Saudi Arabia country overview

Saudi Arabia Government

Saudi information index

Saudi Arabia Government

Constitutional framework

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy governed by the Saud dynasty, which gained its status through its close association with and support for the Wahhābī religious establishment. The primary source of legislation is Islamic law, known as the Sharīʿah. However, the actual implementation of laws and policies is often influenced by factors such as political expediency, the internal politics of the ruling family, and the influence of intertribal politics, which remain significant in the modern kingdom.

Although Saudi Arabia has never had a written constitution, in 1992, the king issued the Basic Law of Government, which provides guidelines for the functioning of the government and outlines the rights and responsibilities of citizens. The king holds legislative, executive, and judicial powers and typically assumes the role of prime minister, overseeing the Council of Ministers. This council is responsible for various executive and administrative matters, including foreign and domestic policy, defense, finance, health, and education, which are managed through separate agencies. The king has the authority to appoint and dismiss members of the council.

The Basic Law of Government also led to the establishment of the Consultative Council in 1993. This quasi-legislative body consists of technical experts appointed by the king. The Consultative Council, along with the Council of Ministers, has the power to draft legislation and present it for the king’s approval.

However, it is important to note that major policy decisions are ultimately made through a consensus of opinions sought primarily within the royal family, which includes numerous descendants of the kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saud. Many of these family members hold influential government positions. Additionally, the views of important religious scholars, tribal leaders, and prominent business families are also taken into consideration.

Local government

The kingdom is a complex system of governance that is divided into 13 administrative regions known as manāṭiq. Each of these regions is further subdivided into multiple districts, creating a hierarchical structure that allows for more effective administration and representation of the local population. At the head of each region is a regional governor, typically a member of the royal family, who is tasked with overseeing the operations of one or more municipal councils. These councils are composed of a mix of appointed and elected members, each bringing their own expertise and perspective to the table. Together, the governors and council members are responsible for managing a wide range of functions, including finance, health, education, agriculture, and municipalities. One of the key principles that underpins the governance of the kingdom is the idea of consultation. This principle is enshrined in all levels of government, from the highest regional offices to the smallest village and tribal councils. By fostering a culture of dialogue and collaboration, the kingdom is able to ensure that the needs and concerns of all its citizens are taken into account in the decision-making process. This inclusive approach not only promotes transparency and accountability but also helps to build trust and cooperation among different communities within the kingdom.

Legal status of women

The system of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia has been a longstanding cultural and legal tradition that has been the subject of much debate and controversy. While some argue that it is a necessary form of protection and guidance for women, others see it as a restrictive and discriminatory practice that limits women’s autonomy and independence. The role of a male guardian in Saudi society extends beyond just making decisions on behalf of women. Guardians also have the power to control many aspects of a woman’s life, including her ability to travel, marry, or even seek medical treatment. This level of control has led to criticism from human rights organizations and activists, who argue that it infringes on women’s rights and perpetuates inequalities between men and women. Despite recent legal reforms that have aimed to grant women more rights and freedoms, the practice of male guardianship still persists in many areas of Saudi society. This is evident in the continued requirement for women to obtain permission from their male guardian to engage in certain activities, such as working or studying. While the law may no longer explicitly mandate this permission, social norms and cultural expectations often dictate that women seek approval from their male guardian before making important decisions. The issue of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia is complex and multifaceted, with both cultural and legal dimensions. While some argue that it is a necessary form of protection and support for women, others see it as a form of control and oppression. As the country continues to grapple with issues of gender equality and women’s rights, the debate over male guardianship is likely to remain a contentious and divisive issue for the foreseeable future.

The advancement of technology in telecommunications has greatly improved the efficiency of the system, particularly in regards to travel permissions. With the introduction of SMS text messaging as a way to grant travel permission since 2010, the process has become much quicker and more convenient for both individuals and authorities. Additionally, the development of smartphones has brought about even more convenience through the government-sponsored app Absher, which allows guardians to grant permission with just a few clicks. The introduction of Absher has been particularly beneficial for women, as it has allowed them to travel and engage in activities without the constant presence of a male guardian. This newfound freedom has undoubtedly empowered many women to live more independently and make their own choices. However, it is important to note that the app has also raised concerns about increased tracking and control of women by their male guardians. The ability to monitor a woman’s movements and activities through a smartphone app has sparked debates about privacy and autonomy, highlighting the complex intersection between technology, culture, and gender roles in Saudi society.


