The CONSULTATIVE COUNCIL'S
Contribution to National Development
The concept that a leader should consult outstanding citizens on issues of importance to the community has its roots in Islam and is in fact an injunction contained in the Holy Qur’an. As such it has been a mainstay in the more than 250-year history of the Saudi Arabian State. Throughout this era, reliance on the advice and recommendations of citizens who stand out due to their exceptional knowledge, experience and moral character has been an important element of, and one of the reasons for the success of, governments of successive Saudi rulers.
Up until the early decades of the 20th century, this concept, known as shura, was practiced in an informal setting, with the leader meeting with senior scholars and citizens on a regular basis in the daily meetings that occurred at the court, whether in small groups or larger ones. Issues of importance would be discussed, with all present expressing their concerns and opinions.
As King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud was working to establish the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the early decades of the 20th century, he practiced the concept of shura (consultation) in the traditional manner of his forebears. Yet as his duties and responsibilities grew, he began to feel the need to transform this practice into a formalized system capable of dealing with the needs of the vast Kingdom he was forming in the Arabian Peninsula. Therefore, in 1926 he established the first official Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council), which was composed of the leading scholars and outstanding men of the time, with the responsibility of reviewing issues of paramount importance to the emerging nation. “We have to follow what is stated in the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah (practices and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) in implementation of Allah’s orders to consult others in the affairs of the moment,” he told members of the first council.
Speaking at the opening of the council’s new session in August 1930, King Abdulaziz praised its achievements over the past four years and said: “I have directed that no laws are to be enacted and enforced before being submitted to you. You have full liberty to revise them in such a way” as to ensure the interests of the nation. He went on to emphasize: “You are free to enact any regulations and approve any action you deem compatible with the interests of the country. ... to preserve the rights of the people.”
King Abdulaziz’s belief in the need to consult knowledgeable men on important topics was so great that both Saudi and foreign visitors to his court in Riyadh observed that even while the official council was becoming an effective arm of his government, he continued to consult leading citizens in his private majlis, thereby establishing multiple channels for becoming acquainted with the opinions and the needs of his people.
A devout Muslim who studiously applied all the teachings of the Holy Qur’an to his private as well as his public life, King Abdulaziz took every opportunity to impress on the people the advantages of consultation. In an official statement released shortly after the Hijaz, which is the western region of the peninsula, came under his protection in December 1925, he stated: “You have rights due on me, and I have rights due on you. Some of your rights due on me are absolute truthfulness in public and in private, and respect for your lives, your honor and your property. And the right due on you from me is the offer of counsel, for a Muslim is the mirror that reflects his brother.”
Referring to the important contributions of the council, King Abdulaziz said in a statement to the Majlis Al-Shura in 1936 that the body had turned into an effective channel of communication between his people and government. “True civilization means progress, and progress will be achieved only through knowledge and work” by the government and the people, he added.
The precedence set by earlier Saudi rulers and institutionalized by King Abdulaziz was followed by his successors. King Saud bin Abdulaziz, King Faisal bin Abdulaziz and King Khalid bin Abdulaziz relied heavily on the advice of learned men in the conduct of the affairs of government.
As Saudi Arabia’s socioeconomic development picked up pace with the introduction of the first of an ongoing series of five-year development plans in 1970, the needs of the nation grew apace. To more efficiently deal with the challenges and opportunities of the new era, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz took steps to re-evaluate the country’s political and administrative systems. In an effort to streamline these systems to cope with the needs of the rapidly developing Kingdom, and prepare the nation for the 21st century, King Fahd in 1992 introduced the new Basic Laws of Governance, the Provincial Councils and the Majlis Al-Shura System. The following year, he introduced new bylaws for the Council of Ministers.
The Majlis Al-Shura System introduced a more formalized and efficient structure for the council. Speaking at a ceremony marking the appointment of the chairman and the members of the new Majlis Al-Shura on August 29, 1993, King Fahd spoke of the history of the system in Saudi Arabia, and said: “The council has now been placed in a modern organizational framework. I am always pleased to know of the opinions of the citizens and benefit from their views and expertise in various fields.” On December 29 of the same year, King Fahd officially opened the new council.
The bylaws of the new system state that each member of the council be a Saudi national by birth and descent, an outstanding individual of experience and scholarship in his field, a competent person of recognized good character, and at least 30 years of age. Originally, the modern council was composed of a chairman and 60 members. The members are appointed for four-year terms.
