Last month, Prince Mohammed bin Salman was asked in a television interview about the Saudi laws development project, one of the themes to which the Crown Prince has attached particular importance lately. He replied that the project had incorporated best international experiences, especially as related to transparency and clarity, and preventing arbitrary and contradictory legal rulings, to ensure similar rulings in similar cases.
The crown prince, who has extensive legal expertise, explained that the Kingdom is not trying to reinvent the wheel. Rather it intends to benefit from successful international experiences without contradicting the teachings of the Quran or the Sunnah, while ensuring public benefit, maintaining the security and interests of Saudis, and contributing to development. This last standard is particularly important for the realization of Vision 2030, in which the prince is closely involved.
The clarity and transparency of laws and their alignment with international norms would make it easier for Saudis, residents, investors, and tourists to deal with these laws. Let us take for example the Kingdom’s target to increase foreign investments in the coming years. One cannot attract investors if the legal system is ambiguous or not aligned with international standards, as the investor would not understand how laws are applied. Similarly, if the tourism industry’s objective is to attract 100 million tourists in the coming period, tourists will not be enthusiastic about visiting the Kingdom if they are not certain that the laws are transparent and that their contents and implementation mechanisms are aligned with international norms. The same applies to the Kingdom’s ambitions to attract creative and distinguished human capabilities.
The crown prince quelled fears that such a mechanism of enacting laws would weaken the Saudi national identity, saying: “If your identity cannot survive the great diversity in the world, this means your identity is weak and must be forsaken. If your identity is strong and authentic, you can develop and modernize it to change its shortcomings and enhance its upsides. Thus, you would have maintained and developed your identity. I think our identity is very strong, and we take pride in it.”
In February, Prince Mohammed bin Salman had revealed some of the aspects of this legal reform. He explained that it aims at developing the legislative process by “updating and reforming the laws that protect rights, enshrine the principles of justice, transparency, and protection of human rights, achieve comprehensive development, and enhance the Kingdom’s global competitiveness. This will be achieved through clear and specific thematic and procedural institutional references.”
Currently, four basic bills are being processed: the personal status law, the civil transactions law, the penal code of discretionary sanctions and the law of evidence. These bills represent a new wave of reforms that aim at “enhancing the predictability of rulings, increasing integrity and the efficiency of judicial bodies, boosting the credibility of control procedures and mechanisms given their key role in achieving the principles of justice that require clear liability limits, and consolidating legal references to curb individual rulings,” according to the crown prince.
In line with the current procedures in the Kingdom, bills go through several stages of the legislative process: first, they are submitted to the Council of Ministers and its agencies for consideration and review, as a prelude to their submission to the Shura Council and their passing in due process.
Saudi officials realize that the lack of such legislation has led to conflicting rulings and a lack of clarity in the rules governing events and practices in the past, thus extending the litigation process and causing conflicting rulings that are not based on legal texts. This also led to the lack of a clear legal framework for individuals and the business sector regarding their obligations, which not only hampered their ability to plan their projects based on clear legal frameworks that protect their rights and explain their obligations explicitly, but also allowed some parties to shirk their responsibilities.
As the crown prince said, the lack of such legislation “caused damage to many individuals and families, and to women especially, and also allowed some people to avoid their responsibilities. Enacting these laws in accordance with due process will ensure this will not happen again.”
In his interview, the crown prince gave some examples that illustrate the contrast between some current legal conditions and legal Islamic customs, as well their contradiction with modern legal trends. For we can find some severe sentences issued without a clear reference to the sharia or laws, in contravention of the long-standing legal principle of nullum crimen, nulla poena sine lege (no crime, no punishment without a law).
He also gave another example related to the right of defending the defendant. In the early days of Islam, the prevailing custom was to refrain from encouraging the defendent to admit guilt of a crime, instead urging him to retract it. Should the defendant insist on pleading guilty, efforts were made to find mitigating excuses that exempt him from the punishment or reduce it. Accordingly, Islamic prosecution became based on the collection and assessment of both incriminating and exculpatory evidence to be submitted to the judiciary. In contrast, the current mechanisms aren’t at all aligned with that principle, as the focus is usually on finding incriminating evidence only.
This legal revision that the crown prince has initiated will be one of Vision 2030’s greatest achievements. This comprehensive revision of principles, laws, and both procedural and thematic cases will reflect positively on the quality of life in the Kingdom and on the achievement of the Vision’s development objectives.
The four laws are expected to be passed in 2021, as part of the continued development of the legislative process in the Kingdom, in line with current legal orientations and international judicial practices, while respecting sharia laws and taking into account the Kingdom’s obligations under the international conventions and agreements to which it is signatory.
Given the Kingdom’s distinguished position among Arab and Islamic countries, these reforms will find their way to other countries when the time is right, as the situation that the crown prince described is not restricted to the Kingdom but extends to many other countries as well. After all, the fragility of legal and judicial systems in Arab countries is one of the main reasons for the decline in investments they are witnessing. The lack of legal protection is also a key cause of Arab youth leaving their homelands to invest elsewhere.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.