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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 28 February 2021

Law reforms are part of a new Saudi Arabia

The Saudi legal system is expected to undergo a transformation during 2021. Reuters
The Saudi legal system is expected to undergo a transformation during 2021. Reuters

On Monday, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced reforms that move towards a codified Saudi law.

For lawyers around the world, the devil is always in the details. Tightly defined laws are the framework within which legal practitioners operate, in the hope of providing clarity and predictability to citizens, governments and businesses. They also give lawyers and judges a concrete base from which to develop new legal thinking. Even in the oldest systems, the evolution of the law is never finished.

Less common is a total overhaul of a state's judicial system. But under Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, that is exactly what is happening.

Law reforms are intended to help diversify the Saudi economy. Getty Images
Law reforms are intended to help diversify the Saudi economy. Getty Images

Across the region, governments are planning for a future without the certainties of old

The specific contents of the reforms will be announced throughout 2021, but Prince Mohammed detailed their intentions: boosting consistency and efficiency, and reducing ambiguity of rulings in the nation’s courts. Saudi Arabia is the largest economy in the Arab world. The entire region will stand to benefit from the economic opportunities the reforms create.

The nation's judiciary has no legal framework accompanying its system of Islamic law, under which judges rely on their own interpretations of how religious-legal texts relate to cases. This leads to lengthy litigations, in which sentencing and outcomes emerge not from precedent and codified laws – as is the case in many legal systems – but only from judicial process.

Prince Mohammed has said that the reforms will institute an accompanying framework for judges, which will be informed by international standards while remaining in line with the principles of Islamic law.

This will let judges settle cases more quickly. It will also reduce the possibility of inconsistencies in rulings that affect companies and residents in the country.

Consistency is key for business. Saudi Arabia fell short of its 2019 $10 billion target for foreign direct investment, instead securing $4.6bn. Even with the difficult economic conditions caused by the pandemic, a more predictable legal landscape will ease the operations of international companies in the country. This will help the nation realise its ambitions.

The move towards codification will also reduce ambiguity about how laws apply to Saudi society. Prince Mohammed stressed that legal inconsistency disproportionately impacts women in the country.

While the scale of Saudi Arabia's changes are remarkable, it is not the only country in the Gulf digging into its legal system to find opportunities for reform. Both the UAE and Oman have recently introduced significant legal reforms to adapt to today's interconnected world, encourage business and advance their societies.

Across the region, governments are planning for a future without the certainties of old. Observers abroad will be missing a trick if they assume this only involves new cities, huge investment strategies and space missions. Underpinning all of this are quieter, but equally significant innovations.

Published: February 10, 2021 07:00 AM

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