Today Saudi Arabia is holding its first elections in decades. Voters in the Riyadh region will be choosing candidates for municipal councils, with those in other parts of the country following over the next couple of months.
It's easy to dismiss the elections as pointless. Only half of the seats on each municipal council will be up for vote, with other half, as well as each council's mayor, to be appointed by the (unelected) central government. It's also unclear whether the councils will have more than symbolic power. In addition, only men are permitted to vote, and reports say that voter registration levels are fairly low.
And yet - in one sense, this is the very first opening, however tentative, for democracy in what has hitherto been the world's least democratic country with the possible exception of North Korea. Dismissing the elections as a meaningless gesture is premature, in my opinion. It might be that Saudi Arabia will never move any further toward popular rule. But it's too early to make such a gloomy assumption.