The Sharīʿah, or Islamic law, serves as the guiding principle for justice in many Muslim-majority countries, with judgments typically following the Ḥanbalī tradition of Islam. This tradition is known for its strict adherence to the teachings of the Qur’an and the Hadith, which are considered the primary sources of Islamic law. The legal system in countries that follow the Sharīʿah tends to be conservative, with a focus on upholding traditional values and promoting social order. Punishments for crimes are often severe, with penalties such as amputation for theft and execution for more serious offenses like drug trafficking and practicing witchcraft. While some may view these punishments as harsh, they are considered necessary for maintaining law and order and upholding the principles of justice in accordance with Islamic teachings. Critics argue that such punishments are outdated and inhumane, while proponents maintain that they are essential for deterring crime and promoting social cohesion. Overall, the Sharīʿah plays a central role in shaping the legal systems of many countries, influencing everything from family law to criminal justice. While its strict adherence to traditional values may be controversial, for many adherents of Islam, the Sharīʿah represents a fundamental source of guidance and a means of upholding justice in society.

In 1970, the Ministry of Justice was established, supported by a Supreme Judicial Council comprised of prominent members of the ʿulamāʾ. Throughout the country, there are over 300 Sharīʿah courts. However, the rapid changes experienced since the mid-20th century have led to circumstances, such as traffic violations and industrial accidents, that are not covered by traditional law. To address these situations, royal decrees have been issued, which have developed into a body of administrative law that is not directly derived from Islamic principles. There are avenues for appeal, and the monarch serves as both the final court of appeal and the authority to grant pardons.

Political process

Participation in the political process is limited to a small portion of the population, with no elections for national bodies and political parties being outlawed. Although women were allowed to run for seats on municipal councils starting in 2015, their participation in politics remains traditionally limited. The royal family holds significant power and governs through a process that has changed little from the traditional system of tribal rule, despite political and economic changes since the late 20th century. Tribal identity remains strong and plays a crucial role in social control, with political influence often determined by tribal affiliation. Tribal sheikhs maintain a high degree of authority within their tribes and have considerable influence over local and national events.

The tribal hierarchy in the country is complex, consisting of smaller, less influential tribes and a few major tribes that hold significant influence. Although not a tribe strictly speaking, the Saud family behaves like one in many respects. Their continued hegemony is based on the traditional belief in Arabian society that leaders owe their positions to their ability to manage affairs. Similar to how a tribal sheikh leads the tribe, the Saud family rules the country by appeasing rival factions, building consensus, and suppressing extreme voices. This process takes place through the traditional dīwān, an informal council where the senior male, whether a sheikh at the tribal level or the king at the national level, addresses grievances and administers justice and rewards. In theory, any male citizen can voice their concerns in the dīwān.

Succession to the throne in this system is not directly hereditary, although the Basic Law of Government stipulates that the king must be a son or grandson of Ibn Saud. Traditionally, the heir apparent, who also serves as the deputy prime minister, is determined by a consensus of the royal family. However, since 1992, the king appoints the heir apparent, with confirmation by the family only occurring after the monarch’s death. In 2006, the Allegiance Commission, consisting of 35 members of the royal family, was established to participate in the selection of the crown prince. The royal family can also decide, by consensus, to depose the monarch, as was seen in the deposition of King Saud in 1964.

The family heavily relies on its longstanding relationship with the Wahhābī religious hierarchy to maintain social and political control. The crown appoints all major religious functionaries, who are predominantly selected from the Wahhābī ʿulamāʾ, and in turn, the sect supports the royal family. Most significant threats to the political status quo have emerged from dissident factions within the religious community or groups that appeal to Islamic values in some way. Many of these groups operate abroad, and some have been involved in political violence.

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