Surrounded by his advisors, leading citizens of the city and visitors from across Arabia at one of his daily Majlis in Riyadh in 1925, King Abdul Aziz was asked by a foreign historian what he considered the most important elements of Saudi rule, that by now had extended to most of the Arabian Peninsula, and in 1932 would lead to the founding of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Turning to the questioner, he replied: "Two things are essential to our State and our people, two fundamental things - religion and the rights inherited from our fathers. To these I add...right understanding among ourselves."
Thus in one statement, he succinctly outlined the pillars upon which 250 years of Saudi rule have been based and the goals it still strives for.
|King Fahd and Prince Sultan at the opening of a new session of Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council) last year. The Council meets regularly and advises the King on issues of national importance.|
To King Abdul Aziz, his predecessors and successors, as well as to the people of Saudi Arabia, the overriding principle on which life is based has always been Islam. Indeed, from its inception in the first half of the 18th century, the Saudi State has been based on Islam and the sunnah (the teachings and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). A distant second to Islam have been the Arab traditions and rich culture alluded to by King Abdul Aziz as "the rights inherited from our fathers."
The third "essential" alluded to by him refers to harmony between the rulers and citizens of Saudi Arabia, as well as among the people - cherished goals towards which Saudi Arabia has consistently worked, and the realization of which has brought about the security and stability the Kingdom has enjoyed.
Over the centuries, Saudi Arabia's commitment to Islam has been reflected in the fact that its governing systems are based on Islam and its teachings, which call for peace, justice, equality, consultation and respect for the rights of individuals. Its executive, legislative and judicial arms of government are guided by the Holy Qur'an, the sunnah and shari'ah (Islamic law). Thus, Saudi Arabia has always derived strength from laws handed down by God and not formulated by man.
This unswerving commitment to Islam and its lofty principles has remained a constant in Saudi history. However, with the advent of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and anticipating its growing prominence in the community of nations as well as its rising prosperity, King Abdul Aziz built the foundation for a constitutional regime, thus establishing a modern government capable of meeting the needs of its people and dealing with the challenges of the 20th century.
In 1953, King Abdul Aziz signed a royal decree creating the Council of Ministers to facilitate the Kingdom's development. Whereas it was once possible to effectively run the affairs of state with only a few ministers who reported to him on a daily basis, King Abdul Aziz realized that such a system of government would be severely taxed in a modern state. During the past four decades, 21 government ministries have been founded to oversee specialized areas of development in education, agriculture, housing, industry and many other fields. The heads of these ministries comprise the Cabinet which advises the King.
The King's frequent meetings with the ministers formalized the long-established Islamic tradition of popular consultation practiced by generations of Saudi rulers. Such consultation first manifested itself in the form of the Majlis, an open court during which any subject could make his views known to the King. This practice reaffirms the links between ruler and subject. It also demonstrates a closeness between them that reflects the Islamic principle of equality among men.
Although the Majlis has always been a staple of Saudi rule, over time it became institutionalized as a vital necessity to maintain and nurture the relationship between the ruler and the citizen and to ensure that the concerns of citizens are brought to the ruler's personal attention. By the mid-19th century, injunctions by Saudi rulers required governors to hold regular sessions of the Majlis and to refer to the King's Majlis any individual who felt a grievance or petition had not been properly handled.
|In his capacity as Prime Minister, the King heads the Council of Ministers. One of the members of the new Cabinet introduced by King Fahd in 1995 takes the oath of office (above, right).|
During his rule, King Abdul Aziz further strengthened this concept. As court records show, he held daily sessions of the Majlis wherever he was, whether in the capital or traveling throughout the Kingdom. In fact there were three daily sessions of the Majlis. The first was a general session which could be attended by anyone. Individuals could present petitions to the King, discuss a concern or voice their opinion about a topic. It is recorded that time permitting, King Abdul Aziz would meet with all who wanted to talk with him.
Aside from being an occasion for citizens to petition the King or discuss personal problems, these meetings had a second and equally important function. They were a forum for the King to become personally acquainted with his subjects' concerns. A visitor who attended several of these meetings wrote: "Anybody could attend and there were usually between eighty and one hundred and thirty people present. He would...choose some topic of national importance and speak about it for a time to the assembled company. Finally, he would invite questions, whereupon they were free to ask him about anything they liked."
King Abdul Aziz held a second Majlis shortly after the evening prayer. This was an informal meeting open to ulema (religious scholars), leading citizens, tribal chieftains and visitors. Anyone could raise any topic for discussion at these meetings. The issues discussed were generally on state and national affairs.
