The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was created as a state on 23 September 1932. From the inception the government has made it its express policy to govern according to the principles of Islamic law (the Shari’a). This was given statutory expression by the Basic Law of Rule, Royal Order No A/90 of 27 Sha’ban 1412 Hejra corresponding to 1 March 1992. Although not so in name, in practice it amounts to the Kingdom’s constitution. The fundamental principles of Islamic law were laid down between the 7th and 10th centuries of the Common Era (CE). Islamic law continues to evolve, but there is no codified set of rules, nor any system of judicial precedent. In the absence of codification, recourse is had, in ascertaining the Islamic law rules to apply to a given issue, to the writings of jurists regarded as authoritative by judges and others tasked with the interpretation and application of Islamic law in any given jurisdiction. There are several madhahib (schools of Islamic law) within the Sunni tradition. Historically, it is the Hanbali school that has been dominant in the territory that is now Saudi Arabia. The Islamic law texts that Saudi jurists regard as authoritative were compiled during the period from the 13th to 17th centuries CE. In the nature of things, these texts reflect the concerns of a pre-industrial society and do not address many commercial, business or economic issues.
Under Islamic law, and consequently under modern Saudi law, a government may issue ‘regulations’ (as opposed to ‘laws’). The limit on the government’s ability to legislate is that no legislation may conflict with established Islamic law principles.
In theory, Islamic law is meant to be all-embracing and, therefore, all legislation is intended to supplement Islamic law, and statutes are referred to as regulations, rather than laws or acts. In practice, there are numerous areas of law where Islamic law offers few or no guidelines and where government-made legislation is, therefore, the only law. On the other hand, where a given subject matter is covered in some detail in the authoritative Islamic law texts, the Saudi Arabian government tends not to legislate in those areas. For example, there is no Saudi Arabian legislation setting out general principles of contract law.
Proceedings before Saudi Arabian courts are inquisitorial in nature. Accordingly, the judges may raise issues in the course of proceedings that neither party has advanced and it is not uncommon for the judges to start new lines of enquiry once the parties’ formal submissions are closed.
Saudi Arabia has courts that are administered by the Ministry of Justice, and specialised tribunals. The General Courts (also known as the Shari’a Courts), the Commercial Court and the Labour Courts are under the Ministry of Justice administration.
Among the other specialised tribunals (whose names mostly explain their scope of jurisdiction fully) are:
The past ten years have seen considerable change to the administration of justice in Saudi Arabia, which was initiated under the Judiciary Regulation, Royal Decree No M/78 of 19 Ramadan 1428 Hejra corresponding to 1 October 2007. The Board of Grievances used to have jurisdiction in commercial disputes, which was transferred to the newly formed Commercial Courts in October 2017, at the same time widening the definition of commercial disputes to include construction cases and commercial property disputes. Labour disputes used to be administered by the Ministry of Labour’s Commission for the Settlement of Labour Disputes, whose jurisdiction was transferred to new Labour Courts in October 2018. The enforcement of judgments has been reformed, as was arbitration.
Proceedings before the courts and most judicial tribunals are commenced online. All Saudi Arabian court proceedings are treated as confidential and court records are not open to the public. The Civil Procedure Rules of the Shari’a Courts, Royal Decree No M/1 of 22 Jumada Awwal 1434 Hejra corresponding to 2 April 2013, and the Civil Procedure Rules of the Board of Grievances, Royal Decree No M/3 22 Jumada Awwal 1434 Hejra corresponding to 2 April 2013, provide that court hearings are open to the public. Proceedings before most specialised tribunals are conducted in camera.
Non-Saudis do not have rights of audience before Saudi Arabian courts unless they appear as litigants in person. There is no formal requirement that litigants must be represented by licensed lawyers, but a non-lawyer may not represent more than three parties at any given time.
It is open to lawyers and their clients to agree to the type of remuneration that suits both parties. Lump-sum fees, retainer, contingency fees and hourly charges are common. There are no restrictions on a third party funding lawyers’ fees and other costs in legal proceedings.
There are no restrictions on the types of lawsuits in which a third party may fund a party’s costs.
Third party funding is available to the plaintiff and the defendant.
There is no minimum or maximum limit for third-party funding.
This is a commercial issue.
Contingency fees are permitted. There is no legislation that addresses this issue.
There are no time limits by when a party to the litigation should obtain third-party funding.
A claimant can initiate a private lawsuit without first having issued a formal demand letter. Claims against public authorities must be preceded by filing a complaint with the concerned authority and a lawsuit can only be initiated once the complaint has been rejected or 60 days have passed without a response from the authority. Other than in family disputes and labour disputes, there are no rules that require the parties to submit to mediation before commencing litigation. In family disputes and labour disputes, the court will first refer the parties to official mediation before the case is heard by the court.
