Asharq Al-Awsat talks to Saudi Shura Council Head Dr. Abdullah Bin Mohammed Al Al-Sheikh
Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- Dr. Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Ibrahim Al Al-Sheikh is the head of the Saudi Shura Council. Dr. Al-Sheikh spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat from Riyadh about the forthcoming meeting of G20 parliamentary heads which is scheduled to take place on 24 February in Riyadh, hosted by the Saudi Shura Council, in addition to the general operations of the Council, its achievements and accomplishments over the past few years, as well as his hopes for the future of the Council.
Dr. Abdullah Al Al-Sheikh was appointed head of the Saudi Shura Council in 2009; he previously served as Saudi Minister of Justice. Dr. al-Sheikh has degrees in Islamic Sharia Law and Islamic Studies, and previously served as a lecturer and professor in the Sharia College of Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University before entering politics. He is also a member of the Council of Senior Scholars and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Saudi Shura Council is scheduled to host the third annual meeting for G20 parliamentary heads in Riyadh later this month. What is the significance of this event? Will this meeting have a positive effect on the Shura Council?
[Al-Sheikh] The Saudi Shura Council hosting the third consultative meeting of G20 parliamentary heads represents international recognition of the Shura Council’s success in carrying out its legislative and oversight role, and its participation in the decision-making process [in Saudi Arabia] to achieve comprehensive and sustainable development, stability, security, and justice for the nation and the citizens. This also represents recognition of the important role that the Shura Council plays in Saudi foreign policy, via the Council enshrining the concept of parliamentary diplomacy in order to promote and support the positions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, led by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz and the Crown Prince, on various Arab, regional, and international issues.
This meeting is one of the most important international parliamentary meetings, because the participants represent the major economies in the world. The G20 member states represent one third of the world, and around 80 percent of total world trade; whilst the gross national product [GNP] of G20 states represents approximately 90 percent of total world output.
I am pleased to welcome the leaders and members and delegations of the attending states, and I wish them a pleasant stay in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in the hope that this meeting has important results for the economic operations of the [G20] governments.
This meeting also represents an opportunity to highlight the Kingdom’s approach to consultation, which is part of the ruling system in Islam, which the state follows in all its affairs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Saudi Shura Council participated in the previous two consultative meeting for the G20 parliamentary heads, held respectively in Canada and South Korea. Can you tell us more about the Saudi Shura Council’s participation and contribution to these meetings?
[Al-Sheikh] The Saudi Shura Council had excellent participation in both meetings, and all praise and gratitude to God Almighty for this. I have submitted my report on the major issues discussed in each meeting; whilst the Saudi Shura Council delegation contributed strongly to both meetings. The Saudi Shura Council’s participation in both meetings has translated into an advanced economic position for the Kingdom, and what it represents as an important pillar in preserving international economic stability.
During the first consultative meeting which took place in Canada in 2010, the Saudi Shura Council requested the formation of a work team – made up of 5 countries – to study ideas and proposals from member states, with the objective of developing a unified and agreed program to act as a charter for the G20 parliamentary meeting in Ottawa, to achieve peace and food security around the world. The Saud Shura Council also called on the meetings of G20 parliamentary heads to become a regular meeting held annually in one of the member-states, in order to ensure these meetings continue to be held and have a useful impact on a global level.
The Saudi Shura Council’s participation in the second consultative meeting in Seoul in 2011 culminated in the consent of the member states to the Council’s proposal to host the third consultative meeting for G20 parliamentary heads in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This agreement for the meeting to be held in the Kingdom has represents great appreciation for the leading role that is being played by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia towards achieving global peace and security, not to mention the Kingdom’s efforts to prevent countries from entering difficult economic conditions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What major issues will be discussed during the third consultative meeting of G20 parliamentary heads, scheduled to take place in Riyadh next Friday?
[Al-Sheikh] The major issues that will be discussed during the meeting were carefully chosen for their international dimensions, so the meeting will address the three most important issues that are the subject of major interest across the world. The first issue is dialogue between the followers of different religions and culture. This will address the importance of institutionalizing such dialogue in the international community, and promoting a culture of dialogue, and utilizing this as a means to promote friendship and fraternity between peoples, and reduce tensions and conflict in the international community. It is also well known that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques has put forward an initiative in this regard [interfaith dialogue initiative]. The second issue is energy for sustainable development. This focuses on the role of energy in international economic growth and development, in addition to international cooperation for stability and transparency in the energy market, and supporting research and investment to diversify energy resources and reduce their environmental impact, as well as the future of international trade and investment in the energy sector.
The third issue [that will be discussed at the forthcoming G20 meeting of parliamentary heads in Riyadh] will be the economic crisis and its effect on the global economy. We will address the issue of sovereign debts and the challenges of fiscal policy, as well as the fluctuations in currency exchange rates, the future of the global financial system, the challenges of the rise in unemployment, development policies in emerging economies, and their role in stimulating international growth.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] During his annual address before the Saudi Shura Council last year, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz expressed his appreciation for the Council’s efforts and proposals which have contributed to the national decision-making process. King Abdullah said that the work undertaken by the Saudi Shura Council is greatly appreciated both by the Saudi government and its citizens. Would you like to comment on this?
