Saudi Arabia is pursuing judicial and legal reform: between the U.S. and Sharia

The Kingdom authorities are trying to improve the human rights situation

The Saudi Arabian authorities began the new year with reforms that should seriously improve the legal status of the country’s citizens. Since its inception, the kingdom has lived according to the principles of Sharia, which actually replace the laws. However, now several important norms will appear in the country at once. Their development, as well as the release from prison of two Saudi human rights defenders, coincided with mounting criticism from Washington, where the new administration has promised to “recalibrate relations” with the kingdom.

As the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, said in early February, the country is completing the development of four new laws: the law on personal status, on civil transactions, on evidence and the Criminal Code itself. Their adoption should improve the kingdom’s judicial system and “strengthen the principles of fairness and transparency”. According to the prince, due to the outdated judicial code, as well as inconsistencies in court decisions, many of the country’s citizens, “mostly women”, suffered.

Religious dogmas

The main source for all laws in Saudi Arabia remains Sharia law. Especially in areas such as criminal, family, trade and contract law. The decision on certain cases remained on the conscience of each individual judge, which often led to different sentences for the same offenses. Moreover, not only murder, rape, theft and robbery, but also apostasy, adultery, magic and witchcraft are considered serious criminal offenses in the country.

The Arabian judicial system is a mixture of Sharia courts and administrative tribunals, which appeared during the reign of the monarchy’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdurrahman Al Saud (reigned 1932-1953).

Only in the 21st century, under King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (years of government – 2005-2015), Saudi Arabia began to gradually free itself from the influence of religious dogmas in public life.

The incumbent King Salman bin Abdel Aziz Al Saud, who came to power in 2015, continued the course of his predecessor. Saudi Arabia has experienced changes in tourism and culture, and the rights of women have expanded. In October 2017, it was announced that the country would return to “moderate Islam” and the intention to turn it into a state open to the whole world. The transformation was directly dealt with by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who received the image of a reformer. New commercial courts were created to deal with commercial disputes, including bankruptcy cases.

In 2018, Saudi women were allowed to drive, and in 2019, authorities canceled the custody system that prevented them from making various decisions without a male relative (father, brother, husband, or son). In 2020, Saudi Arabia banned the use of lashes as a form of punishment.

International standards

The current reform should speed up sentencing, make them more consistent, and make institutions more effective.

“The absence of these legislative norms has led to discrepancies in court rulings, ambiguity of rules governing incidents and practices, which has increased the time of trial, and the previous judicial code does not meet the needs of society at all”, – explained Mohammed bin Salman.

According to the prince, the new laws not only meet international judicial standards, but do not contradict the principles of Sharia law.

As added by the Minister of Justice of the Kingdom Walid bin Mohammad Al-Samaani, the new Criminal Code classifies crimes into different categories depending on their nature, scale and consequences, as well as the punishments applied in each case. The country will secure the will of women in marriage contracts, and the law on personal status will establish the minimum age for marriage. The authorities will also expand articles protecting the rights and interests of the child.

The development of new laws should be completed this year. After that, they will be presented to the Council of Ministers, and then to the Mejlis al-Shura – an advisory council that makes recommendations to the authorities.

For the benefit of the image

Legal reforms were another step of Saudi Arabia towards the Vision 2030 course, which involves diversifying the country’s oil economy, improving its infrastructure, as well as raising the living standards of citizens. The new laws will help create an attractive environment for investors and increase confidence in the Saudi economy.

At the same time, many experts and the media associate the reforms with a bias towards human rights with the desire of Riyadh to get along with the new American administration. In addition, the country needs to restore its international image, damaged by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashkadzhi in the Saudi consulate general in Istanbul. 

Unlike Donald Trump, Biden’s team has pledged to pay more attention to human rights in the context of US-Saudi relations.

“We certainly expect Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record. This includes the release from Saudi prisons of political prisoners such as women’s rights advocates,” said Jen Psaki, a White House spokeswoman.

Washington has already sent for reconsideration questions about the sale of weapons to the kingdom, which the Saudi military is using in the devastating conflict in Yemen. In addition, the United States stopped supporting the Arabian coalition’s military operations in that country.

Against this backdrop, the authorities released two Saudi human rights defenders, who also had American citizenship. Ludjain al-Hazlul and Nuf Abdel Aziz advocated for women’s empowerment. They were arrested back in 2018 on charges of having links with terrorists and violating religious norms. The prison sentences for the activists drew criticism from international organizations and Western governments. The decision to release them was welcomed in the White House and hopes for “further progress in the coming months”.

At the same time, despite the change in the US rhetoric towards the kingdom, Washington still sees Riyadh as an important regional partner and ally. Along with statements about “recalibration of relations” Jen Psaki noted that the current US executive branch of government will continue to provide military assistance to Saudi Arabia.

Dmitry Belyaev, TASS

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