Saudi Arabia Government and Politics

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34 - Saudi Arabia Government System

Political System:

Although some democratic reforms have been implemented, Saudi Arabia still operates as a near-absolute monarchy. Elections in 2005 for the first time allowed Saudi male citizens to choose municipal representatives. Very low voter turnout and skepticism about the elected officials’ real power, however, have tempered any discussion of the development of unfettered democracy in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the king does not have unfettered power. The Basic Law established in 1993 articulates the government’s rights and regulations and sets forth the civil rights, system of government, and administrative divisions by which the state is run. Foremost, the Basic Law mandates that Islamic Law must come before all other considerations. The Quran and sunna (Islamic custom and practice based on Muhammad’s words and deeds) are the state’s constitution, and both the government and the society as a whole dismiss the notion that separation should exist between church and state. The king must not only respect Islamic law and tradition but also build consensus among members of the royal family and religious leaders (the ulama). He can be removed if a majority of the royal family calls for his ouster. The assumption of the throne by King Abd Allah (Abdullah) following the death of King Fahd on August 1, 2005, proceeded seamlessly. King Fahd’s lengthy illness following an incapacitating stroke in 1995 and Abd Allah’s tenure as crown prince undoubtedly facilitated the succession, defusing any potential conflict among vying factions of the royal family.

Succession in Saudi Arabia has proceeded smoothly during the country’s short history, following the pattern set by Abd al Aziz of appointing an heir apparent as crown prince and first deputy prime minister. Since 1975 Saudi monarchs have also appointed a second deputy prime minister to serve as next in line on the unofficial succession slate. While other Middle Eastern countries such as Bahrain, Jordan, and Qatar have recently experienced a generational transfer of leadership, Saudi Arabia still has drawn only from among the sons of King Abd al Aziz in designating a ruler. As a result, Saudi leaders are taking the throne at a more and more advanced age. King Abd Allah and his half-brother Crown Prince Sultan are both between 75 and 90 years old. Because of their ages, the choice of a second deputy prime minister among Abd al Aziz’s six remaining sons has increased significance, but King Abd Allah has thus far chosen to leave the position of second deputy prime minister vacant. Succession in Saudi Arabia will only become more challenging as the pool of potential candidates expands. The Basic Law clarified that the king must come from the Al Saud family, but once beyond Abd al Aziz’s sons and grandsons, the number of possible kings will expand well into the thousands. Fractures within the royal family could form between reformists and traditionalists.

The Council of Ministers, created in 1953, is responsible for drafting legislation to be presented to the king. The council acts upon majority decision, but laws become official only with the king’s decree. All legislation must be in accordance with Islamic law. The Council of Ministers includes a prime minister (the king), a first and second deputy prime minister, 23 ministers with portfolio (including the second deputy prime minister, who also serves as a minister), and five ministers of state.

In addition to the Council of Ministers, the Consultative Council serves at the king’s pleasure. Following its inception in 1993, King Fahd restructured the council in 1997 and 2001 to expand the number of councilors. Currently, 120 councilors serve four-year terms. The king must approve all members. Most of the members are individuals with ties to the Al Saud family and tribal leaders, but the body also includes businessmen, academics, and some religious leaders. The consultative body has no power to act independently but it is empowered to hold debates, initiate investigative hearings, and enforce government-sponsored legislation. Since 2003, the Consultative Council has been increasingly included in the process of creating legislation.

The royal family dominates government and politics in Saudi Arabia. The family’s vast numbers (hundreds in the main family alone) allow it to control most of the kingdom’s important posts. Most members of the Council of Ministers and provincial governors come from the royal family. The increasing power of the Consultative Council represents a threat to royal family power, even though the king has largely supported its development. The possibility of electing half of the council, as proposed by some reformers, would further dilute the power of the royal family. Currently, the royal family remains firmly entrenched in power, but popular discontent has been building for years.

Administrative Divisions:

A royal decree put forth in 1993 divided the kingdom into 13 provinces (mintiqat; sing., mintiqah): Al Bahah, Al Hudud ash Shamaliyah, Al Jawf, Al Madinah, Al Qasim, Ar Riyad, Ash Sharqiyah (Eastern Province), Asir, Hail, Jizan, Makkah, Najran, and Tabuk. A royal decree issued in 1994 subdivided the 13 provinces into 103 governorates.

