What Civil Society?

When I was interviewed by Naif Abu-Saida on Orbit few months ago, I asked: “Do we, in Saudi Arabia, really have a civil society? There is no system or law regulating the functioning of civil society organizations.” Naif disagreed with me and insisted that there are such organizations and it was simply ignorant on my part to deny their existence.

The interview was mainly about blogging, but civil society got a mention during a call by fellow blogger Hadeel al-Hodhaif who touched on the issue. Since then, I’ve been meaning to write about this but never got around to do it and I finally decided to give it shot, so here it goes.

What Naif meant when he was talking about civil society organizations is mainly charities and philanthropic bodies. It is true that charities are usually included when citing examples for civil society institutions, but most literature on the subject is focused on the political element of these organizations, which aims to “facilitates better awareness and a more informed citizenry, who make better voting choices, participate in politics, and hold government more accountable as a result.”

Needless to say, such political element is clearly absent in this part of the world. Of course this has much to do with the fact that we don’t live in a democratic system because the civil society concept is closely linked to democracy and representation. As far as I know, Shoura Council have been discussing a new law for regulating civil society organizations that is expected to be voted on soon.

Until we find out what our esteemed Shoura members have been up to, my question for now is: considering our circumstances, can we here in Saudi Arabia actually call the many charities and philanthropic bodies functioning in the country civil society organizations?

8 thoughts on “What Civil Society?

  1. salaam alikum,

    what exactly is “civil society”??

    i think this is supremely important to the question. you see, many in the west believe that “civil” means democratic. many in the east believe “civil” means ancient heritage. so what really defines “civil”??

    personally, i think civil has less to do with political functions or programs, and much more to do with how the nations’ people treat one another. if each man treats his neighbor with respect, then that, in my opinion, is “civil”.

    what do you think??


  2. ‘Civil Society’ is a term of art. It doesn’t mean people being polite to one another. Instead, it means, as Ahmed suggests, a collection of behaviors by government and people which serve to protect the people against abuse, governmental or otherwise.

    It includes things like an independent judiciary, a free press, transparency in government, and accountability. These characteristics are to be found in democratic societies.

    But rather than being a feature of democratic society, they are antecedent to democracy. If you don’t have these things already working, in some form or other, then democracy is impossible.

    The charitable groups are just that, charities. They can play a role in civil society by picking up those who fall through the social web, but they are only a part, not the whole of civil society.

  3. john burgess

    as i pointed out, i think it depends on how one defines “civil”. some of us dont define it the same way as others. i was giving my personal definition. you can say you dont agree, but it is how i define it.

    my point was this, each of us comes from our unique perspective, and (right or wrong about our own definitions) we must define what we mean by “civil” if we desire to be able to discuss if a country is civil or not.


  4. Ahmed-

    You are totally right about a civil society. I must add one thing onto what you said, the back bone of civil society is accountability. A civil society must have a system of checks and balances, meaning the buck stops somewhere. In western society generally the accountability belongs to voters, meaning the government can do what it pleases but at the end of the day (or political term) the people will decide if all is going well and, if not, will make a change and hope for the best. I really don’t buy into charitable foundations as being civil society, yes they mean well for the common good but who are they accountable too? Donors?

    One more thing, you did well in the interview. I loved the T-shirt, however you should have smiled at least once!! And you outshined Naif too.

  5. wow, this blog has really become very nice since I last visited here and you very active outside of it as well. great! it must feel good to be able to contribute to society ;-)

  6. Technically, it refers to all non-state non-family organizations. So churches are included, but so are all voluntary and charitable organizations, all “clubs”, all businesses, and so on. It is a very broad term.
    In a tribe, probably very few exist. Clans and rulers do all the organizing. Therefore KSA has very few.

  7. What you have in Saudi are organisations that do nothing but reinforce the ruling establishment.

    Take a look at the organisations and you’ll, almost top to bottom, their members are either a part of the royal family or those who benefit from them.

    No checks and balances can or will be offered by such groups as they have a vested intrest in the status-quo.

    There is no independent media in Saudi, no transparency in government, no independent judicial system and little if no accountability.

    The organisations set up in the last few years that some will point to as progress to me are anything but. They lack any sort of teeth and any real will to stand up to the government.

    This is, of course, exactly the way they wanted it. This is why these groups are filled with those who will tow the party line.

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