Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday it would set up training centres for its judges, overriding resistance from religious conservatives in a move that should accelerate judicial reforms in the kingdom.
Changes to the legal system are seen by analysts as crucial for wider social and economic reforms aimed at reconciling Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative traditions with the demands of a young population and modern economy.
However, some clerics in the kingdom have opposed any change to the judiciary, seeing the country’s legal system of sharia or Islamic law as a divinely inspired set of rules that cannot be changed by temporal authorities.
A cabinet statement reported by the Saudi Press Agency said the training centres, run by the Justice Ministry, would focus on the “efficiency and performance” of judges and other officials.
Saudi judges are clerics who preside over everything from economic, criminal to political cases using Islamic jurisprudence. Educated at state-run seminaries, they learn how to interpret centuries-old judicial texts and apply them in court as they see fit, without reference to precedence.
The system is often criticised by human rights groups who say it allows judges to apply rules inconsistently and without due process, and by businesses who say it weakens the kingdom’s investment climate.
“All judges, assistant judges, clerks and court secretaries need a huge amount of training and upgrading of their skills,” said Majid Garoub, a prominent lawyer.
Some religious conservatives in the judiciary and the Justice Ministry have tried to block the training and other reforms including the introduction of specialised courts for different branches of law and women practising as lawyers.
They have also opposed a ruling by the Supreme Board of Judiciary this month that women must identify themselves in court using government documents, rather than be identified by a male relative, making it harder for men to stop female relatives from testifying in court.
Religious concerns are particularly sensitive in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, where King Abdullah is officially known as “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, and where in the absence of democracy the state’s legitimacy partly rests on its Islamic credentials.
Earlier this year the local al-Jazeera newspaper reported that 200 judges had written to the king attacking the reforms. In November 2012, another group of judges decried the “Westernising stench” of reform in another open letter.
Justice Minister Mohammed al-Issa was appointed in 2009 to accelerate the reforms. In 2012 he was also made head of the Supreme Judicial Council, the body that oversees judges’ performance and new judicial appointments.
The king appointed 183 new judges last year, and has approved the creation of 5,000 new positions for judges to help unblock bottlenecks in a legal system notorious for long delays.
The change is seen as important for investors, who now mainly rely on boards of arbitration similar to those used in commercial disputes in some Western countries.
“It is one of the main issues for international investments, but (the legal framework) is a little bit obscure now. People do not know exactly what is going on,” said Fawaz al-Alamy, a former deputy minister of commerce and industry who helped negotiate Saudi Arabia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation.
He said the legal system needed greater transparency, predictability and due process to attract foreign investment.
The world’s top oil exporter has pushed economic reforms aimed at diversifying its economy and reducing the reliance on energy exports by encouraging more private sector activity.
“(Reforms) are a package deal. You cannot implement reforms in the economic or social areas and neglect the judiciary,” said Joseph Kechichian, senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.