After a long delay, the Saudi cabinet has approved a law that may pave the way for non-charity organizations to operate legally in the Kingdom. The law – long overdue – is a significant advance for a country where civil society organizations are generally barred from operating, and activists are often jailed for speaking their minds.
The law has been in the works for years. In 2006, the Ministry of Social Affairs submitted a draft to the Shura Council, the highest advisory body to the King. The Shura Council approved an amended version and submitted it to the cabinet in 2008 – after which nothing happened for nearly seven years. Out of the blue, the state news agency suddenly announced on November 30, 2015, that the cabinet had approved the law in a session chaired by King Salman.
The new law establishes a legislative framework for the foundation, administration, and supervision of civil society organizations. In the absence of an associations law, nongovernmental groups had been forced to register as charities. The Ministry of Social Affairs generally refused to register human rights groups and, in 2013, specifically advised a Saudi human rights organization to wait for the associations law to register, claiming it would “provide for the establishment of civil associations in the area of human rights.” In the meantime, authorities have vigorously prosecuted members of informal human rights groups for setting up unregistered organizations.
The new law is a step forward, but it is unlikely that it will allow associations to operate freely and independently. Earlier drafts of the associations law included highly restrictive conditions, including granting the government powers to abolish or replace the board of any group based on sweeping justifications such as “going against public order” or violating Islamic law, as well as requiring government approval for organizations to receive foreign funding. Human Rights Watch has not yet reviewed the text of the new law, but, according to a Ministry of Social Affairs infographic, the ministry will be able to exert significant control over groups’ boards of directors and restrict donations to those the ministry approves.
Even before this week’s announcement, Saudi authorities signaled a potential new attitude toward international human rights organizations. According to a November 11, 2015 article in the Telegraph, advisors to Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman purportedly released a statement indicating that Saudi Arabia may “open the doors of the kingdom to international committees and human rights organizations.”
For a long time, Saudi Arabia has made it very difficult for human rights groups – both inside and outside the country – to do their work, and it remains to be seen whether authorities will allow independent human rights groups to officially register under the new law.
Regardless of what comes next, the promulgation of an associations law may be a sea of change in a country that has for so long held a suspicious view of civil society. It should be accompanied by the release of all independent activists serving jail sentences for setting up unlicensed organizations.