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Saudi Arabia’s top religious body has given the green light to codify the largely unwritten Sharia regulations governing the kingdom’s criminal, civil and family courts in order to bring more clarity and uniformity to judicial rulings.

 

The codification project is part of a major overhaul of the country’s legal system initiated three years ago by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.

 

The kingdom’s accessions to the World Trade Organisation and the G20 club of influential economies also mean that its legal system should meet international guidelines for commercial transactions. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s 2005 entry to the WTO was an impetus for King Abdullah’s renewed effort to reform the legal system, something that his predecessors had tried twice before only to be stymied by the religious establishment, for whom maintaining a strict, conservative interpretation of Islamic law is essential to Muslim identity.

 

Reuters reported that last year, 330 suspects detained on terrorism-related charges were tried in secret in a new court attached to Riyadh General Court. Most of them were sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths and one received the death sentence, which the government announced after the trials were over. 

Saudi rights activists and lawyers in touch with families of detainees said the trials amounted to summary judgments in which the defendants did not have appropriate opportunities to challenge evidence presented by prosecutors.

 

The king allocated nearly US$2 billion to implement the restructuring and to expand training for judges and other court personnel. Some of that money is now being used to construct new appeals courts and to send some judges abroad for legal seminars.

 

July 17, 2010

 

 

Analysis and Forecast: Decreasing Risk

 

The news that Saudi Arabia is finally moving towards judicial reform is very welcome news and in the long-term, will make the country more attractive to foreign investment and make it move in-line with other members of the G20.

 

However, the implementation phases of the reforms will be very challenging. Indeed, it is expected that the implementation will lead to rising tensions between the traditionalists, who oppose the reforms and the reformers. The difficulties are for two reasons:

  1. Opposition from the traditionalists. This is because they say “ijtihad” as an essential part of Sharia law. Ijtihad effectively gives the judges total freedom in interpreting the Sharia law and adapt them to the case in hand. Traditionalists fear that the codification of the Sharia law will undermine the ability of judges to use “ijtihad” Many senior judges are within the traditionalist camp when it comes to codification and reform.
  2. Practical difficulties with implementation. The Saudi judicial system lacks the resources to undertake the mammoth task of codification and the king’s desired reforms.

Both reasons will make the process long and protracted and fraught with difficulties. Not only is the task very challenging, but internal vocal and strong opposition will make it even more difficult. However, it is a task that needs tackling and the longer it takes to address, the more difficult it will be to implement. The King’s move to start the reform process is therefore a very welcome one on the long-term.