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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in Saudi Arabia

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: January 2015

Government and Politics

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s last absolute monarchies; the most powerful person in the country is the king, which has been Salman bin Abdulaziz since January 2015. The king acts as both head of state and head of government or prime minister, and has sole responsibility for choosing his successor. The successor, called the crown prince (now Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz), is second in command and acts as deputy prime minister. There is also a second deputy prime minister (now Mohammed bin Naif) who helps the king and crown prince in their duties. The king is not a completely arbitrary ruler, as he is expected to abide by the Basic Law (see Legal Systems below.)

The king is leader of the executive branch, which also includes the deputy prime minister, senior ministers and provincial governors. The executive is known as the Council of Ministers, though these ministers act in an advisory capacity, rather than having real power. The 28 ministers are all appointed on a four-yearly basis, by the king.

Saudi Arabia has no legislature; either directly or indirectly, the king promulgates all legislation. There is a body with an advisory role in legislation, the Majlis ash-Shura (‘Consultative Council’.) The Majlis is responsible for reviewing laws and proposing to the king which ones should be passed. The king will then assent to the proposals or not as he chooses. There are 150 members of the Majlis, all of whom are appointed by the king.

Citizens do have the opportunity to petition their leaders at the Majlis, and also at the Royal Divan, where the king and various other dignitaries may be present. Of course, the king and other dignitaries are free to ignore such petitions. Each of Saudi Arabia’s 13 provinces is administrated by a governor, normally an emir from the royal family, which is very large. Citizens can also petition their provincial governor.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most authoritarian states in the world. Political parties are banned, religions other than Islam are virtually illegal and state education is often barely distinguishable from brainwashing. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections in 2005, and women were permitted to vote for the first time in 2015. The situation appears to be improving rather than getting worse, but progress is slow.

The right to free expression is severely curtailed for all, and citizens have almost no power to influence how they are governed – other than by petitions, which can be ignored, and demonstrations, which are illegal. Any public criticism of the leadership’s barbarity is likely to be barbarically punished (for example, in 2014, online critic of the government Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes.)

Generally, men do not encounter any problems so long as they keep their noses clean. By contrast, the way women are treated is tantamount to gender apartheid – men and women are kept completely separate in public places. Furthermore, women are not allowed to go out without being escorted by a man and may not drive a car, ride a bike or even interact with men who are not relatives (this means, for one thing, no dating.)

Women are also expected to cover themselves up completely, wearing a black abaya wherever they go out, even in the 45°C summer sun. Women are systematically belittled and legally treated as second-class citizens; in some cases, a woman is legally codified as being worth half a man. Most appallingly, women have even been punished for being raped, as if the blame lay with them.

Religious freedom in the Kingdom is also virtually absent. You are expected to follow the state religion, Sunni Islam – with a strong preference for the Wahhabi branch thereof. If you do not, you are potentially suspect and there is a chance the sinister Mutaween (religious police) will encourage you to see the error of your ways. Hindus, Christians and Buddhists – particularly those from poorer countries – have been deported or flogged for practising their faith, in public and even behind closed doors. Shi’ites, Sufis and Ahmadi Muslims and even non-Wahhabi Sunni Muslims have also been punished for deviating from the one true faith.


Legal Systems

Officially, the Saudi constitution is comprised of the Koran and the Sunnah (sayings and traditions attributed to Mohammed after his death.) However, these documents are often contradictory and cannot practicably form the legal basis for running a modern country. Hence the Basic Law, which is derived from them, is effectively used as the constitution instead. The Basic Law contains elements of local customary law and Egyptian law, which is itself largely derived from the French Napoleonic Code.The interpretations of the Koran and Sunnah that are used to inform it are from the harsh, ultra-conservative Hanbali school, in which the more charitable aspects are mostly absent.

In what cannot exactly be described as a separation of powers, the king, who is head of state and head of government, is also head of the judiciary. An audience with the king is the final court of appeal. Beneath the king are the courts of appeal and courts of first instance. The judiciary is not independent; its decisions must be in line with those of the executive branch – the king once again. He and other senior members of the Saudi Royal Family therefore have considerable influence over the judicial process.

Trials are often held behind closed doors and not subject to public scrutiny, and many defendants are denied access to a lawyer. Furthermore, accused persons are often detained without charge and denied access to legal representation. The insistence on the inconvenient Koranic requirement of having four sworn witnesses for the report of a crime to be valid is sometimes bypassed by means of torturing a confession out of the alleged criminal.

Both corporal and capital punishment are freely in use. The well-known punishment for theft is amputation of the right hand. This in fact happens very rarely and is carried out under anaesthetic. Other ‘crimes’ on the statutes include idolatry, sorcery and apostasy (choosing to leave the Islamic faith.) The more serious punishments are usually held in public. This is ostensibly to maximise the shame the offender feels, but it certainly helps to press home the terror of the punishment. Meanwhile, foreigners who are found guilty of (non-capital) crimes are usually punished then deported.

Public morality in Saudi is probably very different from what you are used to. Behaviour such as ostentatious drunkenness, excessive public affection between the sexes (certainly full-on kissing, but sometimes even hugging), obscenity and dressing immodestly may end you up with a fine or even a brief stay in a police cell. Being alone in the company of an unrelated member of the opposite sex can also lead to arrest. The police are more likely to penalise people for these misdemeanours during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Eating and drinking in daylight hours is prohibited, and, if caught, you face deportation.




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