Saudi Arabia

Not Free
26
100
A Obstacles to Access 12 25
B Limits on Content 9 35
C Violations of User Rights 5 40
Last Year's Score & Status
25 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

While internet access is widespread and relatively affordable, Saudi Arabia’s restrictive absolute monarchy places substantial limits on the range of information and services available online. Authorities operate extensive censorship and surveillance systems. Critics, activists, and others perceived to voice dissent online are subject to severe punishment, including harassment and arrest. Users were arrested for social media content deemed offensive to “customs and traditions.” However, fewer people were sentenced to long prison terms compared to previous years. Dissidents outside the country are increasingly targets of state repression.

Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on extensive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power. Women and religious minorities face extensive discrimination in law and in practice. Working conditions for the large expatriate labor force are often exploitative.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2019 - May 31, 2020

  • In June 2019, the Saudi Telecom Company (STC) officially launched commercial 5G services, with competitors including Zain following suit later that year (see A1).
  • Messaging apps Telegram and FaceTime became accessible, and WhatsApp became intermittently accessible, during the coverage period, though many other popular services remain inaccessible without the use of a virtual private network (VPN) (see A3).
  • Websites with comments critical of the government and social media pages of human rights groups remained blocked during the coverage period (see B1 and B2).
  • In August 2019, Facebook removed accounts and pages related to an influence campaign linked to the Saudi government. Twitter also removed accounts linked to a “state-backed manipulation effort” during the coverage period (see B5).
  • In March 2020, authorities arrested a man for allegedly sharing “news from unknown sources” about the COVID-19 pandemic. He faces a possible five-year prison sentence and a $800,000 fine under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law (see C3).

A Obstacles to Access

The government maintains technical control over Saudi Arabia’s generally robust internet infrastructure. Rural villages and provinces have historically had poorer internet connectivity compared to urban areas. Saudi telecommunications companies agreed to adopt open-access fixed communications networks through a fiber-optic infrastructure-sharing deal. Some VoIP services became available during the coverage period. The main telecommunications operators dominate the market, with regulatory obstacles prohibiting entry of smaller players.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 6.006 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 5 to 6 due to higher internet penetration and faster speeds, as well as greater investment in infrastructure projects in recent years.

Rapid growth in internet and communications technologies (ICTs) has produced robust infrastructure and widespread access to the internet, with Statista estimating 30.2 million internet users in Saudi Arabia in 2019.1 In 2019, the count of mobile subscribers reached 43.8 million, representing a 129 percent penetration rate; that figure stood at 91.8 percent in 2018,2 76 percent at the end of 2016, and 102 percent in 2015.3 The 2016 decline was largely attributed to the deportation of thousands of undocumented workers and the deactivation of their prepaid mobile accounts,4 in addition to the requirement that mobile subscribers must provide fingerprints to obtain service (see C4).

Saudi Arabia’s industry regulator, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), pressed forward with its 5G hardware rollout plan, which launched in December 2017. In June 2019, STC officially launched commercial 5G services, with competitors such as Zain following suit later that year.5 In February 2020, the CITC announced a fiber-optic infrastructure sharing agreement between telecommunications providers. Under the agreement, providers including STC, Mobily, Zain, Dawiyat Integrated, Photonics, and Etihad Atheeb Telecom will adopt open-access fixed communications networks, with the aim of allowing subscribers to easily move between providers.6 Also in 2019, STC established Tawal, a subsidiary and tower network infrastructure provider. Tawal reportedly owns 14,000 telecommunications towers, and plans to provide services to other tower operators.7 Other providers have collaborated to provide services to customers. In April 2020, Dawiyat Integrated, a subsidiary of the state-owned Saudi Electricity Company, signed an agreement with Integrated Telecom to provide fiber-optic broadband connectivity to 90,000 homes in several cities.

As part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan, the government aims to boost high-speed broadband coverage surpassing “90 percent of housing coverage in dense populated cities and 66 percent in other urban areas.”8 According to Ookla, Saudi Arabia currently ranks 12th out of 140 countries in mobile-broadband speed, and 50th out of 176 countries in fixed-line broadband speed.9

International internet bandwidth was 5,620 Gbps at the end of 2017, a 65 percent increase from 2016.10

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 2.002 3.003

Rural villages and provinces in Saudi Arabia—home to about 16 percent of the population in 2018, according to the World Bank1—have historically had poorer internet connectivity compared to urban metropolitan areas, due in part to the country’s desert terrain.2 However, the government has sought to improve connectivity in these regions. As of January 2019, over 75 percent of the Universal Services project, launched in 2006 to bring internet access to underserved rural areas, was completed.3 By February 2020, 4G coverage in nonurban areas increased to 91 percent from 83 percent.4

According to UK-based firm Cable, the average monthly cost of consumer broadband in 2020 was $83 per month, down from $96 per month in 2018.5 The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Inclusive Internet Index 2020 reported the price of fixed-line broadband at 1 percent of monthly gross national income per capita. Saudi Arabia ranks 46th out of 100 countries in internet affordability; and 6th out of 10 countries in the Middle East.6 Several internet service providers (ISPs) provide zero-rating services, offering some content or services for free. For example, Zain provides unlimited access to social media platforms including YouTube in prepaid mobile packages,7 while STC offers unlimited data in certain bundles. Jaww, a brand introduced by STC in 2016,8 offers YouTube access through prepaid plans.9

Internet cafés, once prevalent, have become less popular in recent years due to the wide availability and affordability of broadband access. Internet cafés are mainly used by young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to congregate and socialize. Coffee shops where customers can enjoy free Wi-Fi access with paid beverages have grown in popularity among businesspeople, young adults, and single men (and increasingly single women). In addition, female-only coffee shops have been opened to serve women and girls who were previously limited to shops’ family sections.