[Al-Sheikh] The Saudi Shura Council, thanks be to God, enjoys great confidence from the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the Crown Prince. We enjoy their support and interest, which is why the Shura Council is important in the decision-making process, for its achievements and decisions have had an effect on many state apparatus and agencies, in addition to contributing to the development of services provided to the citizens. The Shura Council also plays a large role in activating new systems or modifying existing systems, including responding to the current stage and the developments and changes that have been experienced by the Kingdom, which necessitates the modernization of systems to achieve greater prosperity for the citizens. The trust enjoyed by the Saudi Shura Council from the noble leadership prompts Council members to exert great efforts to promote the achievements of the Council. The Council members enjoy expertise and specialization, as they come into contact with the concerns of the citizens and their needs during the operations of the Council or during special committee meetings. The Council members can then put forward these ideas and proposals in this regard, in the belief that finding solutions to and resolving these concerns and needs [of the citizens] is one of the best methods to achieve the sustainable and balanced development that is sought for by the government of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in different regions of the Kingdom.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many people in Saudi Arabia are uncertain about the true role and duties of the Saudi Shura Council, believing that its role is simply to put forward opinions and that it has no real effect on the decision-making process. How do you think we can correct this mistaken view of the Saudi Shura Council’s duties and operations?
[Al-Sheikh] Perhaps this imagined view of the Saudi Shura Council – which you put forward in your question – is present in the minds of some citizens, but not a broad section of the population. This view might be held for two reasons. Firstly, a lack of accuracy in revealing what is happening in the Shura Council. Secondly, this may even be a shortcoming on the part of the Council itself. For further clarification, let me say that the media, particularly some of the newspapers who have been granted accreditation to cover the work and operation of the Saudi Shura Council, are occasionally inaccurate when transferring news of what is going on with regards to discussions and viewpoints and proposals being put forward by Council members. They sometimes portray the views of Council members as being the official viewpoint of the Saudi Shura Council itself; however the views of the Council are only put forward in official statement. This is something that gives a negative image of the Saudi Shura Council. Following this, some journalists take this inaccurate information and comment on this- without waiting for confirmation of this information by referring to the concerned party within the Council itself – thereby misjudging the true role of the Saudi Shura Council. In this regard, I think it is one of my duties to pay tribute to some of the fair-minded journalists who have apologized for what they unintentionally wrote about the Saudi Shura Council because of wrong information published by one of the newspapers. Here I would also like to confirm the importance of accuracy – on the part of the media – regarding what it publishes about the Council, as this is something that can contribute to strengthening the Council’s role and help in achieving its objective. The media is a partner to the Saudi Shura Council in delivering its message to the public.
As for our role in the Council, and our belief in the need to activate the media facets of the Council, including addressing the media shortcoming that we are suffering from, we are currently working on preparing a media and communication strategy, which will be completed within the coming few months, God willing. We hope that this will represent a quantum leap in the Saudi Shura Council’s dealings with all media, and it will draw a real picture for the citizens regarding the role that is being played by the Council in the decision-making process and in serving development in various fields in the Kingdom.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] To what extent has the Saudi Shura Council succeeded in affecting and interacting with public issues? What mechanisms does the Council have to communicate with citizens and identify their views and needs? Do you feel that Saudi citizens believe that the Council understands their concerns?
[Al-Sheikh] Public affairs and the concerns of our citizens have always had the highest priority for Saudi Shura Council members, who are seeking to be aware of the needs of the people, in the present and the future, as well as understanding the challenges that the homeland is facing. We have expanded the focus of our interest to include national issues and the needs and concerns of our citizens, in addition to studying and discussing regulations and reviewing and approving plans for development.
Public affairs issues figure prominently in our discussions in the Council, and the first hour of our weekly Sunday meeting is dedicated to listening to viewpoints of Council members on important issues in this regard. Some proposals are then referred to special committees that work to formulate ideas or put forward recommendations, and these are then formally submitted to the Shura Council for discussion.
As for citizens’ understanding the importance of the Council, we are seeking to develop in this area. We receive hundreds of petitions on a daily basis bearing important viewpoints to be discussed by the Committee for Human Rights…and we forward these to the relevant committees. The mechanism for this is clear, and a recent example of this can be seen in the Council’s adoption of the petition made by Engineer Mohamed al-Saleh regarding unifying the emergency numbers in the Kingdom. The security affairs committee put this forward…as part of Article 23 of the Saudi Shura Council [charter], and this was discussed by the Council, and we are awaiting the viewpoint of the committee on this to decide whether to endorse this proposal or not.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, during his yearly speech at the Shura Council, spoke about Saudi women becoming members of the Council in the future. What is your view of this historic initiative on the part of King Abdullah? Have you looked at mechanisms for women to enter the Shura Council? What would such an initiative look like?
