Until now, there were significant challenges in understanding how Islamic Law (Sharia) is applied in Saudi Arabia. One main issue was the tendency to interpret the law out of context or ignore relevant circumstances, leading to blind adherence without considering the specific situation. This lack of contextualization resulted in situations where individuals felt bound by rigid interpretations, even when they didn’t align with the intended spirit of Sharia.
I recall a case involving a concerned widow who approached me regarding the potential custody rights of her son once he turned 15, as dictated by Sharia. According to the traditional interpretation, children come into the father’s custody to the father from this age. However, what was often overlooked is that Sharia also mandates the father’s family to provide financial and emotional support to the child while he remains with the mother. Unfortunately, this crucial aspect was not observed in the case I encountered. Similar instances have undermined people’s faith in the legal system, as the outcome of any case seemed to depend more on a judge’s personal interpretation rather than the actual provisions of the law. Consequently, such circumstances have also had a negative impact on Saudi Arabia’s reputation in the business world, where foreign investors and their legal representatives often found themselves unfamiliar with the nuances of Sharia.
The issue does not lie with Sharia itself, as the rules within it are clearly defined. The challenge arises from the varying interpretations allowed within the system, leading to inconsistent outcomes and confusion. Recognizing the need for improvement, the Saudi government took significant steps in 2021 to address these concerns and create a more reliable and consistent legal framework. These efforts reflect the ongoing transformation that Saudi Arabia has undertaken over the years.
Imagine the sun rising over Riyadh in 1932 when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was newly formed. At that time, the kingdom’s governance drew deeply from Sharia. Fast forward to the present day, Saudi Arabia’s transformation encompasses various aspects of society, including the modernization of legislation that regulates critical sectors such as business, stock markets, employment, and foreign investment. This drive for adaptation and progress is spearheaded by the Main Committee for the Preparation of Judicial Legislation, which acts as a bridge between tradition and the demands of the modern world. Their efforts have resulted in the creation of three significant laws, each with tangible implications for the lives of Saudis.
In their efforts to enhance the quality and consistency of rulings, the Saudi government decided to codify four key areas of Saudi law: Civil Law, Criminal Law, Evidence and Personal Status Law. This consolidation aims to streamline the legal system and promote a more precise understanding of the law’s provisions. The new laws pay specific attention to the intricate details within these sectors that are critical to Saudi Arabia’s legal landscape. For instance, they address matters related to civil status, such as marriage and divorce, which had previously been sources of uncertainty. The laws also tackle economic issues in the new Civil Transactions Law. By clarifying these areas, the government aims to eliminate the previous ambiguity stemming from multiple interpretations, which had negatively impacted Saudi Arabia’s reputation both domestically and internationally.
Under the new legal framework, the laws continue to be based on Sharia, but they have been consolidated into unified codes. This approach seeks to provide greater precision and reduce reliance on personal opinions, ensuring consistency and a shared understanding within the legal system. By establishing a more cohesive and standardized interpretation of Sharia, Saudi Arabia aims to create a legal environment that better serves its people and aligns with international legal practices.
Among the most impactful transformations is the Personal Status Law, which delves into intimate aspects of life, such as marriage, divorce, and child custody. In the past, divorce often left women in vulnerable positions, as they had limited rights and support. However, under the new legal framework, divorced women have the opportunity to become legal guardians of their children and claim alimony and childcare support. Additionally, the updated Personal Status Law empowers women by granting them greater autonomy in choosing their partners, marking a significant step forward in the pursuit of gender equality.
As for the Civil Transactions Law, it remains rooted in the Islamic prohibition of interest payments. However, it has also evolved to account for the realities of contemporary life. Now, individuals can seek compensation for losses such as loss of income and emotional harm, reflecting a more nuanced understanding of the impact of financial and personal circumstances. This change brings relief to countless Saudis who can now assert their rights and claim appropriate compensation.Loss of income which one hoped to earn, such as business interruption. For example, if a shop burns down the owner can claim for the damaged property, but not for the profits he hoped to make from future sales.Here the emotional harm is damage for mental suffering. For example, until now it was difficult to get compensation for non-material harm, like stress.
A notable aspect of these legal reforms is their accessibility to all members of society. The laws have been written in modern Arabic, ensuring that whether you’re a lawyer in a high-rise office or a store owner in a bustling souk, you can comprehend and navigate the legal landscape with confidence. The Shari’a texts that are authoritative in Saudi Arabia were in ancient Arabic, for which one needed special training to understand.
The changes in the new law make it easier for people to understand them, which in turn contributes to a sense of security and equality among citizens. These changes benefit individuals from all walks of life.