GENERAL INFORMATION: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, nor are there any international or bilateral treaties in force between Saudi Arabia and the Australia dealing with international parental child abduction. Australian citizens who travel to Saudi Arabia are subject to the jurisdiction of Saudi courts, as well as to the country's laws and regulations. This holds true for all legal matters including child custody. Parents planning to travel with their children to Saudi Arabia should bear this in mind.
CUSTODY DISPUTES: In Saudi Arabia, child custody is based on Islamic law. The primary concern of Saudi courts in deciding child custody cases is that the child be raised in accordance with the Islamic faith. Most custody disputes in Saudi Arabia are handled by the Islamic "Shari'a" courts. In rare cases, the Board of Grievances, a religious appeals court, has ruled on custody disputes.
Saudi courts generally do not award custody of children to non-Saudi women. If the mother is an Arab Muslim, judges will usually not grant her custody of children unless she is residing in Saudi Arabia, or the father is not a Muslim. All Saudi citizens are considered to be Muslim.
Since Saudi women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims, custody disputes between a Saudi mother and Australian father would be heard by the Shari'a court, which would usually apply Islamic rules of custody and decide the case on its merits. If the mother wins custody, the father is usually granted visitation rights. According to Saudi law, a child whose mother is Saudi and father is non-Saudi is not granted Saudi citizenship. However, even if an Australian father wins custody of his children, he may still need permission from the Saudi mother to remove the children from Saudi Arabia.
Saudi courts hesitate to rule in a child custody case if both parents are non-Muslim. The court will refer the case to the family court in the country from which the parents came. Often, if pressured to address such a situation, the court will rule that both parents should be deported from Saudi Arabia to avoid complications and embarrassment.
Normally, under Shari'a law, a mother can maintain custody of her male children until the age of nine, and female children until age seven. In practice the courts favour keeping children within a strict Islamic environment. Shari'a court judges have broad discretion in custody cases and often make exceptions to these general guidelines.
Even when a mother who is residing in Saudi Arabia is granted physical custody of children, the father maintains legal custody and has the right to determine where the children live and travel. In many cases, the father has been able to assume legal custody of children against the wishes of the mother when she is unable or unwilling to meet certain conditions set by law for her to maintain her custodial rights. For example, if the mother moves to another country, the father is entitled to have custody. A court can sever a mother's custody if it determines that the mother is incapable of safeguarding the child or of bringing the child up in accordance with the appropriate religious standards. The mother can lose custody by re-marrying a non-Muslim, or by residing in a home with non-relatives. Shari'a law allows custody of children to be awarded to the closest male relative of a Saudi father in the case of death or imprisonment of the father, even if the Saudi father has made clear his wish that the children's mother have full custody.
Persons who wish to pursue a child custody claim in a Saudi court should retain an attorney in Saudi Arabia. The Australian Embassy in Riyadh maintains a list of attorneys willing to represent Australian clients. Australian government officials cannot recommend an attorney and make no claim as to the professional ability or integrity of the attorneys on these lists. The Australian government does not pay legal expenses. A copy of these lists may be obtained by contacting the Australian Embassy. The work week in Saudi Arabia is Saturday through Wednesday.