Saudi Arabia has announced new judicial 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.
"The Personal Status Law, the Civil Transactions Law, the Penal Code for Discretionary Sanctions, and the Law of Evidence represent a new wave of judicial reforms in the Kingdom," Saudi state news agency SPA quoted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as saying late Monday.
"The new laws represent a new wave of reforms that will ... increase the reliability of procedures and oversight mechanisms as cornerstones in achieving the principles of justice, clarifying the lines of accountability," the crown prince said in a statement. He said the new laws will be announced over the course of 2021.
A Saudi official told Reuters that reforms are designed to meet the needs of the modern world while adhering to Sharia.
The announcement is the latest in a series of dramatic economic and social reforms launched by the 35-year-old crown prince aimed at modernizing the kingdom. It fits into his Vision 2030 agenda, which aims to diversify the economy away from oil and attract foreign talent and investment, and comes as Saudi Arabia pitches itself 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 often resulted in inconsistency in court rulings and drawn-out litigation procedures. The announcement made a specific mention of women in Saudi Arabia, 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 has led to a lack of clarity in the rules governing the incidents and practices, and has 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 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.
Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the kingdom's royal court, tweeted about the reforms late Monday, describing the news as "an important step in legal reform and one that recognizes that the Saudi legal system has a way to go to reach international standards and that the leadership appreciates the urgency and importance of such reform."
"Highlighting its impact on women is particularly interesting," Shihabi added.
The crown prince described the current legal system as "painful for many individuals and families, especially women, permitting some to evade their responsibilities. This will not take place again once these laws are promulgated pursuant to legislative laws and procedures," he said. The statement did not outline further details of what specific practices and penalties would be changed.
His statement added that the forthcoming legal reforms will "tackle lack of clarity in rules governing... prolonged litigations that are not based on established legal provisions, and absence of a clear legal framework for individuals and businesses."