The concept of the time barring of substantive rights is alien to Islamic law. In practical terms, however, a similar result is reached by a doctrine broadly equivalent to estoppel by conduct. Thus, where a claimant has delayed bringing action for such length of time and in such circumstances as to indicate an implied waiver of the claim, the law will hold them to their implied waiver and bar their remedy. No precise set of rules exists as to when this doctrine may be invoked. Each case will turn on its own facts and the court’s assessment of whether, in the circumstances, the lack of action — or of any positive act or indication — amounts to a waiver. Generally speaking, where the defendant relies on no more than pure inaction, the number of years would have to be in double digits.
Time bars are recognised under Saudi Arabian statute law, but only as procedural devices and not as substantive time bars. Moreover, these time bars are specific rather than general. Examples include the following:
The Saudi Arabian courts have jurisdiction over Saudi Arabian citizens even if they are not resident in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabian courts have jurisdiction over non-Saudis who are resident in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Arabian courts have jurisdiction over non-resident foreigners in the following circumstances:
In addition to the above, the Saudi Arabian courts have jurisdiction over non-resident Muslim foreigners in certain family law and inheritance contexts.
There is no formal system of pleadings under Saudi Arabian law. The claimant’s case must be set out in written submissions that are filed with the court. For most tribunals this has to be done online. It is open to either party to change its arguments during the trial as it sees fit.
Service of process is usually carried out through the court, but it is also open to the claimant to effect service in Saudi Arabia. Service outside the jurisdiction must be effected through diplomatic channels.
If a defendant fails to appear after having been duly summoned, the claimant can make an application to have the defendant brought before the court by the police. If it is not possible to bring the defendant before the court, a default judgment will be entered.
Other than before the Committee for the Resolution of Securities Disputes, there are no procedures for class actions in Saudi Arabia. Class actions in securities disputes were first introduced under an amendment to the Resolution of Securities Disputes Proceedings Regulations made by Resolution of the Capital Market Authority No 1-104-2017 of 2 Rabi Awwal 1439 Hejra corresponding to 20 November 2017. Accepting a class action application is at the discretion of the Committee for the Resolution of Securities Disputes and requires at least ten concerned disputes to be identical in terms of “legal bases, merits and the subject matter of the requests”. Once the request is accepted, the Committee must suspend all identical suits and consolidate them into a class action. It may also separate one class action into separate class actions in appropriate circumstances. A claimant has the right to opt out within 30 days from announcement of the class action, but may not opt out without the defendant’s consent after a defence has been filed. A claimant can also refuse to accept a settlement made on behalf of the group.
There are no requirements to provide clients with a cost estimate prior to litigation.
Saudi Arabian legal actions proceed in a series of short hearings and one can make applications at any stage of the proceedings.
Applications to dismiss a case on the basis of an agreement to arbitrate or to submit disputes to the courts of another jurisdiction must be lodged before a substantive defence is lodged. Once a substantive defence is lodged, the defendant is deemed to have acquiesced to the court’s jurisdiction, although it is still open to the court to dismiss the case on jurisdictional grounds on its own motion. There are no mechanisms for summary judgment.
It is common for defendants to contest proceedings on the basis that the Saudi Arabian courts do not have geographic jurisdiction over a given dispute, or that the dispute should come before a different Saudi Arabian court or judicial tribunal.
A party with an interest in the subject matter of a dispute may file a petition or make an oral request to the court to join as claimant or defendant. Judges also have the discretion to join an interested party to proceedings without the party having made an application to join.
There is no security for costs in Saudi Arabian legal proceedings.
See 4.5 Applications for Security for Defendant's Costs.
There are no relevant rules in Saudi Arabian law.
There is no discovery of documents in Saudi Arabian legal proceedings. The claimant must substantiate their case on the basis of the documents that are in their possession and the defendant must defend the case on the basis of the documents that are in their possession.
There is no discovery of documents in Saudi Arabian legal proceedings.
There is no discovery of documents in Saudi Arabian legal proceedings.
A claimant must prove their claim on the basis of the documents in their possession and a defendant must defend the claim on the basis of the documents in their possession. A litigant or the court may ask a party to affirm or deny the claim on oath, which is a solemn procedure and used to be rarely invoked but has become more common in recent years. If a claim is denied on oath, or the claimant fails to confirm their case on oath, the case is dismissed, with only limited grounds for appeal.
