King steers path to equality, justice

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2005, 12:00am

Changes have advanced the kingdom in investment, employment and education, with more than 90pc of the people literate

REFORMS LAUNCHED in the Middle East kingdom of Saudi Arabia have promoted economic growth, increased foreign investment and expanded employment opportunities.

In 1992, the late King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud introduced three key initiatives to modernise the government within the framework of the kingdom's traditions. They are the formation of the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura), the establishment of consultative councils in all 13 provinces, and the introduction of the Basic Law of Governance, similar to a constitution.

The Majlis al-Shura comprises 120 members who serve four-year terms with the power to propose new bills or amendments to existing regulations and debate such proposals without approval from the king. The consultative councils comprise leading citizens who advise and review management of the provinces by their respective local governments.

In an important move towards promoting more public participation in the political process, the kingdom held its first municipal council elections this year. The elections covered 178 municipal councils across all cities and villages in the kingdom's 13 provinces. The government enlisted the support of the United Nations in the voting process.

Saudi Arabia has a young population; 57 per cent of its nationals are under 20 years old. Last year, there were more than 4.5 million students, both women and men, studying at the government's expense. The kingdom has been updating and modernising its academic curricula, and monitoring its religious schools.

In January 2003, Saudi Arabia presented a bold initiative entitled 'Charter to Reform the Arab Position' to encourage economic and political changes in the Arab world.

The charter urges Arab states to recognise the need for internal reform and greater participation by citizens in the political process as important steps towards the development of Arab human resources and the democratisation of the Arab world.

At the end of the 16th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, in May last year, Saudi Arabia along with the other 21 members of the Arab League issued the Tunis Declaration and pledged to carry out political and social reforms, promote democracy, expand popular participation in politics and public affairs, and reinforce women's rights. It also called for a Greater Arab Free Trade Zone by the end of this year.

The King Abdulaziz Centre for National Dialogue promotes the public exchange of ideas as an essential part of civic life in Saudi Arabia. Talks cover standards of education, the important role women should play in society and institutional development, and ways to deal with the emergence of extremism. Diversity and tolerance are the guiding principles.

The National Human Rights Association, the first such independent organisation in Saudi Arabia, was established last year to implement international human rights charters signed by the kingdom. The association also includes a special panel to monitor violations of women's rights.

Saudi Arabia's principles on human rights are enshrined in the Riyadh Declaration which affirms that: respect for human life and dignity is the foundation of human rights; a human being deserves respect, regardless of race, colour or sex; the violation of human rights is a crime deserving severe punishment; to hold a human being in custody without legal basis is forbidden by Islamic laws; disregard for privacy and property rights is a violation of human rights; and religious tolerance is demanded by Islam which also prohibits coercing people to follow a certain religion.

The Saudi Journalists Association protects the rights of journalists in the kingdom and co-ordinates relations between journalists and the media establishment. Its elected nine-member board includes two women.

In March last year, the Consultative Council passed a resolution urging the Ministry of Culture and Information to encourage greater freedom of expression in the Saudi media, and to open up opportunities for investment in the media to the Saudi private sector.

Saudi Arabia has eight public universities, more than 100 colleges and more than 26,000 schools. About 5 million students are enrolled in the education system, which boasts a student to teacher ratio of 12.5 to 1 - one of the best in the world. Half the students in schools are female, and of the 200,000 students at Saudi universities and colleges, women comprise more than half. The government allocates about 25 per cent of the annual state budget to education.

Statistics show that 93.2 per cent of Saudi women and 89.2 per cent of Saudi men are literate. Saudi Arabia is open to foreign investment for private higher education.

In 2002, there were 465,000 Saudi women in the labour force - 15 per cent of the total. Saudi women are owners or part owners of more than 22,000 businesses. Accounting, banking and computer training centres have been established to prepare women for jobs and, as a result, more opportunities have opened up for women, including those in the technological and automotive sectors. In October 2003, Maha Abdullah Orkubi was appointed dean of the Jeddah branch of the Arab Open University, the first Saudi woman to be appointed to a senior academic position.

During 2003, 2,000 imams who had been violating prohibitions against the preaching of intolerance were disciplined or removed from their positions and more than 1,500 have been referred to educational programmes.

Saudi Arabia has recently passed several important reforms to ensure a fair and balanced justice system. In addition to granting defendants the right to legal representation, the law outlines the processes by which pleas, evidence and experts are accepted by the court. The law defines the duties and rights of lawyers, including the right of attorney-client privilege.

The law also outlines regulations that justice and law enforcement authorities must follow during all stages of the judicial process, from arrest and interrogation to the trial and execution of verdicts. The National Programme for Training and Employment helps Saudi citizens find jobs in public and private sectors. The programme aims to create job opportunities, job training and Saudisation, a process to reduce dependency on foreign workers.

In 2002, the non-Saudi labour force amounted to 3.09 million.