After eight years of deliberation, the law for civil associations and organizations has finally been released by the Council of Ministers in Saudi Arabia. The actual bylaws that will explain each article in the new law have yet to be released. This is a particularly important law since the right to association is an activity closely monitored and controlled by the state. The new law does not ease the restrictions imposed on associations; rather it offers a more stringent regulatory process, maintaining control on board members’ selection, funding, and the intended public activities of any association. In other words, the new law allows only for government-sanctioned, non-governmental organizations.
Civil Society Organizations in Saudi Arabia
Previously the bulk of civil-society activities, albeit state-funded and controlled, were undertaken by Islamic organizations. However, most of these have been closed post 9/11 on suspicions of linkage to Islamic militancy. Currently, there are no independent civil society organizations in Saudi Arabia. However, an alternative structure exists and operates. While all civil society organizations (CSOs) are more or less controlled by either governmental bodies or influential members of the royal family, they differ in their scope of service, funding capacity, and relative freedom from bureaucracy, which is usually the sign of royal patronage. Five different structures can be observed in Saudi Arabia: charitable organizations licensed by the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA), specialized/professional CSOs operating under other governmental entities, the business-affiliated charities, semi-governmental structures under the patronage of members of the royal family, and informal CSOs functioning without state permission.
MOSA directly administers, funds, and supervises the largest proportion of the charitable organizations: a total of 686 charities across Saudi Arabia providing basic services. Patients’ service-oriented CSOs licensed by the Saudi commission for health specialties are examples of the specialized CSOs supervised by different governmental entities. Business tycoons and banks provide some public services, mostly focused on economic empowerment and recognized by the state as partners in fulfilling some developmental goals. A wide structure of informal civil associations exists among youth, women, students, minorities, and other groups. Their existence is usually tolerated by the state as long as their functions and activities remain unannounced and apolitical. Moreover, some of these groups have been such valuable assets to their communities that state officials have actually supported them, such as the “Eastern Province Business Women’s Forum” and the culture-oriented youth group “Intellect” in Jeddah.
In other cases, civil-society actors sought patronage of members of the royal family to support an unconventional cause. Examples are two domestic-violence grass roots projects: Hemayah shelter in Jeddah and the Family Protection Program in Riyadh, for which women activists sought the support of Princess Adela bint Abdullah long before the establishment of the domestic violence law or governmental shelters. However, alliances with royal members are not always possible in certain civil associations. The founding members of al-Adalah Center for Human Rights had to resort to court for years to resolve their inability to obtain licensure. Likewise, members of the association for civil and political rights were convicted of establishing an unlicensed CSO despite filing a request for registration.
The CSO Law in Practice: Assessing its Potential
Will the new law provide an opportunity for such organizations to operate? Not likely. Similar to other laws in Saudi Arabia, the new law ascribes a broad definition to what constitutes an allowed activity and then gives the Ministers of Social Affairs and Islamic Affairs wide authority in deciding how to define such activities. Goals set forth by the new law reveal the desire to share the increased state burden of the welfare system. For instance, the law lists the need to “contribute to national development” or “to implement the culture of volunteering and achieve social support.” Other goals of the law exude the usual air of intended censorship in aiming to “regulate, develop and protect the civil society work”.
The broad definitions used in the law set potential CSOs up for failure. Article 8 (2) states that it is prohibited to approve a CSO in which a contradiction to Islamic sharia, public order, public morals, or national unity exists. How can a MOSA official decide what constitutes a violation of national unity or public order? A few years back “The White Ribbon Campaign,” initiated by Saudi men to support victims of domestic violence, was ordered to stop after unnamed religious figures deemed it was inappropriate. Official interpretation of what is publicly appropriate or not is thus expected to impede advocacy in certain taboo-related activities. Moreover, articles 18 (3), 19 (b), and 23 give the Minister of Social Affairs the right to directly interfere in a CSO’s members’ elections, in appointing members of his choice or even in dissolving the CSOs if violations exist. This signifies the intention to micromanage public civil society activity. In an ideal situation, a violation of a CSO for any law should be resolved in an independent court of law to ensure transparency and fairness.
The new law will ideally allow for a wider engagement of concerned citizens to improve their country. The increased economic burden and the lack of skilled professionals to meet public demands appear to be the main triggers behind the new law. To that end, exercising tight control on civil society can very well defeat its purpose. The real challenge for the Saudi state is to actually enable its civil society rather than overburden existing organizations.