Saudi Arabia, in a major step, announces legal reforms paving the way for codified law

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Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman attends the 41st Summit of Gulf Cooperation Council in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia on January 05, 2021.

Royal Council of Saudi Arabia | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Saudi Arabia has announced new judicial reforms, putting the kingdom on a path to codified law — a huge step, considering the deeply conservative country has no codified legal system to accompany the Sharia, or Islamic law, which is currently in place.  

“The Personal Status Law, the Civil Transactions Law, the Penal Code for Discretionary Sanctions, and the Law of Evidence represent a new wave of judicial reforms in the Kingdom,” Saudi state news agency SPA quoted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as saying late Monday evening. 

The reforms, the crown prince said, “will help with the prediction of court rulings, the increase of the level of integrity and efficiency of judicial institutions, and will contribute to the increase of the reliability of procedures and control mechanisms.” The new laws are to be announced over the course of 2021, according to his statement.

The news is the latest in a series of dramatic economic and social reforms launched by the 35-year-old crown prince aimed at modernizing the kingdom. It fits into his Vision 2030 agenda which aims to diversify the economy away from oil and attract foreign talent and investment to the kingdom, and comes as Saudi Arabia pitches itself as a destination for international business headquarters.

“This is an important step on the path towards global best practices that give businesses the confidence to invest,” Tarek Fadlallah, Middle East CEO at Nomura Asset Management, told CNBC on Tuesday.

Having no codified legal system often resulted in inconsistency in court rulings and long, drawn-out litigation procedures. The announcement made a specific mention of women in Saudi Arabia, who have long held a lower status to men in terms of legal and economic rights, and who the crown prince described as being particularly harmed by the lack of written laws over certain issues. 

“Discrepancies in court rulings has led to a lack of clarity in the rules governing the incidents and practices, and has hurt many, mostly women,” the SPA quoted Bin Salman as saying.  

Women’s rights in the kingdom — while improved in some areas like driving, employment, and freedom of movement in recent years — are still a major target of criticism by human rights groups and some foreign governments. Several Saudi female driving activists remain in prison and allege they are being tortured, charges the Saudi state denies.  

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the kingdom’s royal court, tweeted about the reforms late Monday, describing the news as “an important step in legal reform and one that recognizes that the Saudi legal system has a way to go to reach international standards and that the leadership appreciates the urgency and importance of such reform.”

“Highlighting its impact on women is particularly interesting,” Shihabi added. 

The crown prince described the current legal system as “painful for many individuals and families, especially women, permitting some to evade their responsibilities. This will not take place again once these laws are promulgated pursuant to legislative laws and procedures,” he said. The statement did not outline further details of what specific practices and penalties would be changed.

His statement added that the forthcoming legal reforms will “will tackle lack of clarity in rules governing… prolonged litigations that are not based on established legal provisions, and absence of a clear legal framework for individuals and businesses.”

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