The government of Saudi issued in May last year a national policy on the right to information, making Saudi the first country in the GCC to formally recognise the right to information as a legitimate right for members of the public. However, even though this is a transparency policy, the actual text of the policy was not available to the public in full until very recently. This post looks at the non-legally binding nature of this policy, its widely worded exceptions, and the lack of an external appeal process or any other mechanism for enforcing it. Notwithstanding its shortcomings, this policy remains a major milestone for the right to information in the GCC and may encourage other governments in the region to consider granting their citizens similar rights.
The right to information as a legal concept in general is foreign to our region. Governments here operate with an obsessive culture of confidentiality where everything is assumed to be classified by default and may be shared only on a need to know basis. This can be seen in Qatar where basic information about the breakdown of nationals and expats in the total population is considered a national security issue that is not available to the public, and in Saudi where the annual government budget is not available at an entity level breakdown. Even here in Oman, we saw an example of the lack of transparency culture during the COVID-19 pandemic when the government suddenly decided to stop sharing COVID testing details.
Right to Information Laws
Right to information legislation is based on the simple premise that members of the public have the right to demand that governments disclose the information they posses about the normal activities for running a government. Under a right to information law, any person (whether a citizen or not), would be allowed to submit an online form to request that the government supplies him or her with information relating to, for example, the amount of money the government has spent on constructing a certain road, the amount of money collected from traffic tickets at a certain speed camera, or the number of people who applied to a certain government job. This right is not absolute, and there are usually exceptions where certain documents may be withheld or redacted. Such documents may include, for example, documents that contain person information of other individuals, and documents that might have serious national security implications.
It is worthnoting that the right to information is not the same as government initiatives for open data. The open data movement concerns the voluntary publication by the government of its data without the need to rely on any request. The right to information is also not the same as the right to access national archives. Laws that permit access to national archives enable members of the public to access historical records in their original format, whereas right to information laws enable members of the public to access information about current issues, even if the information is not readily available to the government as a single easy to share document.
When implemented properly, the right to information is a powerful mechanism for holding the government accountable, empowering not only civil society, but parliaments and other supervisory bodies within the government itself. In Oman, Majlis Al-Shura has made a proposal to promulgate such a law since at least 2014. In Bahrain, the government and the parliament have been working on its since at least 2007. Even in Saudi itself, there is evidence that their Majlis Al-Shura has voted for having such a law in 2014.
Saudi Right to Information Policy
However, to make things a little bit complicated, the Saudi Right to Information Policy is totally unconnected to the Right to Information Law demanded by Majlis Al-Shura in Saudi. This policy was issued by the Saudi Data and AI Authority (SDAIA) as a national policy, which I understand to be a non-binding document that is essentially a set of recommendations for government entities to follow.
Notwithstanding its non-binding nature, the Saudi right to information policy appears at the first instance to be a comprehensive framework for making right to information requests. It provides a set of principles to government right to information, sets the obligations of public entities in regard to the right to information, outlines the process for making an information request, sets deadlines for responding to such requests, creates a governance framework for the right to information within each entity, and provides an appeal process.
A key aspect of this policy is that it is restricted by a list of wide exceptions that exclude, among other things, information that may harm the public policy, interests, or rights of the Kingdom of Saudi, information relating to laws and government decisions not officially issued yet, and any classified information. Such wide exceptions can result in interpreting the policy to merely require the disclosure of information that is already in the public domain and nothing more.
Another peculiar aspect of this policy is that it does not set limits on the ability of government entities to demand the payment of fees for the release of this data, and permits the entity to take into consideration the “nature” of the data in addition to the time and effort required to make the data available. The policy requires entities to charge their fees in accordance with a data revenue framework, which has not been issued until now. The lack of controls of the ability to charge for fulfilling information requests can enable government entities to create financial obstacles to discourage members of the public from making requests.
A more positive aspect of this policy is that it provides an appeal mechanism to enable users to ask to have their denied requests to be reconsidered, but the policy leaves this appeal mechanism to be dealt by the same entity that has rejected the request in the first place. In most jurisdictions, appeals relating to right to information requests are submitted to an independent third party such as an information commissioner, who would oversee the overall implementation of the right to information law and instruct entities to disclose information that they failed to disclose in violation of the law.
Even though this policy has been issued for over a year now, it is unclear if it has actually been used at all by any individual in Saudi. In fact, Majlis Al-Shura of Saudi has continued to debate the passing of a right to information law up to at least February of this year, even though this policy was issued in May the year before.
Legitimising Right to Information
The Saudi right to information policy is nowhere near perfect, and there is no evidence that it has made any real-life contribution to making the Saudi government more transparent. However, the successful passing of such a policy in Saudi can be seen as a sign for the recognition of the right to information, at least in principle, as a legitimate right for the members of the public in the GCC, and it can certainly be used by parliaments in the GCC as supporting evidence of the viability of such a right in their demand for governments to issue legally binding laws that recognise this right.
You can use the following links to download the Arabic and English versions of the Saudi Right to Information Policy. It is worth noting that the right to information policy has been issued as part of the data policies bundle. The English version of the policy refers to its as “an interim regulation”, but the original Arabic text clearly refers to it as a policy.