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 3.003 6.006

The Saudi government exercises technical control over internet infrastructure for the purpose of restricting connectivity. Notably, regulators and telecommunications companies have taken an aggressive stance against free or low-cost VoIP services that potentially reduce the amount of standard mobile calls, circumvent the regulatory environment, and sometimes bypass the country’s surveillance apparatus. Internet providers and the CITC previously blocked VoIP apps including Viber,1 WhatsApp,2 and FaceTime.34 Integrated chat systems on certain social media websites, including Facebook Messenger, have also been blocked in the past.5 Users report that Viber is not currently accessible, with the app returning an error message of “No Connectivity.” However, Telegram is now accessible, having faced sporadic blocking from 2016 (see B1).

In September 2017, the government announced that it lifted a years-long ban on all VoIP services, saying those that satisfied regulatory requirements would be permitted to operate, though subject to surveillance by the CITC. The shift was part of broader economic reforms aimed at bolstering the business environment.6 FaceTime became available for Apple users in March 2018 following an iOS update, and is consistently available to users.7 Some users reported sporadic service on WhatsApp, with some users gaining access with Wi-Fi connections and others requiring the use of a VPN.

Saudi Arabia is connected to the internet through two country-level data service providers, Integrated Telecom, and Bayanat al-Oula for Network Services. The servers they utilize are split between the state-owned internet backbone and global servers. All user requests that arrive via Saudi ISPs travel through these servers, making them subject to censorship at a centralized point.

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 1.001 6.006

The two country-level service providers offer services to licensed ISPs, which in turn sell connections to dial-up and leased-line clients. Fixed-line broadband and mobile services are provided by three long-established providers, STC, Mobily, and Zain. In addition to these companies, Virgin Mobile (operating with STC) and Lebara (operating with Mobily) have been operating since 2014; while Etihad Atheeb Telecom, a fixed-line operator trading under the brand name GO, has operated since 2009.1

According to a Saudi telecommunications executive, barriers to entry into the market are structural rather than official; they include, for example, requiring new entrants to have a prelicensed local operator to operate under. The executive stated that further structural reforms are required to level the playing field in the sector, but this is not an apparent priority for the CITC.2

In December 2018, STC, Mobily, and Zain reached an agreement with the state to recalculate their annual royalty fees to 10 percent of net revenue from mobile services, retroactive from January 1, 2018. According to a Mobily statement, the operator would pay an additional fee equivalent to 1 percent of its annual revenue. Operators previously paid 15 percent net-revenue royalties from mobile services.3

In October 2019, a court in Riyadh rejected a claim by GO against the CITC, after the latter refused its application to operate with a unified license.4 The CITC granted unified licenses to Zain and Mobily in 2016; previously, only STC was permitted to operate with one.5 Unified licenses allow providers to offer integrated packages, increasing the services they can offer to consumers and their competitiveness in the market. In March 2020, the administrative court in Riyadh rejected GO’s appeal, providing no reason for its ruling.6

As part of its overall economic and social reform strategy, the government has streamlined laws to attract foreign companies, including cloud computing and technology service providers, and has eased rules around foreign ownership of companies and other regulatory hurdles. In December 2017, global technology companies such as Amazon Web Services held discussions with Saudi authorities to explore offering cloud services in Saudi Arabia.7 However, as of February 2019, these plans were reportedly put on hold due to an alleged “feud” between Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos and Mohammed bin Salman. The feud is ostensibly related to the Washington Post’s reporting on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Bezos owns the outlet, and Khashoggi worked as a columnist prior to his October 2018 murder (see B1 and C7).8

The main telecommunications providers have been accused by campaigners and trade associations of engaging in unfair trade practices.9 For example, Ibrahim al-Sheikh of Asharqia Chamber, a government-linked trade promotion organization, criticized STC and Mobily after they increased data-package prices by as much as 50 percent in January 2018.10 The following month, local press sources reported that the CITC intervened, ordering both companies to reinstate their previous prices.11

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 0.000 4.004

The CITC is responsible for regulating the internet.1 Its board of directors is headed by the communications minister, who, like all cabinet members, is appointed by the monarch. Abdullah Amer al-Sawaha2 has held the post since April 2017, and has been tasked with developing the country’s ICT infrastructure in line with Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 agenda.3 There is no public evidence of explicit legal guarantees that protect the CITC from political or commercial interference.

