Country Governance

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POGAR > Countries > Country Theme: Civil Society: Saudi Arabia
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Laws of Associations

The monarchy’s political power in Saudi Arabia is mitigated by the traditional role of consultation in decision-making. Independent voluntary associations, trade unions, and political parties did not legally exist inside the kingdom before 2003, but the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry is an important umbrella organization that helps to mediate between the Saudi society and the state.

The right to litigation is guaranteed to citizens and residents on an equal basis. The Statute of Principles of Arrest, Temporary Confinement and Preventive Detention, issued on 11 November 1983, is the most detailed piece of legislation on the rules of arrest and detention and is the main law regulating this area of the criminal justice system. The law prohibits arbitrary arrest. Authorities are not supposed to detain suspects for longer than three days before charging them. The king established boards of Investigation and Public Prosecution in 1993 to inspect prisons, review prisoners’ files, and hear their complaints. Torture is banned under the Statute on Imprisonment and Detention of 28 May 1978.

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Political Parties

Political parties are illegal in Saudi Arabia. There are two prominent political opposition movements, both of which operate from outside of Saudi Arabia. A professor of physics, Dr. Muhammad Massari, is the head of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR). Dr.Saad al-Fagih, a Professor of Surgery at King Saud University until March 1994, is the principal spokesman of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Saudi Arabia (MIRA), which continues the work of the CDLR. The organization, which operates from London, is characterized as a militant Islamist movement. It is also described as being financially supported by wealthy members in Saudi Arabia. Peaceful public demonstrations by MIRA in October 2003 resulted in the jailing of 150 demonstrators for activity deemed by officials to be ‘incompatible with Islam’.

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Government Regulations

Civil proceedings and claims against the government are held before specialized administrative tribunals, such as the Commission for the Settlement of Labor Disputes and the Board of Grievances.

A royal decree created an eleven-member Supreme Economic Council in 1999 to increase the contribution of the private sector to the national economy and to the government’s program for privatization, to distribute income fairly, and to open up investment and labor opportunities. In recent years, women have gained some economic rights, such as establishing companies and charitable institutions.

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Associations and Unions

In an effort to initiate the creation of civil institutions in Saudi Arabia, the King declared the creation of an independent journalists’ organization in early 2003. The Saudi Journalists Association is to consist of chairman and a board of nine members elected by Saudi journalists. Elections to the board, originally scheduled for January 2004 four, were twice delayed by procedural difficulties in setting up the organization. The new organization has drawn some criticism because its founding documents were promulgated by the government, and the Information Ministry must approve all candidates for the board. However, the organization is in most respects independent from the government, and is designed to collectively represent the interests of journalists to the Saudi government.

In a ground-breaking decision, the formation of an independent human rights organization was announced in mid-2003. The National Society for Human Rights was established in Saudi Arabia in February 2004. Since its inception, this society has handled 500 cases related to employment, bureaucracy, judiciary, naturalization, domestic violence and prisons. Most of these cases involve administrative matters. The society cares for Saudi citizens as well as for Arab and foreign expatriates. The society participated in the monitoring of the municipal elections of 2005. The undersecretary of the ministry of labor announced on July 25, 2005 the establishment of a special administration entrusted with protecting the rights of foreign workers and penalizing employers who abuse them. He added that the ministry is ready to receive complaints by housemaids concerning sexual harassment, abuse, and unpaid wages. Any employer who does not pay his maid's salary will be denied employing a foreign maid for a period of 5 years.

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Media and Government Regulations

According to the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia, information, publication, and all other media have to employ “courteous language” within the state’s regulations. A 1982 media policy statement urges journalists to uphold Islam, promote Arab interests, and preserve the cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Information appoints and may remove the editors-in-chief of newspapers. All Saudi newspapers are created by royal decree. The government owns the Saudi Press Agency (SPA). The Ministry of Information controls radio and television broadcasts.

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