The Legal Profession Regulation, Royal Decree No M/38 dated 28 Rajab 1422 Hejra corresponding to 14 October 2001, provides that lawyers must treat information received from clients as confidential. There are no rules that grant legal privilege to attorney-client communications.
This is not applicable.
It is generally difficult, but not impossible, to obtain injunctive relief through the Saudi Arabian courts. In the rare cases where injunctive relief is granted, it tends to be in the form of an injunction, rather than specific performance.
Injunctive relief can be granted at a single hearing. There are no mechanisms for out-of-hours applications.
Injunctive relief can be obtained on an ex parte basis.
An asset freeze requires the submission of countersecurity and the claimant can be held liable in respect of the defendant’s losses if the claim fails.
Saudi Arabian courts do not exercise extra-territorial jurisdiction.
Injunctive relief cannot be obtained against third parties.
There are no formal mechanisms against a defendant who fails to comply with an injunction. It is in the judge’s discretion to have the defendant arrested.
Proceedings before all Saudi Arabian courts and judicial tribunals are broadly similar to proceedings in civil law jurisdictions. Litigation takes place in a series of short hearings, which last between 15 minutes and 1½ hours. There are no pre-trial procedures as such. Once the action is formally instituted, the parties are summoned to a hearing, usually within a few weeks of the filing of the complaint. At this and subsequent hearings the parties file written submissions, oral argument is heard and evidence is produced. The parties’ arguments unfold step by step. It is open to the parties to change their respective arguments at any stage of the proceedings. In between hearings there are normally intervals of several weeks, depending on the concerned court’s case-load. There is no limit on how many submissions may be filed in the course of proceedings. It is common for both parties to exhaust their respective arguments before their submissions are closed.
There are no case management hearings or similar proceedings in Saudi Arabia.
There are no jury trials in Saudi Arabia.
Most commercial cases proceed on documentary evidence alone. A party or its employees or agents are not treated as witnesses and their statements have no evidential value. Witnesses must be independent and the general standard of proof is the evidence of two male Muslims of good character, or one male and two females.
One important feature of Saudi Arabian law of evidence concerns the taking on an oath. If the claimant has failed to prove their case conclusively through witnesses or documentary evidence, they may challenge the defendant to deny their liability on oath. If the defendant accepts the challenge and denies the claim on oath, the case is closed with only limited means of appeal. It is also open to the defendant to ask the claimant to confirm their claim on oath and judges have the power to order either party to take the oath. Because of the extreme religious significance attached to demanding and taking an oath, the right to challenge a party was not frequently invoked in the past. However, in recent years challenges to take an oath have become more common.
The parties to Saudi Arabian legal proceedings are free to introduce expert evidence into the proceedings. Where technical or complex financial issues are raised, it is common for the judges to appoint an expert or experts as advisers to the tribunal. It is within the tribunal’s discretion whom it appoints as an expert and to accept or disregard all or part of the expert’s findings, but, ordinarily, the determination of technical or complex financial issues falls to the expert.
All Saudi Arabian court proceedings are treated as confidential and court records are not open to the public. The Civil Procedure Rules of the Shari’a Courts, Royal Decree No M/1 of 22 Jumada Awwal 1434 Hejra corresponding to 2 April 2013, and the Civil Procedure Rules of the Board of Grievances, Royal Decree No M/3 22 Jumada Awwal 1434 Hejra corresponding to 2 April 2013, provide that court hearings are open to the public. Proceedings before most specialised tribunals are conducted in camera.
Saudi Arabian proceedings are inquisitorial in nature and the judge has full conduct of the proceedings, including the questioning of witnesses. A judge may raise issues that neither party has raised. A judge can issue a judgment whenever they are satisfied that both parties have presented their case fully. This is usually done in the course of a hearing and a written judgment is issued a few weeks later.
Legal proceedings typically take from one-and-a-half years to two-and-a-half years to reach a final judgment.
It is open to the parties to settle a dispute at any time without the court’s approval, but court proceedings will only be formally discontinued if the claimant withdraws their complaint or the settlement is recorded before the court.
Given that all Saudi Arabian court proceedings are treated as confidential, settlements of lawsuits also remain confidential.
A settlement agreement made in the course of legal proceedings has the effect of a judgment. If a settlement agreement is notarised or formally sealed, it can be enforced like a judgment.
If a settlement agreement is obtained fraudulently or without authority, it can be set aside by the court.
The nature and scope of remedies available in Saudi Arabian proceedings are more limited than in many other jurisdictions. In general, the remedies recognised under Islamic law are the right to rescind a contract, restitution or damages for actual and tangible losses, with no means of recovering compensation for loss of anticipated future profits or loss of business reputation.
