RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Saudi Arabia is holding elections this week, which is a remarkable thing in and of itself in a kingdom ruled by one royal family. They're municipal elections for local councils that deal with mostly local issues. But what's even more significant is that for the first time, women will be able to vote. The election happens this coming Saturday. I'll be traveling to the capital city, Riyadh, this week to cover that historic vote. But my colleague, Deb Amos, is already there on the ground in Riyadh. She joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us, Deb.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you.
MARTIN: What's the significance of these elections? What are people telling you?
AMOS: I can say that the women running are very excited. Many of them are activists. They're businesswomen. And they have pushed for this. They're also very savvy. They know these positions on the municipal councils have very little power. You know, I talked to a candidate, Kariman Buhari (ph). And she said, I'm doing this for my daughters. One of them's studying law. She says we want change for women here. And this is an educational process. Now, not many women registered this time. And Buhari says it's a wake-up call for them. And she says you have to register next time. There's been a couple of other boosts for women that are equally important. One is the government removed a ban on certain jobs that women have not been able to take. But two - and this is the big one. Everyone here is talking about it. For the first time, widowed and divorced women will be able to have control of family matters. They can apply for something called a family identity card. They won't have to get permission from a man or the courts to do really normal things, like registering their kids for school or getting medical treatment without having to ask permission. This is a very big deal here.
MARTIN: You've been covering Saudi Arabia for a long time. You've been in and out of there. Does it feel different to you, this trip? Does it feel like a real opening in the civil society?
AMOS: You know, there's a new king. And he is talking about pushing change. There is a younger generation that's also moved into positions behind him. You feel that there are openings, perhaps not in civil society but certainly in culture. I had an interview with the minister of culture and information. And he's talking about having concerts in Saudi Arabia. He's talking about opening museums. These are big changes in a population where a younger generation is pushing for change. This is a country that has - 60 percent of the population is under 30.
MARTIN: Well, women are no doubt celebrating this vote, this newfound right. And there are all these openings in the culture, as you say. Saudi Arabia is still under heavy international scrutiny for its human rights record. Case in point, there's a Palestinian poet who's been charged with apostasy because of his writings and sentenced to death. The U.N. has weighed in on this, asking the government of Saudi Arabia to reverse the sentence. This is the kind of story that captures headlines here in the West. Is it something people there are talking about?
AMOS: They are. Look, it's an unprecedented wave of executions - 150 so far this year. And it's the most in 20 years. So what you see is an alarm that began about a year ago, when a liberal blogger - his name is Raif Badawi - was sentenced to a thousand lashes for insulting Islam. They carried out 50 of them, and then they stopped. Now we have this young artist - this Palestinian - who was born here. He was sentenced to death for apostasy. You have three young Saudi Shia Muslims who were arrested when they were minors. They're facing beheading. There's another 50 who face imminent execution. People are talking about it here. Certainly with the Palestinian artist, you find that activists here have been quietly asking embassies, asking human rights organizations to send letters, to put pressure on the government to raise the alarm. And we are witnessing a regional trend. The same thing is happening in Iran and in Pakistan - all time high of executions. Some people say it could be a reaction to regional instability. They all want to look tough. But it is alarming to see so many executions.
MARTIN: NPR's Deb Amos in Riyadh. We'll be joining her on the ground in Saudi Arabia this week. Thanks so much, Deb.
AMOS: Thank you.
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