Through these meetings, King Abdul Aziz was exercising an Islamic principle. "We have to follow what is stated in the Holy Qur'an and the sunnah in implementation of Allah's orders to consult others in the affairs of the moment," he once stated.
In implementing this Islamic edict, King Abdul Aziz also formed the first official Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council) in Makkah in 1925. Its function was to meet regularly, discuss important issues and advise the King.
King Abdul Aziz required that his sons attend his daily Majlis sessions and that provincial governors and senior officials also hold such sessions open to all.
Over the decades, the teachings of Islam and King Abdul Aziz's example have been meticulously followed by his successors. However, the Kingdom's rapid development and the needs of a growing population have required that the systems of governance be revitalized to meet evolving requirements.
In 1992, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz introduced a new Basic Law for the System of Government, Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council) and the Provincial System. Bylaws for the Council of Ministers System were announced the following year.
The Basic System of Government identifies the nature of the state, its goals and responsibilities, and defines the relationship between the ruler and citizens, emphasizing the equality of all citizens.
|Continuing Saudi tradition institutionalized by King Abdul Aziz, his sons, King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah, as well as other senior Saudi governors and officials, hold regular sessions of majlis, where they can be approached by ordinary citizens.|
King Fahd presided over the opening session of the restructured Consultative Council in 1992. The King carefully considered the Kingdom's role in the Islamic world, as well as its traditions and social fabric, when he announced changes to the Saudi systems of government. The Consultative Council now consists of a chairman and 60 members appointed by the King for a four-year renewable term. Council members encompass representatives from all parts of Saudi society, whose main responsibility is to advise the King on issues of importance to the nation.
From its headquarters in the capital city of Riyadh, the Majlis Al-Shura and its eight specialized committees discuss such topics as education, culture, health and social affairs, security, economic and financial issues. The Council is also responsible for discussing regulations, domestic and international issues, and all other matters of public interest. All reports and recommendations prepared by the Consultative Council are submitted directly to the King.
The Council of Ministers System was introduced in September 1993, to enhance the efficiency of the Council of Ministers. Consisting of the Prime Minister, who is the King, the First Deputy Prime Minister, the Second Deputy Prime Minister, 21 ministers with portfolio and six ministers of state, the Council of Ministers is responsible for drafting internal, external, financial, economic, educational and defense policies, and general affairs of the state. It also supervises the implementation of such policies. The Council has executive power and is the final authority for financial and administrative affairs of all ministries and other government departments. Council decisions are reached by majority vote, however, in the event of a tie, the Prime Minister casts the deciding vote.
To further increase the effectiveness of the government and to advance the continued development of the country's provinces and their extensive social services programs, King Fahd instituted the Provincial System in 1992. The new body, he stated in a royal decree, is designed to "enhance the efficiency of administration and development in the regions of the Kingdom...preserve security and order and guarantee the rights of citizens and their freedom in the framework of shari'ah."
|King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdullah and Saudi princes personally supervise the affairs of state based on the teachings of Islam, and attuned to the needs of the nation.|
The bylaws divide the Kingdom into 13 provinces and define their administrative structure, the manner in which they should be administered and the responsibilities of the governors and regional officers.
King Fahd named 210 members to the Provincial Councils of the country's 13 provinces. Each council is composed of a minimum of 10 private Saudi citizens who are experienced and respected in their fields and residents of that province. The council members discuss the needs of their provinces, work on the development of a budget, evaluate future development plans and monitor on-going projects. They issue reports that are submitted to the Minister of the Interior and then passed along to the appropriate government ministries and agencies for consideration. The ministries and agencies are required to deliberate on the proposals of the various provincial councils when determining regional development projects.
In addition to these systems, Saudi Arabia has an extensive judicial system, based on the tenets of shari'ah. In 1928, King Abdul Aziz defined the organization of the court system and the procedures to be followed. Subsequent decrees have enabled the judicial system to better deal with the country's needs as it continued to develop. Today, the Ministry of Justice administers the shari'ah legal system through the shari'ah Courts. At the trial level are the General Courts, or the Courts of the First Instance. Decisions from these courts can be appealed to the appellate and, finally, the High Shari'ah Court.
Decisions from the Appeals Court can also be appealed to the office of the King or the Crown Prince, which turn the appeal over to the legal office of the Council of Ministers. A decision by the Council of Ministers, signed by the King, is final.
The revitalization of the Kingdom's various government systems reflects the nation's adaptability to meet the demands of a modern society without compromising its religious and cultural values.