In cases of death or accidental personal injury, the responsible party is liable to pay blood money (Arabic: diyah) as compensation to the victim or the victim’s heirs. The amount of blood money payable for accidental death was fixed early in the history of Islam at 100 camels, with personal injuries liability pro-rated with reference to this ceiling. From time to time, and location to location, the value of 100 camels has been expressed in a monetary equivalent. The current standard applicable in Saudi Arabia was laid down by Royal Order No 43108 of 3 Shawwal 1432 Hejra corresponding to 1 September 2011, at SAR300,000.
Punitive damages are not awarded by Saudi Arabian courts. Furthermore, because damages for loss of anticipated future profits or loss of opportunity are not awarded, the level of compensation tends to be relatively low by international standards.
The Saudi Arabian courts do not award interest in any manner of form.
Pursuant to the Enforcement Regulation, Royal Decree No M/53 of 13 Sha’ban 1433 Hejra corresponding to 14 July 2012, applications for the enforcement of judgments are lodged with enforcement judges, who have wide-ranging powers, including summoning a judgment debtor’s bankers and accountants. If a defendant fails to satisfy a judgment, their access to government services may be cancelled and their bank accounts are likely to be frozen. Travel bans are not uncommon and in extreme cases an unco-operative judgment debtor may be imprisoned.
The only international treaties on the reciprocal enforcement of judgments to which Saudi Arabia is a party are the Arab League Treaty on the Enforcement of Judgments signed at Riyadh on 16 April 1983, which superseded the Arab League Treaty on the Enforcement of Judgments dated 14 September 1952, and the Arab Gulf Co-operation Council Convention on the Enforcement of Judgments of 6 December 1995. However, a foreign judgment can be enforced in Saudi Arabia if the applicant can demonstrate that the country where the judgment was issued will give reciprocal treatment to Saudi Arabian judgments.
Until 14 February 2013, the Board of Grievances, being the tribunal having general jurisdiction over most categories of commercial and administrative disputes, had exclusive jurisdiction to hear applications for the execution of foreign judgments and arbitration awards. Since the enactment of the 2012 Enforcement Regulation, applications for the enforcement of foreign judgments must be submitted to enforcement judges.
In a judgment issued in 1992, the Board of Grievances ruled that a judgment of the English High Court of Justice was not enforceable on the basis of reciprocity in Saudi Arabia. The Board of Grievances ruled that the only judgments that are enforceable in Saudi Arabia on the basis of reciprocity are judgments of countries who are party to a treaty or convention for the reciprocal enforcement of judgments to which Saudi Arabia is also a party, or whose authorities would give executive force to judgments of the courts of Saudi Arabia without the requirement of instituting an action on the judgment. Similarly, a judgment of the Board of Grievances issued in 2007 that a judgment of the US District Court for the District of Columbia in the USA was enforceable in Saudi Arabia was overturned on appeal. In 2019, the Enforcement Court in Al Khobar refused to recognise an English High Court judgment, which refusal was confirmed by the Court of Appeal.
Appeals from the General Courts and the Commercial Court are heard by the Court of Appeal. The Administrative Court, the Committee for Banking Disputes, the Committee for the Resolution of Securities Disputes and the Committee for the Settlement of Insurance Disputes and Violations of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency each has its own appellate tribunal, but the appeals process in these appellate tribunals is broadly similar. A decision of the Court of Appealed can be appealed before the Supreme Court on the basis that it contravenes Islamic Law or Saudi Arabian regulations, that the court passing judgment was not properly constituted or did not have jurisdiction, or that the court did not properly characterise the facts.
See 10.3 Procedure for Taking an Appeal.
Once a judgment is issued, the judges ask both parties whether they agree with the ruling. If the losing party disagrees, which is quite common, it has a set number of days from receipt of the written judgment to lodge a written appeal to the relevant appellate tribunal, which reviews the case on the basis of the lower tribunal’s record and the case file, without the parties being present.
If the appellate tribunal agrees with the decision, the it issues a ruling making the judgment final and enforceable. If the appellate tribunal disagrees with the decision on a point of law or procedure, it may issue its own judgment after hearing further arguments from both parties (which is very rare at this stage of the proceedings), or remit the case for reconsideration to the tribunal at first instance (which is the normal procedure).
When a case is remitted for reconsideration, the appellate tribunal issues specific directions; for example, that the first-instance tribunal must ascertain additional facts, or that it must reconsider the facts in light of a ruling on procedure or evidence made by the appellate tribunal. It is not unusual for additional hearings to take place, at which the parties are asked to make further submissions. Once the tribunal at first instance is satisfied that it has carried out the appellate tribunal’s directions, it issues a new judgment.
