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Political System: Saudi Arabia essentially operates as a near-absolute monarchy. It has no national legislative body, political parties, or democratic elections. The king does not have unfettered power, however. The Basic Law, which was introduced in 1993, articulates the government’s rights and regulations and sets forth the civil rights, system of government, and administrative divisions by which the state is run. Foremost, the Basic Law mandates that Islamic Law come before all other considerations. The Koran and sunna (Islamic custom and practice based on Muhammad’s words and deeds) are the state’s constitution, and both the government and the society as a whole dismiss the notion that separation should exist between church and state. The king must not only respect Islamic Law and tradition but also build consensus among members of the royal family and religious leaders (the ulama). The king can be removed if a majority of the royal family calls for his ouster. When a king dies, the royal family and ulama choose the new king.

The Council of Ministers, created in 1953, is responsible for drafting legislation to be presented to the king. The council acts upon majority decision, but laws only become official with the king’s decree. All legislation must be in accordance with Islamic Law. The Council of Ministers has developed to include a prime minister (the king), a first and second deputy prime minister, 21 ministers with portfolio (including the second deputy prime minister, who also serves as a minister), and five ministers of state.

In addition to the Council of Ministers, the Consultative Council serves at the king’s pleasure. Following its inception in 1993, King Fahd restructured the council in 1997 and 2001 to expand the number of councilors. Currently, 120 councilors serve four-year terms. The king must approve all members. Most of the members are individuals with ties to the government and tribal leaders, but the body also includes businessmen, academics, and some religious leaders. The consultative body has no power to act independently, but it is empowered to hold debates, initiate investigative hearings, and enforce government-sponsored legislation. Since 2003, the Consultative Council has been increasingly included in the process of creating legislation.

The royal family dominates the political sphere in Saudi Arabia. The family’s vast numbers (hundreds in the main family alone) have allowed the family to control most of the kingdom’s important posts. Posts filled in 2005 by the king’s brothers and half-brothers included deputy prime minister, second deputy prime minister, interior minister, governor of Riyadh Province, foreign affairs minister, and head of the Office of the Council of Ministers. Most members of the Council of Ministers and provincial governors also come from the royal family. The increasing power of the Consultative Council represents a threat to royal family power, even though the king has largely supported its development. The possibility of electing half of the council, as proposed by some reformers, would further dilute the power of the royal family. Currently, the royal family is firmly entrenched in power, but it is aware of both domestic and foreign calls for a more accountable process of decision-making. Uncertainty surrounding the fate of Kind Fahd, incapacitated by a massive stroke in 1995, reportedly also has fostered factional conflicts within the royal family.

Administrative Divisions: A royal decree put forth in 1993 divided the kingdom into 13 provinces (mintiqat; sing., mintiqah): Al Bahah, Al Hudud ash Shamaliyah, Al Jawf, Al Madinah, Al Qasim, Ar Riyad, Ash Sharqiyah (Eastern Province), Asir, Hail, Jizan, Makkah, Najran, and Tabuk. A royal decree issued in 1994 sub-divided the 13 provinces into 103 governorates.

Provincial and Local Government: In 1993 the king determined that a system of provincial government should exist. Subsequently, officials divided the country into 13 provinces, each of which was placed under the jurisdiction of a governor, usually a prince or close relative of the royal family. Four times each year, each governor meets with his provincial council to evaluate the province’s development and make recommendations to the Council of Ministers regarding the province’s needs. In October 2003, it was announced that 178 municipal councils would be created to advise the provincial governors. It was proposed that one-half of the new municipal councils’ members be elected through universal suffrage and one-half be appointed by the central government. The first of a planned three phases of elections took place in February 2005. During this phase, more than 1,800 candidates competed for 592 seats among the 178 municipal councils. In Riyadh along, more than 600 candidates competed for 7 seats. The remaining two phases of the elections are scheduled to take place during March and April 2005.

The municipal councils work in concert with tribal and unofficial local leaders to address regional concerns. The country’s major cities, including Mecca, Medina, and Jiddah, have their own municipal councils that carry out, on a local level, the resolutions passed by the Council of Ministers. In less populated regions of the country, the municipal councils encompass multiple towns. Until 2005, localities often voiced an opinion on who should represent them in the municipal councils, but they had little choice but to accept the appointments made by the king.

Judicial and Legal System: In contrast to its legislative branch, the judicial branch operates on a mostly independent basis, as stipulated in the Basic Law. However, members of the royal family are exempt from appearing before the courts, and allies of the family have received preferential treatment from judges in the past. Before the modernization of the judicial system in 1928, the system was severely fragmented among various judges who adhered to one of four schools of Islamic theology. Each judge and court ruled according to association with a specific school. After “unification,” all courts were mandated to use the Koran and sunna as the basis for judgments, without being limited to a particular school. Over time, some secular codes have been introduced to augment Islamic law.

The Ministry of Justice was formed in 1970 in order to further unify the kingdom’s vast system of courts and judges. In the same year, King Faisal also formed the Supreme Judicial Council, with the responsibility of overseeing the court system and reviewing legal decisions. The Supreme Judicial Council assumed the task of approving all death, amputation, and stoning sentences. As of 2005, these forms of punishment have decreased, but they remain a part of Saudi Arabia’s legal code. The king may grant pardons at his discretion, except to felons convicted of killing another individual. In this instance, the king must gain the approval of the victim’s next of kin to grant a pardon.

A hierarchical court system allows the accused a process of appeal. The Ministry of Justice oversees the entire system. The General Courts, also referred to as the Courts of First Instance, are the first to hear cases and make decisions. The decisions of these courts may be appealed to the Supreme Judicial Council. Further appeals may be made to the Council of Ministers, but any decision of the council, signed by the king, is final. The law prohibits imprisonment for more than three days without being charged for a crime. There are reports, however, that this law has been ignored, especially by the Committees for the Progagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or mutawwiin. According to the sharia, the court system should not give the testimony of a woman the same weight as that of a man. Additionally, a judge may throw out the testimony of non-Muslims.

Electoral System: Saudi Arabia had no history of electoral government until February 2005, when, in an election open only to male voters age 21 and older, Saudi citizens cast votes to select one-half the members of the municipal councils. The three-stage elections, which will continue through April 2005, represent a fundamental step away from Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy. There are also some signs that a portion of the members of the Consultative Council might be chosen via election in the near future. In general, the expanding power of the Consultative Council, in comparison to the traditional dominance of the Council of Ministers, is a positive sign for liberal reformers in the kingdom hoping for increased popular sovereignty. Nevertheless, out of a population of nearly 26 million, only about 3 million (males only) are eligible to vote.

Politics and Political Parties: Political parties are illegal in Saudi Arabia, but distinct political divisions exist. The royal family continues to fill most of the important political positions in the kingdom, but the king and the Al Saud are forced to rule by consensus. The ulama, a large and powerful group of religious leaders, perhaps numbering 10,000, ensure that the king observes Islamic law above all other considerations. In order to placate the powerful religious majority of Saudi society, the Al Saud pays close attention to the interests espoused by religious leaders. Alliances made between important members of the Al Saud family and prominent religious leaders have long shaped Saudi Arabia’s society. Saudi Arabia’s history of tribal organization also plays into the kingdom’s political mix. Leaders of the principal tribes still command respect and authority. In past years, tribal leaders have proved able to mobilize military units from among their followers. The traditional merchant families of Saudi Arabia also have a measure of political influence. The royal family has depended on the merchants at various times for financial support, and merchant revenues continue to be a steady source of government income. Finally, the new class of Saudi professionals and technocrats, emerging as a result of increased privatization of the economy, has informal influence on government ministers. Petitions signed by members of this class have encouraged some reforms.

Mass Media: Newspapers are privately owned but are subsidized and regulated by the government. Because the Basic Law states that the media’s role is to educate and inspire national unity, most popular grievances go unreported in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, however, the government has allowed some critical stories to be written by selected journalists. Although self-censorship continues to be a method of self-preservation for the nation’s media outlets, government censorship seems to be decreasing, especially on journalistic inquiries into crime and terrorism.

