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By Angus McDowall
RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia on Tuesday opened new courts focusing on family disputes, the first of a series of specialised tribunals aimed at making the kingdom's legal system faster, more transparent and predictable.
Changes to the legal system are seen by analysts as an important step in wider social and economic reforms aimed at reconciling Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative traditions with the demands of a young population and modern economy.
The introduction of specialised courts is one of the most radical changes to a legal system in which judges use their own interpretation of Islamic texts to rule on cases that range from complex commercial disputes to murder.
The new specialised family courts in Riyadh, Mecca, Jeddah, Medina and Dammam, will be staffed by judges who have received extra training in cases involving divorce, alimony and child custody, local media reported on Tuesday.
Dedicated commercial courts will be opened within four months and courts to review labour and immigration disputes, and courts specialising in criminal cases will be opened after that.
The new courts are the centrepiece of sweeping judicial reforms in Saudi Arabia that were announced by King Abdullah in 2007 but have faced opposition from conservatives who want legal matters to remain under the exclusive control of the clergy.
"The ability to do business depends on rule of law and predictability and conformity with international norms. The Saudis have made a step forward in that and hopefully it will lead to better protection of commercial interests and human rights," said Robert Jordan, a former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh who is now a partner at law firm Baker Botts in Abu Dhabi.
The Saudi system of sharia, Islamic law, is not codified and has no system of precedent. Judges have extensive powers to pass verdicts and impose sentences according to their personal interpretation of Muslim texts.
Activists say the creaking judicial system means cases can take years to go through courts, verdicts are highly unpredictable, sentencing can appear arbitrary and defendents are sometimes deprived of legal representation.
Four men were executed on Monday for possession of hashish, and another was executed for murder on Tuesday, taking to 18 the number of people Saudi Arabia has put to death in two weeks, prompting alarm from human rights groups.
While most commercial cases are now handled through arbitration and business tribunals, foreign investors and local businesses have said in the past they want a stronger legal framework for settling disputes.
In an effort to speed up the legal system, Saudi Arabia is also introducing judicial training centres and has approved the appointment of thousands of new judges.
Some conservative clerics, judges and bureaucrats in the Justice Ministry have opposed the reforms which they see as encroaching on an Islamic legal system that should be the sole province of the clergy and independent of the government.
Early last year, King Abdullah appointed Justice Minister Mohammed al-Issa, seen as a reformer, to also head the Supreme Judicial Council, giving him more power over the appointment and performance of judges, a move seen as aimed at countering resistance to the reforms.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)