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Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent wave of democratization in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the 1990s, the Arab world stands out as practically the only area where authoritarianism prevails. While debates about the causes of this "democratic gap" and Arab or Muslim "exceptionalism" are inconclusive, it is still the case that the Arab countries rank low on any scale of the protection of political and human rights or participatory politics. Yet on the whole, the Arab countries boast impressive constitutions that theoretically offer significant guarantees of those rights, that declare freedoms inviolate, and that base governance on popular will through periodic elections or plebiscites. The reality of these constitutions and polities is, of course, different: provisions about rights are suspended; virtually permanent states of emergency are declared; elections are either fraudulent or uncontested, or both; and authoritarianism is left unhampered by these theoretical safeguards. Even in so-called revolutionary republican regimes, dynastic rule prevails, presidents remain in power for life, sons inherit the presidency, and if constitutions become an impediment, they are hurriedly and shamelessly amended. Viewed in that context, the Saudi constitution, or Basic Law of Governance, stands out: it is unabashedly honest, promulgating no rights that will not be protected, promising no elections, and not conceding the principle of accountable governance in any direct way. Indeed, the Saudi Basic Law signifies, if anything, a qualified rejection of many of the standard notions of constitutionalism in terms of rights and freedoms, while ratifying a powerful executive circumscribed only by historical practices and Islamic ideas of governance.

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