new powers with protectionist tendencies (Brazil, China, India, and South Africa) prevented meaningful compromise. The question is: Where do we go from here?

The answer is to set aside grand global efforts and think small until conditions are more favorable. Trade negotiators should concentrate their efforts on two things: making progress on liberalizing trade through an expansion of smaller trade accords; and encouraging businesses, financial institutions, and other nonstate groups to reach their own trade-facilitating agreements.

One path is to seek regional and bilateral agreements (often called preferential trade agreements, or PTAs). While purists decry the retrenchment from multilateralism, the good thing about PTAs is that they are built on the same rules of trade enshrined in the original General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1947) and repeated in the WTO (1994). The best among them go far further than the WTO in reducing border and behind-the-border barriers, both to trade and to investment. To be sure, this process creates a playing field tilted in favor of "insiders" and against disfavored "outsiders." But the tilt furnishes a strong inspiration for the "outsiders" to lower their own barriers and jump back into the world trade and investment game. All but die-hard purists call this a virtuous circle.

Closely related to PTAs are subject-specific agreements between countries. An old example is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which entered into force in 1975 with 10 members and now numbers 175. The latest example is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, signed just a few weeks ago by 42 countries. After the dust from the Doha round settles, the WTO might get back in the negotiating game by serving as the umbrella organization for a series of plurilateral agreements, for example on the relation between trade rules and climate change, or on good practice with respect to exchange rates or state-owned enterprises.

Another way forward is to continue to advance global rule-making at the nonstate level, led by business groups, financial institutions, and civil organizations. These morally binding understandings, even though they are not legally binding agreements, have emerged as a new source of rules, not as formal state-to-state treaties but as subordinate rules of great significance. There are many examples: the anti-corruption and corporate governance standards set by Transparency International, ethical standards for mining investments set by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, various "green" certifications by NGOs involving trade in goods, the International Chamber of Commerce's rules governing letters of credit, the capital rules for banking promulgated by the Bank for International Settlements (Basel III), the standards for national securities regulation implemented by the International Organization of Securities Commissions, and so on. Such understandings have already developed their own momentum, as leading firms work out voluntary carbon emission and labor standards and as regulatory bodies that issue patents or review drugs consult with one another. The point is that economic self-interest can and does produce compromise and understanding as the search for systemic solutions continues.

So though we may mourn the passing of the old multilateralism, exemplified by the Doha round, new modes of international cooperation are supplementing and gradually supplanting the older, higher-level efforts at treaty-making. While less dramatic, less known, and less newsworthy, these ties are binding a globalized world into bilateral, regional, and subject-specific commitments and generally accepted norms of business conduct.