As the council’s responsibilities and workload grew over time, King Fahd amended the relevant bylaw in June 1997 to increase membership to 90. King Fahd selected Shaikh Muhammad bin Jubair as chairman of the council in 1993. A competent administrator, Shaikh bin Jubair has remained at the helm of the council for the past seven years.
One of the first acts of the council was to form specialized committees from amongst its members. The number of specialized committees was originally set at eight, but was later increased to 11. Currently, the council has the following specialized committees: Organization and Administration; Education; Culture and Information; Islamic Affairs; Services and Public Utilities; Health, Social Affairs and the Environment; Foreign Affairs; Security Affairs; Economic Affairs; Financial Affairs; and Transportation and Telecommunications.
Each of the specialized committees handles issues referred to the council for review and discussion in its field of expertise. The committees generally invite experts who are not members of the council to attend their meetings. They can also summon any government official to participate in meetings as the committees deem necessary. The request has to be submitted by the council chairman to the Prime Minister, who passes it on to the official involved.
Furthermore, the council chairman can submit a request to the Prime Minister to provide statements and documents in the possession of government institutions, which the council believes are necessary to facilitate its work.
The council can form ad hoc committees to study specific issues when it deems them necessary. Furthermore, each of the specialized committees can form sub-committees from among its members to discuss topics that require greater study.
Another of the council’s responsibilities is the study and approval of proposed laws. In this context, the council also can propose new laws. Any group of ten council members has the right to present a new draft law or an amendment to a law already in force and submit it to the council chairman, who then submits the proposal to the King.
All proposed international treaties, agreements and concessions are presented to the council for discussion and approval before being implemented. The council also is required to study reports on various government agencies to assess their activities and performance.
The council’s resolutions are reached by a simple majority vote, and are then forwarded to the Prime Minister for consideration by the Council of Ministers. If the views of the councils are concordant, the resolutions shall come into force following the King's approval. If the views are contradictory, the King may decide what he deems appropriate.
Under the modern structure introduced in 1992, the council has become involved in almost all important aspects of the life of the modern Kingdom and its people. The following are a few of the functions of the council and the topics it discussed in the first half of this year:
• On July 16, it concluded debate on the draft of the bill on the Islamic litigation system in the Kingdom. The new bill revises court procedures and is intended to make the law clearer for all parties in the litigation process.
• On July 8, the council endorsed the agreement reached by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for defining their maritime borders.
• On July 4, the council approved the disabled welfare bill at a session attended by members of the Board of Directors of the Society for Disabled Children. On the same day, it approved the anti-terrorism treaty of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and a bill on traffic regulations that imposes fines for not using driver and front passenger seat-belts, and for not equipping vehicles with child safety seats.
• On June 25 the council approved regulations for the formation of consultative bodies for workers at major institutions and establishments.
• On June 13 the council endorsed a bill allowing non-Saudis to own real estate in all cities of the Kingdom with the exception of the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.
• On May 28, the council reviewed the annual report of the Ministry of Communications and recommended completion of the national transportation strategy, giving greater attention to safety measures on the roads. The council also recommended selling the government’s share in transportation companies, including the Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) and the National Shipping Company (NSC).
• On April 16, the council approved the issuance of computerized passports as proposed by the Supreme Council of the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
• On April 3, the council discussed the draft environment bill at a session attended by representatives of the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD), the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu, the Ministry of Agriculture and Water, and the Ministry of Industry and Electricity.
• On March 7, the council discussed a draft bill for a new foreign investment law that highlights the importance of providing an appropriate climate for foreign investment, finding methods of attracting both foreign and Saudi capital, and ways of directing this capital toward development projects.
• On February 27, the council called for the establishment of an independent national center for monitoring and evaluating the work of all educational and training institutions. It also studied and emphasized the need to devise a national plan for setting up school buildings that are simple in design and modest in cost, while working for optimum utilization of government schools. In addition, the council urged the Ministry of Education to work for reform of curricula, and to study the status of private education.
• On February 14, the council approved a proposed bill to grant concessions for the exploitation of magnesite ore in Hail Province to the Saudi Arabian Mining Company (Ma’aden). It stressed the need for a new mining system that will help attract greater Saudi and foreign investments.
• On January 25, the council approved a new act covering municipal and rural water supplies. It also recommended finding alternative non-governmental funding for the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD), including privatization of certain protected areas.
As these examples demonstrate, the Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council) is contributing to the Kingdom’s development and to the enhancement of the quality of life of its people. Its success also illustrates the viability of an Islamic concept that through the farsightedness of Saudi leaders has become an effective institution in conducting the affairs of mankind in the 21st century.