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Civil Society in Saudi Arabia

civil society saudi arabia mall
Riyadh / Photo HH

There were Gulf regional traditions of civil society in Saudi Arabia before the arrival of large-scale oil income. Since then, the state has taken over many welfare functions and has generally prevented independent social organization. Although there are numerous welfare societies with considerable resources, these still exist in the shadow of the state and are tightly controlled by it.

In the aftermath of the terrorism problems of 2003-2004, religious organizations have also come under increasing control by the state. There are no powerful independent unions, syndicates, or issue groups in the kingdom, leaving Saudi society fragmented. The only social structures most Saudis can rely on are small-scale, informal networks of kinship and friendship. Recent government attempts to set up formal interest groups in a top-down fashion have largely failed to gain public participation.

However, in recent years, some powerful civil-society groups have appeared. These groups worked mostly online to access a relatively free space of speech and assembly. There are three types of civil-society organizations working outside the government umbrella. The first type works non-politically, supporting the state while promoting a new partnership and dialogue to improve and empower civil society. The second type is semi-political, working within the government to promote a change of policies and the direction of the political system. The third type is political, working in direct opposition to the state. Most of these organizations promote a pluralistic and human-rights approach to citizenship.

Several governmental organizations act to promote civil society. The Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry acts as a bridge between citizens and the state. Two governmental human-rights organizations work to document and report violations of formal regulations and human rights, reporting directly to the royal court.

Several activists submitted requests to the Majlis al-Shura in recent years to issue a law enabling independent civil society to operate and promote their missions legally. In 2007, Majlis al-Shura approved a Basic Law for Civil Society Organizations. The law calls for the establishment of a National Authority for Civil Society Organizations to supervise and regulate the activities of NGOs. The promulgation of the law was postponed for unknown reasons, until it was announced in 2012 that it will be effective shortly after receiving the required approval by royal decree.

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