Appendix: Petitions for Reform in Saudi Arabia

The "Secular" Petition, December 1990

This petition was drafted in the fall of 1990 and was circulated for signatures in December 1990. It was signed by forty-three public figures, from both the religious and the secular trends. They included former cabinet ministers, prominent businessmen, writers and university professors. The petition is believed to have been drafted by Abdalla Manna`, a doctor and a journalist known in the past for voicing critical views of the government that led to his arrest a number of times. Seeking no doubt to disassociate themselves from any radical political group and attempting to avert retribution, the petitioners went to great lengths to demonstrate their loyalty. In a long preamble, they asserted their devotion to the King and their allegiance to "the present system of government, and to preserving the cherished royal family." The signatories then proposed the following ten reforms:1

"1. A systematic framework for fatwa. It must take into consideration the Shari`a, which is infallible and unchangeable, as represented in the unequivocal texts of the Qur'an and the Hadith. But jurisprudence commentaries, Qur`an interpreters' views and the opinions of Shari`a experts that are derived from divergent scholarly doctrines are all human attempts to comprehend the Shari`a texts. These views are affected by their authors' ability to understand, given their level of knowledge and skill. Shaped by the circumstances of time and place, these views are liable to being wrong as well as right, and should be subject to debate. Indeed, there has been a consensus among scholars that no one may ever claim the sole right to determine the meaning of the Qur'an or the Hadith or monopolize the right to decide Shari`a rules. It is therefore essential that we clearly and forcefully make a distinction between what is divine and what is human. The revealed and unambiguous texts must be accepted and obeyed. But scholarly opinions may be freely examined and questioned without any limits.

2. Consider issuing a basic law of government in light of the statements and declarations made by the rulers of the country at various times.

3. Formation of a consultative council comprising the elite from among the qualified and knowledgeable opinion makers known for their honesty, forthrightness, impartiality, morality and public service, representing all regions of the Kingdom. The council must have among its responsibilities the study, development and adoption of laws and rules related to all economic, political, educational and other issues and should exercise effective scrutiny of all executive agencies.

4. The revival of municipal councils; the implementation of the Law of Provinces; and the generalization of the chamber of commerce experience as a model for all other trades.2

5. The investigation of all aspects of the judicial system, in all its degrees, types and areas of competence, for the purpose of modernizing its laws and evaluating the process of preparing judges and their assistants. Every step necessary must be taken to guarantee independence of the judiciary, to assure its effectiveness and fairness, spread its authority and strengthen its foundations. Schools that train for this important field must be open to all citizens, not reserved to one group over the others in violation of the Shari`a-based principle of equality of opportunity.3

6. Commitment to total equality among all citizens in all aspects of their life, without distinction based on ethnic, tribal, sectarian or social origins. The principle of protecting citizens against interference in their lives except by a court order must be firmly established.

7. Media policy must be reviewed and set according to a comprehensive and precise law reflecting the most advanced legislation in other countries. This law must enable all Saudi media to exercise their freedom in preaching good over evil, calling for virtue and shunning vice, and enriching dialogue in an open Muslim society.

8. Comprehensive reform of the Associations for the Propagation of Virtue and the Deterrence of Vice (Hai'at al-Amr bi al-Ma'rouf wa al-Nahi `an al-Munkar).4 A precise law must be adopted specifying their functions and the method they must follow, and setting strict rules for hiring chiefs and members of precincts, to ensure judicious and tactful preaching.

9. Although we believe that nurturing the new generation is the highest duty of Muslim women, we nevertheless believe that there are numerous fields of public life where women can be allowed to participate -- within the scope of the Shari`a -- thus honoring them and acknowledging their role in building society.

10. God revealed His holy books, and sent His prophets, to educate and nurture humanity, proving that education is the foremost important basis for the renaissance and progress of nations. We believe that our country's educational system is in need of comprehensive and fundamental reform to enable it to graduate faithful generations that are qualified to contribute positively and effectively in building the present and the future of the country, and to face the challenges of the age, enabling us to catch up with the caravan of nations that have vastly surpassed us in every field."

The "Religious" Petition, February 1991

This petition circulated after the first; its timing may have been prompted by the popularity of that petition. Although the first petition was signed by prominent religious scholars, it did not have the blessing of the vast religious establishment, who perhaps felt the need to assert its power in charting any new changes. This petition was signed by scores of top religious leaders, including Shaikh Abdel-Aziz ibn Baz, the most eminent religious figure in the country. Shaikh Ibn Baz is the head of the government-appointed Council of Senior Scholars and the Institution of Ifta` and Scholarly Research, an important government agency in charge of all religious matters. The petition was also signed by other members of the council as well as numerous judges, university professors and preachers.

The following is a translation of the petition5:

"In this critical period, everybody has recognized the need for change. We therefore find that the most requisite duty is to reform our present conditions that have caused us to suffer these tribulations. Consequently, we ask that the ruler of the nation check the deterioration of these conditions, which need reform in the following areas:

1. The formation of a consultative council to decide internal and external issues on the basis of the Shari`a.6 Its members must be honest, straightforward and representing all fields of expertise. They must be totally independent and not be subject to any pressure that may affect the authority of the council.

2. All laws and regulations of political, economic, administrative or other nature must be reconciled with the principles of the Shari`a. Trusted committees with expertise in Shari`a should be authorized to repeal legislation not conforming to Shari`a principles.

3. In addition to possessing specialized expertise, dedication and honesty, government officials and their overseas representatives must be unswervingly moral. Failing any one of these requirements for any reason is an abuse of public trust and a fundamental cause of injury to the national interest and reputation.

4. Justice must be applied, rights granted and duties assigned in full equality among all citizens, not favoring the nobles or begrudging the weak. Abuse of authority by anyone whether by shirking obligations or denying people what is their right is a cause for the breakup and annihilation of society.

5. All government officials, especially those occupying the highest positions, must be diligently scrutinized and must all be made accountable with no exceptions. Government agencies must be cleansed of anyone whose corruption or dereliction is proven, regardless of any other consideration.

6. Public wealth must be distributed fairly among all classes and groups. Taxes must be eliminated and fees that have overburdened citizens must be reduced. Government revenues must be protected from exploitation and abuse; priority in expenditure must be given to the most urgent necessities. All forms of monopoly or illegitimate ownership must be eliminated. Restrictions imposed on Islamic banks must be lifted. Public and private banking institutions must be cleansed of usury, which is an affront to God and His Prophet, and a cause for stunting the growth of wealth.

7. A strong and fully-integrated army must be built and fully equipped with weapons of all kinds, from any source. Attention must be given to manufacturing and developing arms. The goal of the army must be to protect the country and the Holy Sites.

8. Information media must be remodeled according to the adopted media policy of the Kingdom. The goals must be to educate, serve Islam and express the morals of society. The media must be purged of anything conflicting with these objectives. Its freedom to spread awareness through truthful reporting and constructive criticism must be safeguarded within the confines of Islam.

9. Foreign policy must be based on national interest without relying on alliances not sanctioned by the Shari`a. It must also embrace Muslim causes. The Kingdom's embassies must be reformed to enable them to reflect the Islamic nature of the country.

10. Religious and proselytizing institutions must be developed and strengthened with financial and human resources. All obstacles preventing them from fully carrying out their objectives must be removed.

11. Judicial institutions must be unified and granted full and effective independence. Juridical authority must apply to all. It is necessary to establish an independent body whose function is to ensure carrying out judicial orders.

12. The rights of individuals and society must be guaranteed. Every restriction on people's rights and their will must be removed, to ensure the enjoyment of human dignity, within the acceptable religious safeguards." End of Petition

1 The ten points in the petition are translated in their entirety. Footnotes are added by Middle East Watch (unless otherwise noted) to clarify some of the proposals. Translation from Arabic by MEW.

2 Elections for municipal councils were common in Saudi cities until 1963 when the last elections were annulled. The 1963 Law of Provinces, allowing for a limited degree of decentralization, has never been implemented. The vague reference to the chambers of commerce points to the unequal treatment of professional groups. While the chambers are allowed to operate in relative freedom, labor unions are banned and most other trade and professional organizations are restricted. For more details on these points, see the relevant sections in this report on elections, the Law of Provinces, and freedom of association.

3 Shi`a are excluded from Shari`a colleges. A degree from a recognized Shari`a college is required to serve as a judge or as an assistant.

4 The reference is to the controversial religious police popularly known as "the Zealots" (al-Mataw`a or Mutawwa`in). Their tactics are sometimes arbitrary and violent. Most of them are salaried civil servants who have the right to arrest, interrogate and detain those suspected of religious infractions.

5 Translation from Arabic by Middle East Watch. Unlike the "secular" petition, the religious appeal is prefaced by a much briefer introduction: "In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Custodian of the Holy Shrines, may God guide his steps. May peace, God's mercy and His blessing be upon you. This government has been distinguished by declaring that it has adopted the Shari`a. Scholars have always performed their religious duty of providing counsel to their rulers."

6 The phrase "on the basis of the Shari`a" was added by His Eminence Shaikh Abdel Aziz Ibn Baz. (footnote in the original)