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Saudi Arabia grapples with new penal code

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at prayers to mark the end of Ramadan. He said in 2022 that flogging would be ended and the use of the death penalty restricted Balkis Press/ via Reuters
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at prayers to mark the end of Ramadan. He said in 2022 that flogging would be ended and the use of the death penalty restricted
  • Draft code under legislative review
  • Lays out guidelines for foreign investors
  • Difficulty in amending religious laws

A legislative committee is grappling with the text of a new penal code which could cement — or jeopardise — the gains made by Saudi Arabia after it introduced a new commercial law code last year. 

The kingdom is trying to shake off a reputation for opaque and arbitrary justice to meet ambitious tourism and investment targets by 2030 as part of its economic transformation programme

The new commercial code lays out guidelines for judges to give foreign investors the clarity they have long sought to operate in the once closed country. 

Yvonne Biesinger of Creation Business Consultants in Dubai said the penal code would be positive for business, whatever its contents. 

“Codifying the law is a positive step toward instilling confidence in a country’s legal framework as it eliminates ambiguity and facilitates efficient governance,” she said. 

Human rights groups criticised an early leaked draft of the law from 2022 but proponents say the draft now follows the commercial code in fixing punishments that are not specified in Islamic law and reduces the scope for judicial discretion. 

A Saudi newspaper has reported that the intent is to define crimes and punishments, while reducing the use of jail terms and allowing the state to make money from the use of financial penalties instead. 

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told US media in 2022 that flogging would be ended and the use of the death penalty restricted. 

A diplomatic source said the government committee preparing the code has been split over the punishments in Islamic law known as the hudud. 

They include death for apostasy, adultery and murder resulting from robbery, amputations for theft, and flogging for alcohol consumption. 

In 2020 Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court ordered flogging to be replaced by prison and fines – only for judges to continue issuing flogging verdicts for drug crimes.

The draft also specifies financial penalties, life imprisonment which was previously unknown in Saudi law, and other punishments such as dismissal from public office, deportation of foreigners, closure of websites, house arrest and community service.  

A former judge, who said a draft document circulating appears to be genuine, said the broad aim of the code will be to reduce the application of hudud punishments. 

“They will apply them but in rare situations to keep them as a phenomenon of the sharia compliance, but we’ll concentrate on more modern criminalised behaviour like rape and theft,” he said, adding the critical element will be training of judges. 

“The challenge now is how to increase the number and educational quality of judges to make them more concentrated on justice and law and not religious education,” the former judge said.

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