Saudi Arabia is pushing to revamp its harsh justice system but reforms are overshadowed by executions and tough treatment of dissidents, raising questions about how much will change.
The kingdom is known for its strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law, which forms the basis of its judicial system.
But in recent months it has moved ahead with reforms that analysts say could make its courts function more like others in the Middle East.
That effort hinges on a series of new laws for sensitive issues like women’s divorce rights and judges’ power to determine criminal sentences.
Announced last year by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the measures, including the first written penal code, appear to align with Saudi Arabia’s goal of opening up to the world and softening its extremist image.
Even critics concede the changes could make Saudi courts more predictable, in some cases.
But there is no expectation that restrictions on free speech will ease, or that the legal system will treat more favorably perceived opponents of the government.
And despite the reforms, authorities have simultaneously provided reminders of what gave Saudi Arabia its ruthless reputation in the first place, notably the mass execution of 81 men in a single day in March for offenses related to “terrorism.”
Two new laws have already been approved by the Saudi Cabinet. One governs the admissibility of evidence, previously at the judges’ discretion.
The second, a family law, is to take effect in June. In a traditionally male-dominated system, it expands the rights of divorced women to alimony and custody of their children.
Announcing the new law in March, Prince Mohammed said it represented “a major qualitative leap” for women’s rights and “family stability.”
The reforms seem partly to cater to foreign firms whose investment the kingdom is courting, said Adel al-Saeed, vice president of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights.
“The owners of capital are afraid of investing in this country, which is notorious in the legal aspect, so these laws are intended to change the image,” he said.
The new penal code, yet to be unveiled, could bring further dramatic changes.
Under sharia, only apostasy, theft, revolt, armed robbery, adultery, drinking alcohol and slander carry prescribed sentences. Judges are left to determine punishment in other cases.
With a penal code in place, “the state will expect judges to rely not on their own training in sharia but instead on the legal rules (based on sharia) approved by the state,” said Nathan Brown, an academic at George Washington University.
“As a result, Saudi Arabia will look much more like a civil law system, much like most states in the region,” said Brown, who has studied the Saudi reforms.
The result should be more “predictability,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, a U.S.-based legal expert and government critic, as new rules “take away from the leeway … that the judges used to have.”
But tighter regulation by the monarchy also “creates a larger problem: lack of independence,” he added.
The king is the head of the Saudi judiciary and acts as the final court of appeal.
Alaoudh’s own father, prominent cleric Salman al-Awdah, has been held since 2017, seemingly in retaliation for a Twitter post that clashed with Saudi Arabia’s policy at the time of isolating Qatar.
He is one of many detained in an apparent crackdown on dissent and those who could challenge Prince Mohammed’s power.
One of the most prominent examples is former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the CIA ally respected in the West for his efforts to counter violent extremism, but who King Salman ousted from the line of succession.
Prince Nayef has not been seen in public since reports of his arrest in March 2020. His detention was never officially confirmed.
Shadow of Khashoggi
For government opponents, such cases reinforce questions about what difference the ongoing justice reforms will make.
“In my view, this is all window-dressing,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, a U.K.-based academic and spokesperson for the opposition National Assembly Party founded by exiles.
“It’s very, very difficult to see what the meaning is of these reforms apart from the project of portraying (Prince Mohammed) as a reformer.”
Hanging over any discussion of justice and legal reform in Saudi Arabia is the 2018 murder and dismemberment of critic and columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
A U.S. intelligence assessment found Prince Mohammed himself “approved” an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi, though Saudi officials deny this and say it was a “rogue” operation.
In April, before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Riyadh on Thursday and embraced Prince Mohammed, Turkey transferred the trial in absentia of 26 suspects in the Khashoggi case to Saudi Arabia.
Turkey’s decision drew anguished protest from lawyers and Khashoggi’s fiancée, who insisted Saudi courts couldn’t possibly hold a credible trial.
For the loved ones of those locked away, Khashoggi’s killing fuels a uniform fear of speaking out.
“I want to, many do, but we’re scared,” said a friend of Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, who has been detained along with his father since 2018.
“Everyone knows what happened to Khashoggi.”