Provincial and Local Government:

In 1993 the king determined that a system of provincial government should exist. Subsequently, officials divided the country into 13 provinces, each of which was placed under the jurisdiction of a governor, usually a prince or close relative of the royal family. Four times each year, each governor meets with his provincial council to evaluate the province’s development and make recommendations to the Council of Ministers regarding the province’s needs. In October 2003, it was announced that 178 municipal councils would be created to advise the provincial governors. One-half of the new municipal council members were to be elected through universal male suffrage and one-half appointed by the central government. After numerous delays, the first of a planned three phases of elections took place in February 2005. Voter turnout reportedly was only about 25 percent or possibly even lower (15–20 percent) according to unofficial estimates. Numerous candidates, however, emerged. More than 1,800 candidates competed for a total of 592 seats on the 178 municipal councils. In Riyadh alone, more than 600 candidates competed for seven seats. The second phase took place in March 2005 in the Eastern, Asir, Jizan, Najran, and Al Bahah provinces. Low voter turnout again undercut the effort. Only 12 percent of eligible men voted. The final stage of the elections was held in April 2005.

The role of municipal councils is both to carry out on a local level the resolutions passed by the Council of Ministers and to mitigate regional concerns. According to the Basic Law, every citizen has the right to address his concerns with either the king or a royal prince. The king and princes hold open meetings for public discussion, as do municipal and regional leaders. The democratic election of some of those leaders will for the first time give Saudis a more direct voice in their government.

Judicial and Legal System:

In contrast to its legislative branch, Saudi Arabia’s judicial branch operates on a mostly independent basis, as stipulated in the Basic Law. However, members of the royal family are exempt from appearing before the courts, and allies of the family have received preferential treatment from judges in the past. Before the modernization of the judicial system in 1928, the system was severely fragmented among various judges who adhered to one of four schools of Islamic theology. After “unification,” all courts were mandated to use the Quran and sunna as the basis for judgments without being limited to a particular school. Over time, some secular codes have been introduced to augment Islamic law.

The Ministry of Justice was created in 1970 to further unify the kingdom’s vast system of courts and judges. In the same year, King Faisal formed the Supreme Judicial Council, with the responsibility of overseeing the court system and reviewing legal decisions. The Supreme Judicial Council assumed the task of approving all death, amputation, and stoning sentences. As of 2005, these forms of punishment had decreased in frequency, but they still exist. The king may grant pardons at his discretion, except to felons convicted of killing another individual. In this instance, the king must gain the approval of the victim’s next of kin to grant a pardon.

A hierarchical court system allows the accused a process of appeal. The Ministry of Justice oversees the entire system. The General Courts, also referred to as the Courts of First Instance, are the first to hear cases and make decisions. The decisions of these courts may be appealed to the Supreme Judicial Council. Further appeals may be made to the Council of Ministers, but any decision of the council, signed by the king, is final. The law prohibits imprisonment for more than three days without being charged with a crime. There are reports, however, that this law has been ignored, especially by the religious police. According to the sharia, the court system should not give the testimony of a woman the same weight as that of a man. Additionally, a judge may throw out the testimony of non-Muslims.

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A military justice system exists to try all members of the military and those persons accused of violating military regulations. The minister of defense and king review all decisions made by the military court.

Electoral System:

Saudi Arabia had no history of electoral government until February 2005, when, in an election open only to male voters age 21 and older, Saudi citizens cast votes to select one-half the members of the municipal councils. The three-stage elections, which continued in March and April 2005, represented a fundamental step away from Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy. There are also signs that a portion of the Consultative Council might be chosen via election in the near future. In general, the expanding power of the Consultative Council, in comparison to the traditional dominance of the Council of Ministers, is a positive sign for liberal reformers in the kingdom hoping for increased popular sovereignty. Nevertheless, out of a population of nearly 27 million, only about 3 million (males only) are eligible to vote. Women do not yet have the right to vote.

Politics and Political Parties:

Political parties are illegal in Saudi Arabia, but distinct political divisions exist. Members of the royal family fill most of the important political positions in the kingdom, and the king and the Al Saud family rule by consensus. The ulama, a large and powerful group of religious leaders, perhaps numbering 10,000, ensure that the king observes Islamic law above all other considerations. In order to placate the powerful religious majority of Saudi society, the Al Saud pays close attention to the interests espoused by religious leaders. Saudi Arabia’s history of tribal organization also plays into the kingdom’s political mix. Leaders of the principal tribes still command respect and authority. The traditional merchant families of Saudi Arabia also have a measure of political influence. The royal family has depended on the merchants at various times for financial support, and merchant revenues continue to be a steady source of government income. Finally, the new class of Saudi professionals and technocrats, emerging as a result of increased privatization of the economy, has informal influence on government ministers. Petitions signed by members of this class have encouraged some reforms.

Mass Media:

Newspapers are privately owned but are subsidized and regulated by the government. Because the Basic Law states that the media’s role is to educate and inspire national unity, most popular grievances go unreported in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, however, the government has allowed some critical stories to be written by selected journalists. Although self-censorship continues to be a method of self-preservation for the nation’s media outlets, government censorship seems to be decreasing, especially on journalistic inquiries into crime and terrorism.

