Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Saudi Arabia to reform legal system en route to post-oil future

Preparing to sell itself as a destination for international business headquarters may have spin-off benefits for women's rights.

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Saudi Arabia has announced new reforms, putting the kingdom on a path to codified law – a huge step in the deeply conservative country whose legal system is based on Islamic law.

Saudi state news agency SPA quoted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as saying “The new laws which will be announced over the course of 2021 represent a new wave of reforms that will increase the reliability of procedures in achieving the principles of justice.”

A Saudi official told Reuters that the reforms are designed to meet the needs of the modern world while keeping to shariah law.

The announcement is the latest in a series of dramatic economic and social reforms launched by the 35-year-old crown prince aimed at modernising the kingdom as it considers where it is heading post-oil.

The reforms should fit into his Vision 2030 agenda, which aims to diversify the economy away from oil and attract foreign talent and investment, and pitches Saudi Arabia 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 has often resulted in inconsistency in court rulings and drawn-out litigation procedures.

The prince’s announcement specifically mentioned women in the kingdom, who have long held a lower status to men in terms of legal and economic rights, and whom the crown prince described as being particularly harmed by the lack of written laws over certain issues.

“Discrepancies in court rulings have hurt many, mostly women,” the SPA quoted the crown prince 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 international 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.

Women’s rights will definitely need to be addressed before international companies could consider building a presence in the kingdom.

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the royal court, described the news as “an important step in legal reform and one that recognises that the Saudi legal system has a way to go to reach international standards.”

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