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Administrative Decentralization in Saudi Arabia
Club of Madrid - 10/07/2005 - 03:31 am

Lays Grounds for Wider Popular Participation


Since its establishment and unification in 1932, Saudi Arabia has undergone different types of local governance systems. The current political and administrative system implies a central style that concentrates authorities and power in the hands of professionals and technocrats centered in the country's capital, while regions are ruled by local governors with limited authorities.


Upon unification, the country consisted of five main regions; i.e. Hejaz (west), Tihama and Najran (south), Najd (central), Qatif and al-Ahsa (east) and Hail (north). The unification process was very essential to build up the new state at its initial stage, however, a rational approach was considered in dealing with such newly-unified regions by giving them almost autonomous authorities. Tribal leaders and/or local political and religious authorities locally governed those regions where participatory political and administrative systems existed in some areas especially in Hejaz. Diversity in cultures, social structure, and religious backgrounds helped in keeping such local governance systems in place until a second stage of development of the national government central system. One may notice that at this initial stage different measures of popular participation and local governance, such as municipal and parliament elections, were known in different regions.


By mid 1960's, more radical and assertive steps were taken by the central government to reorganize the administrative and political system in Saudi Arabia. All ministries and governmental agencies were moved to the Central Region and with times, very little authorities were left to regional offices. At a later stage a province administration system was introduced dividing the country administratively to 14 provinces, each headed by a governor.


Currently, the provisional system gives the governors little authorities in handling the issues related to their regions and the process of handling these issues is very slow because of the bureaucratic style of management inherent to such a system and the heavy load put upon the central administrative authorities.


In 1991, the King issued the Provisional System, along with the Basic System and the Consultative Council System, in order to restructure the role of the local governance systems and to give them more authorities. Provisional Councils, headed by the governor and consisting of 15 appointed local members, were established since then. By evaluating the performance of these councils, one can easily find that they have little authorities and public support, and their role depends mainly upon the effectiveness and importance of the head of each council.


Taking into consideration the vast changes and developments that Saudi Arabia has undergone since then, and the difficulties one may notice in implementing central government plans on provisional levels, it seems that restructuring provisional systems will provide an adequate and practical solution to the political governing system. Current steps taken by the government toward popular participation in the country, such as municipal elections, should be expanded by giving more authorities to local government agencies.


Such a step will require providing more authoritative provisional councils, where all members are publicly elected so to have a more legitimate authority. Financial and administrative power should be also granted to the council, so to be freely able to deal with local issues. Accountability procedures should be introduced to guarantee transparency and effectiveness of the council.           


* Presented to Political Systems and Local Governance Conference, Madrid 


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