Reform and the will for change: Towards a state of law and institutions

Zuhair al-Harthi

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In order to understand the changes, transformations and decisions taking place in Saudi Arabia, we must avoid associating them with the timing, the nature of the current stage we are in, or society's readiness to accept and embrace them. The issue has gone far beyond these considerations as it is no longer a luxury but a necessity for the state and society. In other words, it is a strategic vision of the decision-maker, who is actualizing it according to an established timetable to achieve the goals, interests, and aspirations of his people. Ever since Prince Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, swift steps were taken for the consolidation of a civil state, considering both reform and development as urgent needs for contemporary life in order to achieve a better place humanitarianly and socially.

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Whenever Saudi Arabia is concerned, one either finds objectionable praise or harsh criticism. However, what we must aspire to is to become relatively objective and report on events as they are without any changes. An objective view would see that what Saudi Arabia is doing compels us to contemplate on it, examine it, and admire it. Today, Saudi Arabia and everything it has been going through establish a new reality and signal that the Kingdom is on the path of reform, and radical solutions. States cannot emerge, grow, and survive without adopting a modern and civilized vision alongside contemporary mindset and behavior as these are the things that determine if a society is progressing or lagging behind. Saudi Arabia was accused of being isolated in earlier stages and it paid the price of falling under the influence of the Sahwa movement. But at a historic moment, under the reign of King Salman, the Kingdom managed to break free, catch up with progress and development, and adapt to the modern world.

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on November 12, 2020, shows Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud delivering a speech to the Shura council in the capital Riyadh. (AFP)
A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on November 12, 2020, shows Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud delivering a speech to the Shura council in the capital Riyadh. (AFP)

Addressing socially sensitive and important topics substantiate the striking shift in thinking, planning, and decision-making in Saudi Arabia. For example, the draft Code of Judicial Decisions was prepared years ago. However, upon examination, as the crown prince said himself, it was found that “it was insufficient in terms of meeting the society’s needs and expectations. Thus, we decided to draft four new laws; the Personal Status Law, the Civil Transactions Law, the Penal Code for Discretionary Sentences, and the Law of Evidence, adopting in them the current legal and judicial international practices and standards in a manner that does not contradict Sharia principles, while taking into consideration the Kingdom’s commitments under international conventions and treaties.” In my opinion, these are historic, courageous, and unprecedented decisions that would not have been possible without the support and backing of the crown prince.

It is clear that Saudi Arabia is determined to develop its judiciary and the judicial environment and introduce and reform laws, of which the crown prince said. “they are meant to preserve rights, entrench the principles of justice, transparency, protect human rights and achieve comprehensive and sustainable development, which reinforces the global competitiveness of the Kingdom based on procedural and institutional references that are objective and clearly identified.”

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on November 12, 2020, shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending a video meeting with the Shura council in the capital Riyadh. (AFP)
A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on November 12, 2020, shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending a video meeting with the Shura council in the capital Riyadh. (AFP)

There is no doubt that these steps are being taken in the right direction and in alignment with the concept of globalization, rendering Saudi Arabia a modern state as it benefits from its accumulation of knowledge and the experiences of others. Any expert would understand the magnitude, dimensions, impact, and consequences of these laws, as well as their significant positive effects on society socially, legally, and economically. Building on my postgraduate law degree, as well as my membership in the Public Prosecution Office, the Human Rights Commission, and the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia (the Shura Council), I can say that my country needed to introduce and study these legislations to allow their implementation as they close legal loopholes and push toward reinforcing that Saudi Arabia is a state of law.

Disparate judicial decisions, lengthy litigation periods, and the absence of a clear legal framework for the obligations of private and business sectors were quite problematic.

However, when such laws are enacted, all of these issues will become part of the past because, as the crown prince said, they would contribute to "reducing individual discretion in sentencing, improving the integrity and performance of the justice system, and increasing the reliability of procedures and control mechanisms.”

These are important laws that protect human rights and put an end to inconsistency and discretion in punitive provisions. Criminalization will only be applicable if there was a provision for it in the Penal Code while penalties will become limited to the act of the crime; the role of the court will only be the application of the provisions of the law. Indeed, the presence of a Code of Discretionary Sentences, where penalties are imposed only if they were stipulated in the Code itself, reflects an advanced stage in strengthening criminal justice, consolidating judicial guarantees, and it is consistent with universal legal norms and judicial principles. The draft Personal Status Law also promotes women's empowerment and rights, as well as children's rights, and sets a minimum age limit on marriages, which means ending the practice of the marriage of minors. History will distinctly record the names of those who took such courageous decisions to preserve human dignity.

Our country is constantly facing challenges. The crown prince developed the state's apparatus and created an administrative and structural revolution. Emphasis has been placed on the economic, investment, and development sectors. Today, however, it is the judicial environment that is undergoing reform and development. The Kingdom is a adopting a reformist approach and the political will is determined to proceed with it. This is how states are managed and governed, where proper planning for people to live normal, happy lives takes place. Even most optimists, and those who have a wild imagination, have never thought that these reforms and transformations can actually happen in their lives.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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