Draft rules for NGOs get lukewarm response in Saudi Arabia


The move aims to establish rules for setting up NGOs. As of yet only charity groups are legal in the Kingdom. They are controlled by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Lawyers and academics feel that civil society should be allowed more leverage to form independent groups in order to create social awareness.



Arab News obtained a copy of the new 42-page set of rules and compared it to an earlier draft leaked to the press in 2006. At the time, many criticized the draft, saying it did no go far enough in promoting and protecting NGOs. The second draft, which was submitted to the Council of Ministers in December for possible approval, has yet to be made public.



“We have had only bits and pieces of the new draft from a few news reports,” said Ali Al-Domaini, a Saudi poet and columnist. “The Shoura Council has kept an iron fist on the new regulation until — to our shock — it was submitted to the Council of Ministers recently for final approval,” he said.



When the first draft of the regulations was published in the press, a group of 120 Saudis sent a letter to Shoura Council President Saleh Bin-Humaid listing six objections.



Talking to Arab News, Riyadh-based columnist Dr. Mohammed Al-Enazi said that the Shoura was being run by people who are more worried about form than content. He submitted his own list of suggested adjustments to the Shoura Council.



Al-Enazi, who has been openly critical of the original draft in a series of articles published in local newspapers, was invited by the Shoura Council three times last year to offer his input for the revisions.



The main objection seems to be over concerns that the commission formed to oversee the establishment of NGOs would have the power not only to approve or reject proposed NGO groups, but also would hold veto power over internal decisions made by approved groups. They would also have the power to approve lists of candidates for positions within approved NGOs and grant or deny permission for the groups to attend events abroad. The proposed commission, for example, could send representatives to the meetings of approved NGOs in order to monitor their internal decisions.



The letter submitted by the group of 120 Saudis in 2006 asked that the proposed commission “not directly interfere in the decisions made by these organizations or restrict their ability to work efficiently.”



One of the changes to the new draft proposal is that the governmental body — the National Commission of Societies and Establishments — would be headed by a minister rather than the crown prince. Within the commission the minister would chair a council, the highest authority in the organization, of five government representatives and 10 representatives from the private sector — all appointed by royal decree.



Al-Enazi said that the biggest problem with the proposal is that the people in charge of approving non-governmental organizations would come largely from the government.



“This is the biggest deficiency in the whole system and it drains the rest of the articles (of the proposal) of any meaning,” said Al-Enazi, suggesting instead that Saudi citizens outside the government head the proposed commission. “The organization’s independence, which is the most crucial element, is missing.”



However, in contrast to the former system and an added advantage, commission approval is not required for candidates running in election for NGO board membership. In the new system, a commission representative would only attend the elections.



Al-Enazi expressed hope that the review process might yield some positive results at the level of the Experts Commission with the Council of Ministers. The Experts Commission reviews all regulations prior to the royal approval.


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