The government owns and operates the radio and television companies in Saudi Arabia. Censors remove objectionable material deemed offensive by the standards of Islam, including references to pork, Christianity and other religions, alcohol, and sex. Saudi citizens, however, have greater access to previously banned television broadcasts than ever before. According to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights practices, several million Saudis have satellite dishes that allow them to receive foreign television stations. Additionally, government censorship of the Internet has proved difficult. Although government officials monitor Internet sites for material deemed pornographic, politically offensive, or anti-Islamic, Saudi Internet users can gain access to most sites by simply connecting through an alternative server. The government recently created an appeals process by which citizens can request that particular Web sites be unblocked.

Foreign Relations:

Saudi Arabia has strong ties to the nations of the Middle East as well as to other Muslim states and developed nations such as the United States and Japan. As the guardian of Islam’s holy places, Saudi Arabia hosts millions of pilgrims from neighboring Islamic countries annually. Additionally, the mutual concern over oil prices has led to cooperation among oil-producing countries in the Middle East. As one of the more affluent countries in the region, Saudi Arabia has pursued aid and development for less developed Arab and Muslim states. Although Saudi Arabia has, at different times, suspended diplomatic relations with Iran and Egypt, among others, it continues to play a dominant role in the region. Saudi Arabia has its strongest diplomatic relations in the region with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In 2005, however, relations between these countries cooled somewhat when Bahrain, Oman, and the UAE each signed individual trade agreements with the United States. Saudi Arabia argued that the GCC should negotiate corporately and that the individual agreements violated the GCC’s external tariff treaty.

Saudi Arabia maintains a complex diplomatic position between the Middle East and the West. It has consistently sought to promote Arab unity, defend Arab and Islamic interests, and support a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (insisting, however, that Israel must withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967). On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been a partner with the West in economic endeavors and the war against terrorism. Some in the Arab world castigate Saudi Arabia for its continuing relationship with the United States, viewed as Israel’s most ardent protector. When Saudi Arabia called for military assistance following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Yemen, Jordan, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) refused to support the Saudi coalition. Not until five years after the Gulf War did Saudi Arabia normalize relations with the PLO or Jordan.

Saudi Arabia has attempted to play the role of peacemaker, with mixed results. In 1981 King Fahd offered a “land for peace” initiative designed to ease tensions between the PLO and Israel, and in 2002 Saudi officials issued an updated version of the proposal known as the “Arab peace plan.” However, the Saudi initiative was sidetracked when the United States initiated its own “roadmap” for peace in 2003. In early 2005, Saudi Arabia pressured Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and helped defuse a potentially violent situation. Regarding the election of Hamas extremists to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Saudi Arabia has maintained diplomatic contact while urging that the new government honor former Palestinian agreements on Israel. Saudi Arabia has hinted that its aid to the PA will be contingent on continuation of a moderate stance. In July–August 2006, Saudi Arabia called on the United States to intervene in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia’s economic and security relationship with the United States remains strong but not without tension. The terrorist attack on the United States in September 2001 placed considerable strain on the relationship since Saudi Arabia had been one of only two governments to recognize the Taliban administration in Afghanistan, and 15 of the 19 hijackers were of Saudi descent. In the ensuing war on terrorism, criticisms have been traded over the handling of prisoners, U.S. press coverage of Saudi connections to and financing of terrorist organizations, and a civil lawsuit brought against the Saudi government by relatives of the victims of September 11. Even as tensions mounted between the United States and Saudi Arabia, terrorists carried out attacks on Western interests and targets in Saudi Arabia in response to Saudi cooperation with the United States. Although seen as soft toward the West in parts of the Middle East, King Abd Allah, then crown prince, condemned the U.S. war with Iraq and refused to commit Saudi troops.

Membership in International Organizations:

After a lengthy waiting and reform period, Saudi Arabia gained full membership into the World Trade Organization in December 2005. Saudi Arabia also maintains membership in the United Nations (UN), most UN specialized agencies, and numerous other international organizations. Regionally, Saudi Arabia has fostered close ties to other Arab and Islamic states through memberships in the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States, Arab Monetary Fund, Arab Sports Federation, Gulf Cooperation Council, Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector, League of Arab States, Muslim World League, Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Saudi Arabia also has membership in the International Monetary Fund.

Major International Treaties:

Saudi Arabia is a party to many significant treaties, including international agreements on Biodiversity, Biological Weapons, Chemical Weapons, Climate Change, Conservation, Desertification, Endangered Species, Gas Warfare, Genocide, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Nuclear Nonproliferation, Ozone Layer Protection, and Torture. Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol or to conventions on Traffic in Women and Children or Terrorism. In 2005 Saudi Arabia ratified the World Health Organization’s first convention on tobacco control. Treaties in Saudi Arabia are confirmed by a royal decree.

~Library of Congress, 2006~

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