The government owns and operates the radio and television companies in Saudi Arabia. Censors remove objectionable material deemed offensive by the standards of Islam. Government censorship, which has always plagued the press in Saudi Arabia, has been less effective in its control of the Internet. Legal access to the Internet must be via local servers, which the government monitors for sites that are pornographic, politically offensive, or un-Islamic. Despite these controls, however, Saudi Internet users have been able to access most sites they wish to visit by simply connecting through alternate servers.

Foreign Relations: Saudi Arabia has strong ties to the nations of the Middle East as well as to other Muslim states and Western nations such as the United States and Japan. As the guardian of Islam’s holy places, Saudi Arabia hosts millions of pilgrims from neighboring Islamic countries annually. Additionally, the mutual concern over oil prices has led to cooperation among oil-producing countries in the Middle East. As one of the more affluent countries in the region, Saudi Arabia has pursued aid and development for less developed Arab and Muslim states. Although Saudi Arabia has, at different times, suspended diplomatic relations with Iran and Egypt, among others, it continues to play a dominant role in the region. Saudi Arabia has its strongest diplomatic relations in the region with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi Arabia maintains a complex diplomatic position between the Middle East and the West. It has consistently sought to promote Arab unity, defend Arab and Islamic interests, and support a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (insisting, however, that Israel must withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967). On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been a partner with the West in economic endeavors and the war against terrorism. Some in the Arab world castigate Saudi Arabia for its continuing relationship with the United States, viewed as Israel’s most ardent protector. When Saudi Arabia called for military assistance following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Yemen, Jordan, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) refused to support the Saudi coalition. Not until five years following the Gulf War did Saudi Arabia normalize relations with the PLO or Jordan.

Saudi Arabia has attempted to play the role of peacemaker, with mixed results. In 1981 King Fahd offered a “land for peace” initiative designed to ease tensions between the PLO and Israel, and in 2002 Saudi officials issued an updated version of the proposal that came to be known as the “Arab peace plan.” However, the Saudi initiative was sidetracked when the United States initiated its own “roadmap” for peace in 2003. In early 2005, Saudi Arabia was instrumental in pressuring Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia’s economic and security relationship with the United States remains strong, but the terrorist attack on the United States in September 2001 placed considerable strain on the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Saudi Arabia had been one of only two governments to recognize the Taliban administration in Afghanistan, and 15 of the 19 hijackers were of Saudi descent. In the ensuing war on terrorism, criticisms have been traded over the handling of prisoners, U.S. press coverage of Saudi connections to and financing of terrorist organizations, and a civil lawsuit brought against the Saudi government by relatives of the victims of September 11. Even as tensions mounted between the United States and Saudi Arabia, terrorists carried out attacks on Western interests and targets in Saudi Arabia in response to Saudi cooperation with the United States. Although seen as soft toward the West in parts of the Middle East, Crown Prince Abd Allah condemned the U.S. war with Iraq and refused to commit Saudi troops.

Membership in International Organizations: Saudi Arabia is a member of the United Nations (UN), most UN specialized agencies, and numerous other international organizations. Regionally, Saudi Arabia has fostered close ties to other Arab and Islamic states through membership in organizations such as the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States, Arab Monetary Fund, Arab Sports Federation, Gulf Cooperation Council, Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector, League of Arab States, Muslim World League, Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Saudi Arabia also has membership in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and has applied for membership to the World Trade Organization.

Major International Treaties: Saudi Arabia is a party to many significant treaties, including international agreements on Biodiversity, Biological Weapons, Chemical Weapons, Climate Change, Conservation, Desertification, Endangered Species, Gas Warfare, Genocide, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Nuclear Nonproliferation, Ozone Layer Protection, and Torture. Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol or to conventions on Traffic in Women and Children or Terrorism.

PUBLISHER / AUTHOR: This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. In addition to being featured in the front matter of published Country Studies, they are now being prepared as stand-alone reference aides for all countries in the series, as well as for a number of additional countries of interest. The profiles offer reasonably current country information independent of the existence of a recently published Country Study and will be updated annually or more frequently as events warrant.

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