In 2017, Princess Basmah bint Saud was arrested and subsequently detained by the Saudi Arabian government without charge or trial. She was recently released on January 6, 2022.
Princess Basmah’s arrest is not an isolated incident within the Saudi Arabian criminal justice system. In fact, her experience marks the most recent case against a member of the royal family as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has asserted his power as the kingdom’s de facto leader. As a result, Princess Basmah’s release provides insight into the Saudi courts’ role in eroding whatever semblance of democracy the autocratic monarchy may have.
The arbitrary arrest of Princess Basmah occurred within the context of the Crown Prince’s heightened crackdown on any signs of dissent. Subsequently after King Salman ascended to the throne in 2015, the Crown Prince has facilitated the prosecution of government critics, activists, and members of the royal opposition. Princess Basmah was a candid advocate for increased governmental reforms, which led her to become a target. She can be thought of as a part of a pattern of the suppression of royal political opposition.
Princess Basmah’s dissent consisted of criticism of Saudi’s treatment under the law, specifically women’s autonomy over the kingdom’s increasingly restrictive guardianship law. Since her arrest, this law has undergone some reform. But what does Princess Basmah’s experience teach us about Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system?
The Structure of the Courts
Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state, with its judicial system being founded on Islamic (Shari’ah) law for criminal and civil cases. The King stands as the highest level of the court system, acting as the final court of appeal and source of pardon. The Saudi Court system consists of three main parts. The Shari’ah Courts, which includes multiple categories, the Board of Grievances, which hears cases involving the government, and lastly, multiple committees within government institutions that address more specific issues. Additionally, there is a Supreme court and specialized courts.
It is notable that Saudi has a relatively independent judiciary. However, this does not necessarily mean that they have characteristics of a democracy. In fact, autocracies (or burgeoning ones) may have autonomous judiciaries in order to consolidate their power. Meaning, courts can further the interests of the authoritarian elite. In the case of Saudi Arabia, courts operating strictly under Shari’ah Law align themselves more with the elite and less with the interests of citizens. Or rather in this case, with political opposition.
How They Function
Within the Saudi Courts, their functions are representative of symptoms of democratic erosion.
For example, all decisions are made according to individual judges’ interpretations of the Qur’an. Having judges operate on subjective bases depart from the democratic ideal of judicial institutions operating on universal principles ideally drawn from a constitution. Saudi Arabia has no such legally binding, written constitution. Thus, judges are inclined to rule in an ideologically motivated manner. Moreover, they are inclined to rule in accordance with the preferences of the monarchy. Principles of judicial integrity are absent in this case, explaining how Princess Basmah’s arbitrary arrest was not overturned or corrected during the three years in which she was detained.
Free Speech and Accountability
Princess Basmah’s arrest, given that she was an outspoken human rights advocate, has demonstrated the lack of civil liberties granted by the Saudi government. She was made an example of what happens when government officials are not blind loyalists to the crown: they are subject to suppression and punishment.
Saudi Arabia’s violation of the civil liberty of free speech is coupled with the lack of accountability, which is glaring in the case of Princess Basmah. Accountability includes answerability, which compels government officials to have transparency in their decision making processes as well as provide some measure of legal justification for them. Even without the Crown Prince offering justification for his decisions, the courts are entirely ineffective institutions for holding him accountable in order to prevent further arbitrary detentions.
The question remains if Saudi will enact substantial reforms to prevent such abuses from occurring again. However, given the patterns of consolidation of power by the Crown Prince, it is difficult to be hopeful. Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1691.  Ellen Lust and David Waldner, Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding, 2015. Washington, DC: USAID, 3.