The Saudi Majlis al-Shura or consultative council is a body of appointed members whose primary task is to study and propose laws. These are then submitted to the king who decides which will be referred to the Saudi Council of Ministers.
This is not to say that the Shura Council is a toothless organization. Rather, it has evolved and now has the authority to interpret existing legislation, as well as to demand and audit annual performance reports referred to it by state ministries and agencies. It can also advise the king on policies submitted to them for review and analysis, and provide input on international treaties and economic plans the Kingdom is prepared to undertake. The council also has the right to review the country’s annual budget, and demand the presence of ministers for questioning on their respective ministries.
The Shura Council in its present form came into being following a directive issued by the then king, the late Fahd bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, who declared on 23 November 2000 the formation of a formal consultative council with predetermined members. The intention was to bring the country into step with the modern era through a gradual introduction of civilian participation in the affairs of state. Although the council was devoid of any authority or legislative rule-making power, the move was welcomed as a positive entry into contemporary politics.
In its first term as an advisory council, it was made up of 60 members and a speaker all appointed by the king. In its second term, membership increased to 90, then to 120 members in the following term and finally to the 150 members it has today. The term of each council is four years.
The significance of the council’s fourth term was the inclusion of 30 women or 20% of the total membership. This was made possible through the modernization efforts of the late King Abdullah (reign 2005-2015), who first announced that he was planning to appoint women to the Shura Council in 2011. The king, known for his progressive stance on empowering Saudi women, also stated at the time that his female subjects would be allowed to vote and stand as candidates in the 2015 municipal elections. In 2013, his words became reality when 30 women were appointed and sworn in in his presence.
King Abdullah was also instrumental in expanding the role of the council, giving it more authority and increasing its mandate to serve the public. By appointing the 30 women to the consultative body, he ushered in a new era of social reform within the Shura. “We refuse to marginalize women in all roles that comply with sharia,” the king told the Shura Council’s annual session. He said his decision was based on talks with key religious scholars who had approved the inclusion of women to participate in accordance with sharia. “Women…will enjoy full rights of membership, be committed to their duties, responsibilities and assume their jobs,” he added.
It cannot be emphasized enough how significant this step was towards the empowerment of Saudi women and a major step towards breaking the shackles that had bound them for so long.
The king was acutely aware of the dangers of extremism and religious fundamentalism that had been fostered during King Fahd’s reign and had materialized in the suppression of rights, and domestic and regional threats to peace and security. De facto taking over from a sick and incapacitated Fahd, in 2003, Abdullah established the National Dialogue Center. Its mission was to “create a channel for responsible expression that will have an effective role in fighting intolerance, zealotry and extremism, and establish a hospitable climate from which wise positions and enlightened opinions could emanate to reject terrorism and terrorists’ thought”. He once addressed pilgrims gathered for the hajj, warning that “extremism starts at home, continues at school and mosque, and needs the support of scholars, preachers, writers, intellectuals, and all opinion and society leaders”, including the Shura Council.
In its infancy, the Shura was often accused by the public of being too indifferent to the needs and aspirations of the people. There was unquestionably a dominant theme of religious doctrine that appeared to forestall any truly progressive moves by the council. One of these was the proposed switch of the weekend from Thursday-Friday to Friday-Saturday, which met with vociferous objection from religious groups.
Similarly, the driving ban on women had been brought to the table several times only to be shot down and removed from further discussion. Even with the inclusion of women in the body, the council still appears to be guided by religious or tribal customs and traditions, and is not brave enough to take a stand on gender-related issues. This was aptly demonstrated when a group of council members publicly expressed their frustrations regarding the interference by religious advisers and ‘extremists to obstruct council resolutions on important issues like women driving’.
The group charged that proposals to amend the traffic laws that prevent women from driving and another law to prevent sexual harassment have not seen the light of day because of obstruction by ideologists who include the Committee of Advisers, the Islamic and Judicial Affairs Committee and the General Secretariat at the council. “A Shura member who takes an extreme stand on certain issues has been appointed to the Islamic and Judicial Affairs Committee,” one member was reported as saying, and this member was “instrumental in preventing some proposals from reaching the house”.
As for the women in the Shura nearing the end of their first term, Thuraiyya al-Arrayed, an active member and poet, said that “when women first joined the council there was diverse opinion not only in the council itself but also among the Saudi public. There were people who were pessimistic, others said let’s wait and see while a third group was totally against it.” She was determined to make her inclusion in the council a success. “I did not think of it as just doing a job but doing and providing what is beyond the best; that is to say [there is] no room for failure.”
While expectations for the Shura Council to represent people’s needs and wants remain high, it is worth bearing in mind that in an absolute monarchy, the Shura is currently the closest thing the Kingdom has to a democratic body. Its evolution over the years from an organization that appeared to be doing little more than rubber stamping government decisions, to its present form of questioning and seeking answers on a wide range of state policies is an important step in the direction of full and equal people’s representation.