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Judicial Affairs of Tufts University

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History of Legal system of Saudi Arabia

Sources of law in Saudi Arabia

The courts and the judiciary in Saudi Arabia

Major areas of law in Saudi Arabia

Human rights and rule of law issues in Saudi Arabia




International Alliance for Advanced Judicial Studies (IAAJS)

Major areas of law in Saudi Arabia


Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, and has no legally binding written constitution. However, in 1992, the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia was adopted by royal decree. The Basic Law outlines the responsibilities and processes of the governing institutions but is insufficiently specific to be considered a constitution. It declares that the king must comply with Sharia (that is, Islamic law) and that the Quran and the Sunna (the traditions of Muhammad) are the country's constitution. Interpretation of the Quran and the Sunna remains necessary, and this is carried out by the ulema, the Saudi religious establishment.

Saudi Arabia uses the bench trial system. Its courts observe few formalities. The country's first criminal procedure code was introduced in 2001 and contains provisions borrowed from Egyptian and French law. Human Rights Watch, in a 2008 report, noted that judges were either ignorant of the criminal procedure code or were aware of it but routinely ignored the code.

A conviction requires proof in one of three ways. The first is an uncoerced confession. Alternatively, the testimony of two male witnesses can convict (four in the case of adultery), unless it is a hudud crime, in which case a confession is also required. Women's evidence normally carries half the weight of men in Sharia courts, however in criminal trials women's testimony is not allowed at all. Testimony from non-Muslims or Muslims whose doctrines are considered unacceptable (for example, Shia) may be discounted. Lastly, an affirmation or denial by oath can be required. Giving an oath is taken particularly seriously in a religious society such as Saudi Arabia's, and a refusal to take an oath will be taken as an admission of guilt resulting in conviction.

Although repeated theft can be punishable by amputation of the right hand and aggravated theft by the cross-amputation of a hand and a foot, only one instance of judicial amputation was reported between 2007 and 2010. Homosexual acts are punishable by flogging, imprisonment or death. Lashings are a common form of punishment and are often imposed for offences against religion and public morality such as drinking alcohol and neglect of prayer and fasting obligations.

Retaliatory punishments, or Qisas, are practised: for instance, an eye can be surgically removed at the insistence of a victim who lost his own eye. This occurred in a case reported in 2000. Families of someone unlawfully killed can choose between demanding the death penalty or granting clemency in return for a payment of diyya, or blood money, by the perpetrator. There has been a growing trend of exorbitant blood-money demands, for example a sum of $11 million was reported as being recently demanded. Saudi officials and religious figures have criticized this trend and said that the practise of diyya has become corrupted.

Polygamy is permitted for men but is limited to four wives at any one time. There is evidence that its practice has increased, particularly among the educated Hejazi elite, as a result of oil wealth. The government has promoted polygamy as part of a return to "Islamic values" program. In 2001, the Grand Mufti (the highest religious authority) issued a fatwa, or opinion, calling upon Saudi women to accept polygamy as part of the Islamic package and declaring that polygamy was necessary "to fight against...the growing epidemic of spinsterhood". There is no minimum age for marriage in Saudi Arabia and the Grand Mufti reportedly said in 2009 that girls of the age of 10 or 12 were marriageable.

With regard to the law of inheritance, the Quran specifies that fixed portions of the deceased's estate must be left to the so-called Quranic heirs. Generally, female heirs receive half the portion of male heirs. A Sunni Muslim can bequeath a maximum of a third of his property to non-Quranic heirs. The residue is divided between agnatic heirs.

For foreign investors, uncertainties around the content of commercial law, because of the Sharia aspect, constitutes a disincentive to invest in Saudi Arabia. As it is governed by Sharia, contract law is not codified. Within the general limitations of Sharia, it allows considerable freedom for the parties to agree contract terms. However, contracts involving speculation or the payment of interest are prohibited and are not enforceable. If a contract is breached, Saudi courts will only award compensation for proven direct damage. Claims for loss of profit or opportunity will not be allowed as these would constitute speculation, which is not permitted under Sharia.

The Saudi government is also putting greater resources into combating unauthorized distribution of software, printed material, recordings and videos. However, illegally copied material is still widely available. Enforcement efforts have been supported by a fatwa, or religious ruling, that copyright infringement of software is forbidden under Islam. Saudi Arabia had been on the Special 301 Watchlist, the U.S.'s running log of countries considered to inadequately regulate or enforce intellectual property rights, but was removed in 2010.


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