If the appellate tribunal forms the opinion that the tribunal at first instance is not able or willing to carry out its directions, it can issue its own judgment. There is no specific rule when this point is reached, although most commonly it is after the second judgment is issued. Once the appellate tribunal decides to take over the case, it must invite argument from both parties before issuing its judgment. Decisions of most appellate tribunals are final.
The time limits for lodging appeals are 30 or 60 days from receipt of the written judgment at first instance.
See 10.3 Procedure for Taking an Appeal.
There are no rules that provide for the court to impose any conditions on granting an appeal.
See 10.3 Procedure for Taking an Appeal.
There are no court fees in Saudi Arabia. It is within the court’s discretion to award costs to a successful litigant. In the past this discretion was rarely exercised and when it was, the sums were modest and well below the cost of engaging a commercial law firm. More recently, the Commercial Court has been more willing to award costs to successful claimants.
Given that the awarding of costs is discretionary, there are no clear parameters that dictate how awards of costs are calculated.
Saudi Arabian courts do not award interest.
Islamic law prescribes that settlement is preferable to litigation and the courts are under a duty to exhort the parties to seek mediation or conciliation, if possible. The Saudi Centre for Commercial Arbitration offers ADR facilities.
Other than in family disputes and labour disputes, there are no rules that require the parties to submit to mediation before commencing litigation. In family disputes and labour disputes, the court will first refer the parties to official mediation before the case is heard by the court.
ADR in family and labour disputes, and before the Saudi Centre for Commercial Arbitration is well established.
The law governing arbitrations in Saudi Arabia underwent radical change with the enactment of the new Arbitration Regulation, Royal Decree No M/34 of 25 Jumada Awwal 1433 Hejra corresponding to 16 April 2012. Under the old legislation, arbitrations had to be conducted under close supervision of the competent court or judicial tribunal. In particular, once an award was issued, either party had an automatic right to raise objections on substantive and procedural grounds to the competent court. Such objections were common, with the courts often hearing all or part of the case anew and substituting their own ruling for that of the arbitrators, so that most commercial arbitrations in Saudi Arabia just added a further layer to the dispute resolution process.
The new legislation is based on the UNCITRAL model and removes much of the courts' control. Furthermore, it is now possible to conduct arbitrations in Saudi Arabia in a language other than Arabic and to appoint non-Muslim arbitrators. The parties are free to agree to the procedures of an international arbitration body, such as the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators or the ICC, or to the procedural rules of another country, or to determine their own procedural rules. Failing such an express choice, the procedural rules applicable under Saudi Arabian law govern the arbitration.
Under the new Regulation, no involvement of the courts is necessary in principle until the award is deposited with the competent court by the arbitral tribunal. Prior to that stage, the involvement of the courts will only be necessary if invoked by a party or the arbitrators; for example:
Disputes relating to personal status may not be submitted to arbitration and cases involving the government or government agencies may not be submitted to arbitration without a Royal Order.
Article 49 of the Arbitration Regulation provides that arbitral awards that are made in accordance with its rules may not be appealed in any form. However, under Article 50 an application for nullity of an award may be lodged with the competent court; for example, because of procedural defects. Furthermore, Article 50 (1) (d) provides that an award may be declared null if there is a failure to "apply any of the rules of law that the parties to the arbitration had agreed should be applied to the subject matter of the dispute" and Article 50 (2) provides that the competent court shall rule of its own motion that an award is void if "it contains material contrary to the provisions of Islamic Law and public order in the Kingdom". This, obviously, leaves the door open to re-hearings of the dispute, whether the award was rendered in Saudi Arabia or abroad. Nevertheless, unless the parties have agreed otherwise, a ruling of nullity by the competent court does not invalidate the agreement to arbitrate. Therefore, in most cases a ruling of nullity should result in a new arbitration or a rectification of the award by the original arbitral tribunal.
Applications for the enforcement of arbitration awards must be lodged with an enforcement judge, in respect of which see 9.3 Pre and Post-Judgment Interest.
Pursuant to Royal Decree No M/11 of 16 Rajab 1414 Hejra corresponding to 29 December 1993, Saudi Arabia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards 1958 (the "New York Convention"), with effect from 18 July 1994, albeit subject to an express public policy reservation, which is commonly understood to mean that no part of an award that conflicts with Islamic law is enforceable in Saudi Arabia.
Under Article 9 (6) of the Enforcement Regulation, applications for the execution of foreign arbitration awards must be lodged with an execution judge. Article 11 of the Execution Regulation and of its Implementing Rules sets out the rules for the enforcement of foreign judgments and arbitration awards, which include the following: