The importance of municipalities

Iqraa, a religious broadcaster funded by Saudi media mogul Saleh Kamel, had an interesting episode of its program “Al Souq” or  “The Market” last night that focused on the role of municipalities.

The episode was hosted in Turkey, where, to the backdrop of the Bosphorous, local guests spoke glowingly about Turkish municipalities’ support for entrepreneurship and their efficient management of public services, such as transportation.

Kamel, who frequently appears as a guest on his own network, lamented that this breed of municipality was desperately missing in Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

So what was the key to better municipal governance? Fair elections every four years, the Turkish guests said, stressing the point.

Kamel agreed, noting that municipalities in Turkey serve as small governments, where the entire municipal council is elected, which he said was different than in many Arab countries where municipal presidents wield too much power.

The guests agreed, noting that transparency and accountability were key to the success of municipal projects.

Was this Kamel’s way of nudging for more democracy in his home country, Saudi Arabia?

Kamel noted that Mecca’s municipality in particular should benefit from the experience of Istanbul Municipality’s public transport system to help facilitate the Hajj pilgrims. He said such a transport project for Mecca would be taking place “soon enshallah.”

Municipalities are such an important topic when discussing democracy and better governance in the region, but they are not addressed often enough. Even in Lebanon where municipal council members are supposedly-democratically elected, the councils remain in the grip of the dominant party system and citizens often look to them as a place to pay taxes but get little in return.

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