[Al-Sheikh] Saudi women have reached, thanks to God, a high position of experience and expertise in the fields of medicine, education, economy, and sociology, which has granted women the opportunity to hold important positions within the country to participate in the development renaissance. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz has taken a historic decision to appoint women as members of the Saudi Shura Council in the forthcoming stage, thereby allowing women to participate in the decision-making process side by side with men. However the Shura Council is not far removed from women, for women are present in the Council as part-time consultants. There are 12 female consultants with expertise and specializations in different areas affiliated to the Council. They contribute to the Council with their views and proposals on topics that the Council is discussing and studying, particularly issues related to women, family, and children. They also participate in Council delegations to Arab and international parliamentary conferences and forums to put forward their view on issues that affect women.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has the Shura Council ever put forward initiatives or proposals exceeding the bounds of its authority or powers, perhaps necessitated by the national interest or developments in the local, regional, or international arena?
[Al-Sheikh] I do not think the Saudi Shura Council’s initiative have exceeded the bounds of its authority or powers, but rather it stems from the feelings of national responsibility on the part of Council members. It is one of the duties and priorities of the legislature and parliament to be a voice for the nation and its citizens. The Shura Council has never been silent simply waiting for what is put forward by government apparatus, but rather it has always taken the initiative with constant interactions with society at large, ensuring that the concerns of the homeland and its citizens are a priority. Since its inception, the Shura Council has worked to put forward its vision to address many important national issues, most importantly unemployment, housing, water and foodstuff security, as well as addressing the issues of terrorism, poverty, rising prices, and high costs of living.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The last two years have seen a leap in the performance of the Saudi Shura Council. Can you give us a quick summary of the most important topics and issues discussed by the Council, and the decisions and regulations this resulted in?
[Al-Sheikh] The role of the Shura Council is to serve the country and maintain its capabilities, transgressing the narrow concept of putting forward an opinion or viewpoint to a broader context. This is because what the Saudi Shura Council reaches with regards to discussions, deliberations, and voting are proposals which are then put forward to the King in accordance with Article 17 of the Shura Council [charter].
There is much hope and expectation on the Council from the noble leadership and the citizens. Allow me this opportunity to quote the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz here, during his annual speech before the Council, when he said: “We do not want the Shura Council to stop at this level of responsibilities, rather we expect it to continue putting forward advice, and to propose rules and regulations to innovate and keep pace with contemporary developments and the interests of our Ummah. We view the Council – and all of its different apparatus – as a strong supporter for the state.”
As for a quick summary of the issues discussed by the Saudi Shura Council, and the decisions and regulations issued by the Council, this reflects both the extent of the shift in the operations of the Council, as well as the trust that it enjoys from the leadership and the citizens on. The Council has contributed to the development of the education system by addressing the problems of university admissions, approving a formula which is on the way to being implemented, whilst the Higher Education Council is in the process of implementing a long-term plan regarding the needs and requirements of higher education [in Saudi Arabia], as well as new paths regarding the implementation of higher education for female university students, as well as establishing a committee within the Ministry of Higher Education to organize scholarships.
A number of social issues have also attracted the attention of the Council, resulting in several proposals being issued aimed at improving the conditions of the people. This includes improving the conditions for beneficiaries of social security, raising the minimum of security pensions allocated to each family, as well as putting in place a minimum [monthly] wage of 4,000 Saudi Riyals [SR], raising the salaries and incentives for members of [university] faculty members…thereby enabling universities to attract high-quality members of staff, in addition to increasing the overall number of university students by 30 percent from current levels.
In this regard, I will mention the most prominent decisions taken by the Council over the past three years…for the council endorsed the railway transport system project, the proposed project to establish civil rehabilitation centers for people suffering from disability, standardizing loans provided by the Real Estate Development Fund, raising this to 500,000 SR, in addition to eliminating the conditions for owning land and raising the funds of the Real Estate Development Fund to 200 billion SR. In addition to this, the Council endorsed the proposal for the establishment of the National Commission for Academic Accreditation and Assessment, as well as the system to regulate Islamic Sharia Law and criminal procedures, in addition to proceedings before the Board of Grievances.
The Council also approved the national strategic project to develop crafts and handicrafts [in Saudi Arabia], and its five year operational plan, as well as the final report on the national strategy for transport, the proposed child protection system, and the proposed financial systems (financing mortgage system, corporate oversight system, lease funding system), and a proposal to amend the financial market system, as well as the proposal for a system of quality control and patient safety in the health service.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With everybody now firmly convinced that the Saudi Shura Council plays the same role as any other parliaments in the world, is there any intention to change the Shura Council’s name to the “Saudi Arabian Parliament’ for example?
[Al-Sheikh] Shura [Consultation] is an important religious word in our religion and Islamic culture, and I do not think there is any intention to change this, for what is important is the operations of the Council and the decisions it makes, in addition to strengthening its role in society and granting it more powers and functions.