STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Saudi Arabia holds historic elections this weekend - historic because women vote for the first time. That voting opens a window into a nation that is vitally important for much more than oil. When the United States wants a country to to help bring together rebels in nearby Syria, it relies on Saudi Arabia. When suspects were identified in last week's attack on San Bernardino, it turned out one had lived in Saudi Arabia. And when Americans talk about exceedingly conservative brands of Islam, it is common to mention Saudi Arabia. Now comes this unprecedented vote. NPR's Deborah Amos is in Riyadh along with NPR Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin. They're both covering the election. Good day to you both.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Good day, Steve.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Great to talk to you.
INSKEEP: Of course, people know Rachel, as a veteran reporter, has spent a lot of time in the Middle East. But it's your first visit to Saudi Arabia. What strikes you when you get off the plane and move around?
MARTIN: Well, it's like a lot of other Middle Eastern cities. There are big billboards for American fast food restaurants. There are a lot of SUVs. There's a lot of traffic in Riyadh. There's also a lot of pollution. There are construction projects. It's a city that is transitioning. But as you get closer into the city's center, what really strikes you is what you might think would strike you. There are not women walking around. Every once in a while you catch one on a corner fully covered. But in the public spaces, at least, it's a male dominated society.
INSKEEP: Very modern in some ways, very traditional in other ways and it's a city, Riyadh, the capital, that Deborah Amos knows well because you've been there several times. What strikes you after you've been to that landscape a few times?
AMOS: From the outside, change always seems glacial. And then I get here and I see something and I'm astonished by it. We were on Tahlia Street. A lot of guys are hanging out, smoking, having coffee. And I met three 17-year-old girls who essentially said we're walking down this street, too. We're making a point. And I was astonished because it's unusual. I asked if their parents knew and they said, no. But they were doing it anyway because 60 percent of this population is under 30. And the expectations for them are huge.
INSKEEP: And you are beginning to point toward the story you're there to cover - women voting in local elections. What's at stake?
AMOS: When you go to these campaign rallies, people are talking about recycling. They're talking about trash pickup. They're talking about having cultural centers with more places for health care. Local issues - that's what the election is about. It's for local municipal councils. Sixty percent of the seats are now elected. The rest are still appointed. These are baby steps. What is the big news here of course is that women can vote and women can run. And more than 900 of them have signed up to do so.
INSKEEP: And just to give the context for baby steps, we'll remind people there is a royal family that holds supreme power in Saudi Arabia and makes all the big decisions. But now women are in on some of these smaller decisions. What are women telling you two about that?
MARTIN: I went and walked around a big department store here. And I talked with some young women in their 20s, early 30s. These are women who have college degrees. They are professional women. They're the women you would think would be really animated by this vote. They didn't even know it was happening when I brought it up to them. It strikes you that this isn't a traditional election as we in the West might perceive it. On the other hand, you talk to some activists who have been involved in women's rights for a long time here, and they say, sure, this is symbolic. But it's a powerful symbol. It still matters that women can go to polls and exercise choice in a way they haven't been able to before.
INSKEEP: Deborah Amos.
AMOS: What I've noticed is it's really about education and democracy. I had somebody say, how do you people register? I said, we do it with our driver's licenses, and they were surprised by that because that's easy. Here, it was really hard. Some people didn't even understand that they had to register. So as these candidates are talking to women in these small venues where everybody comes and drinks coffee, they're learning about how you do this. And that is what's interesting to watch.
INSKEEP: Are Saudis allowing women to vote because they want to improve their international image for women's rights?
MARTIN: Well, you know, I did talk with one Saudi activist today who said that she's boycotting the vote. She said it's superficial. This is all outward looking. This is the way the Saudi regime is trying to improve its image by saying, hey, look at us. We are letting women vote, and that this is somehow a counter narrative to the human rights abuses that often capture headlines in the West.
AMOS: Saudi Arabia is the last of the six Gulf monarchs to give women the right to vote. So this is a trend in the region. And part of this is about we have a drop in the price of oil. Saudis are saying, hey, wait a minute. We're not going to have the luxury state that has been the history of this country. Maybe we want a say in what's going to happen. And so that is the import of the selection - a change in the compact between the rulers and the governed.
INSKEEP: NPR's Deborah Amos is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Deb, thanks very much.
AMOS: Thank you.
INSKEEP: And we were also talking with NPR's Rachel Martin, host of Weekend Edition Sunday, and we'll hear more of her reporting on the Saudi election this weekend. Rachel, thanks.
MARTIN: Thanks, Steve.
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