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History of Legal system of Saudi Arabia

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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)

The courts and the judiciary in Saudi Arabia


The Sharia court system constitutes the basic judiciary of Saudi Arabia and its judges and lawyers form part of the ulema, the country's religious leadership. There are also extra-Sharia government tribunals which handle disputes relating to specific royal decrees and since 2008, specialist courts, including the Board of Grievances and the Specialized Criminal Court. Final appeal from both Sharia courts and government tribunals is to the King and as of 2007, all courts and tribunals followed Sharia rules of evidence and procedure.

The Sharia courts have general jurisdiction over most civil and criminal cases. At present, there are two types of courts of first instance: general courts and summary courts dealing with lesser cases. Cases are adjudicated by single judges, except criminal cases if the potential sentence is death, amputation or stoning when there is a panel of three judges. There are also two courts for the Shia minority in the Eastern Province dealing with family and religious matters. Appellate courts sit in Mecca and Riyadh and review decisions for compliance with Sharia.

There are also non-Sharia courts covering specialized areas of law, the most important of which is the Board of Grievances. This court was originally created to deal with complaints against the government, but as of 2010 also has jurisdiction over commercial and some criminal cases, such as bribery and forgery, and acts as a court of appeal for a number of non-Sharia government tribunals. These administrative tribunals, referred to as "committees", deal with specific issues regulated by royal decrees, such as labor and commercial law.

The judicial establishment, in the broadest sense, is composed of qadis, who give binding judgements in specific court cases, and muftis and other members of the ulema, who issue generalized but highly influential legal opinions (fatwas). The Grand Mufti is the most senior member of the judicial establishment as well as being the highest religious authority in the country; his opinions are highly influential among the Saudi judiciary. The judiciary proper (that is, the body of qadis) is composed of about 700 judges, a relatively small number (according to critics) for a country of over 23 million.

The capabilities and reactionary nature of the judges have been criticized. The main complaint reportedly made by Saudis privately is that judges, who have wide discretion in interpreting the Sharia, have no knowledge, and are often contemptuous, of the modern world. Reported examples of judges' attitudes include rulings banning such things as the children’s game Pokémon, telephones that play recorded music, and sending flowers to hospital patients. Saudi judges come from a narrow recruitment pool. By one estimate, 80% of the 600+ Saudi judges and almost all senior judges come from Qasim, a province in the center of the country with less than 5% of Saudi's population, but known as the strict religious Wahhabi heartland of Saudi Arabia. Senior judges will only allow like-minded graduates of select religious institutes to join the judiciary and will remove judges that stray away from rigidly conservative judgments.

In 2008, the Specialized Criminal Court was created. The court tries suspected terrorists and human rights activists. On 26 June 2019, the court started trials of 85 people suspected of being involved in Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the 2003 Riyadh compound bombings, and in September 2019 another 41 al-Qaeda suspects appeared in the court. In the same year, the court held trial sessions of human rights activists, including Mohammed Saleh al-Bejadi, co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) and Mubarak Zu'air, a lawyer for long-term prisoners, and a protester, Khaled al-Johani, who spoke to BBC Arabic Television at a protest in Riyadh. The court convicted 16 of the human rights activists to sentences of 5–30 years on 22 November 2019.

In 2009, the King made a number of significant changes to the judiciary's personnel at the most senior level by bringing in a younger generation. For example, as well as appointing a new Minister of Justice, a new chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council was appointed. The outgoing chairman was known to oppose the codification of Sharia. The king also appointed a new head of the Board of Grievances and Abdulrahman Al Kelya as the first chief justice of the new Supreme Court. As of January 2013 royal decree, the Supreme Judicial Council will be headed by the justice minister. The chief justice of the Supreme Court will also be a member.


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