Saudi Arabia approves new NGO law

Saudi Arabia approves new NGO law
3 min read
03 December, 2015
Saudi Arabia has approved a new law that may allow non-charity organisations to operate legally in the country, in what HRW described yesterday as 'a step forward'.
Advisers to Prince Mohammed Bin Salman have discussed opening up the country [AFP]

Saudi Arabia has approved a new law that may allow non-charity organisations to operate legally in the country, said Human Rights Watch yesterday.

The move indicates that the kingdom may be embracing a new attitude towards international human rights organisations.

The law is "a significant advance for a country where civil society organisations are generally barred from operating, and activists are often jailed for speaking their minds’, said the New York based human rights organisation.

A draft version of the law was originally submitted to the Shura Council, the highest advisory body to the king, in 2006. The Shura Council approved an amended version of the law that was submitted to the cabinet in 2008.

Nothing happened until 30 November 2015 when the law was approved in a cabinet session chaired by King Salman.

The law creates a legal framework that enables civil society organisations to be founded, administered and supervised.

     Previously nongovernmental organisations needed to register as charities.

Previously nongovernmental organisations needed to register as charities, and the ministry of social affairs typically refused to register human rights groups.

In 2013, the ministry advised a human rights organisation to wait for the new associations law before registering. It claimed claiming the new law would "provide for the establishment of civil associations in the area of human rights", said HRW.

Authorities have previously prosecuted anyone setting up an unregistered human rights group.

HRW has described the new law as a step forward, but has argued that it is still unlikely associations will be able freely and independently.

Previous drafts of the law reportedly included extremely restrictive conditions and, for example, allowed the government "to abolish or replace the board of any group based on sweeping justifications such as 'going against public order' or violating Islamic law", said HRW.

They had also stipulated that organisations needed government approval before they could receive foreign funding.

A ministry of social affairs infographic of the text explains that the new law will enable the ministry "to exert significant control over groups' boards of directors and restrict donations to those the ministry approves".

HRW says it has not yet been able to review the text of the new law.

On 11 November 2015, in an article published by the UK newspaper The Telegraph, advisers to Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman discussed plans for opening up the country's economy and society.

The advisers reportedly said the country might "open the doors of the kingdom to international committees and human rights organizations".

Human rights groups have struggled to operate in the gulf state for a long time, and it waits to be seen if independent human rights groups will be able to register officially under the new law.

The kingdom has recently made steps forward in enhancing human rights with, for example, Saudi women beginning their first-ever elections campaign on 29 November.

Earlier in November a reformed labour law was passed by the government that sought to enhance the rights of migrant workers.