In addition to internet regulation—which includes sending content removal requests to social networks, usually related to political or sexual content—the CITC is tasked with controlling prices that telecommunications companies are allowed to charge for crossnetwork calls (see A4).

Previously, all internet governance fell under the purview of the Internet Services Unit (ISU), a department of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). Established in 1998 and reporting directly to KACST’s vice president for scientific research support, the ISU now only provides internet access and technical support to government departments, as well as Saudi research and academic institutions.4

In early March 2018, the CITC began regulating cloud computing in the country, establishing registration, disclosure, and other requirements for cloud service providers.5 In February 2019, the CITC published a revised version of its cloud computing regulatory framework, which outlined the scope of responsibilities for providers and customers with a stated aim of reducing the compliance burden on the latter.

B Limits on Content

The Saudi government continues to block websites deemed to host offensive, illegal, or anti-Islamic content, and remains intolerant of criticism of the Saudi royal family or government policies. It has increasingly used the online sphere as an extension of its geopolitical agenda, blocking news outlets linked to political opponents. Social media platforms such as Twitter have reported and blocked increasing attempts by state-backed elements to manipulate online discourse to promote messages favorable to the authorities and critical of opponents. Online self-censorship remains prevalent.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 1.001 6.006

Authorities block a wide range of websites under rules prohibiting content deemed harmful, illegal, anti-Islamic, or offensive, and do not tolerate criticism of the Saudi royal family or its allies among countries in the Persian Gulf, online or otherwise. According to IstiZada, a Jordan-based digital marketing consultancy, over 500,000 websites have been blocked since 2007.1

The websites of the London-based Al-Araby al-Jadeed and its English-language New Arab, which regularly publish content critical of the Saudi government, were blocked in January 20162 and remained blocked as of March 2020.3 The websites of Al-Bawaba, a Jordanian media and blogging website, and Qatari government-funded news outlet Al-Jazeera are also blocked in Saudi Arabia. Al-Jazeera has disseminated critical views on the Saudi government in the past, while the Saudi and Qatari governments have been engaged in a political dispute since June 2017.4 In April 2020, Saudi authorities blocked the websites of Turkish state broadcaster TRT and state-owned news agency Anadolu after apparent tensions between the two countries over the death of Jamal Khashoggi.5 The websites remained blocked at the end of the coverage period.

In July 2018, a group of Saudi women launched an online radio station, Nsawya (Feminist) FM, to advocate for women’s rights and spread awareness of issues like domestic violence. While the station broadcasted from an unknown country, including through streaming services like Soundcloud and Mixlr, some contributors were reportedly based in Saudi Arabia.6 As of August 2018, the Saudi government suspended and later blocked the station through various platforms.7 The account no longer appears on Twitter and has been taken over by a different user,8 and Nsawya FM’s Mixlr page is inactive.9

According to Censored Planet, a University of Michigan–based project, the number of censored websites in Saudi Arabia increased twofold shortly after the October 2018 murder of Khashoggi, who was increasingly critical of the Saudi government since going into self-exile in the United States in 2017. A scan by the project that October 16th showed that access to international outlets including the Los Angeles Times, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Fox News was temporarily blocked in Saudi Arabia in the wake of his murder, alongside local news sites such as that of the English-language daily Arab News.10

Websites and social media pages belonging to human rights or political organizations, such as the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, are blocked.11 The websites of global advocacy organizations, such as Avaaz, are also blocked.12

Authorities also seek to disrupt the dissemination of violent extremist content,13 sometimes resulting in the blocking of licensed news sites that publish photos of Islamic State (IS) militant group members.14 Pages related to pornography, gambling, and drugs are routinely blocked, as are websites that may be used to distribute copyrighted materials, such as Pirate Bay.15 According to a report by internet censorship measurement platform OONI, Saudi authorities reportedly restricted access to womenonweb.org, a website linked to Amsterdam-based, prochoice nongovernmental organization (NGO) Women on Waves, in February 2019.16

Popular social media and communication apps are not blocked, although authorities have imposed restrictions on their use. The messaging app Telegram faced temporary throttling from January 2016, when users reported severe bandwidth limitations preventing file and image sharing.17 Users report that the app was subsequently made available. Other platforms’ VoIP services have been blocked by the authorities (see A3).

Many Saudi internet users have become savvy at using circumvention tools such as Hotspot Shield, which allows users to access a VPN to bypass censorship.18 However, the websites of many circumvention tools, such as Tor and major VPN providers, are blocked by the government.19

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 1.001 4.004

Blocking and filtering by authorities is complemented by state and nonstate censorship and forced content removal. Outlets frequently delete user-generated content that could be deemed inappropriate or inconsistent with societal norms, as they can be held legally liable for content posted on their platforms (see B3).1 As a result, it is unusual to find antigovernment comments on the websites of major Saudi newspapers, which do not reflect the diversity of political views seen on social networks.

Commentators have accused social media companies of complicity with governmental authorities in censoring online content. In December 2018, Netflix, after receiving a CITC complaint, removed an episode of the program Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj that scrutinized the government’s apparent role in Khashoggi’s murder (see B1) and criticized Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, from its Saudi catalog. In its complaint, the CITC claimed that the episode violated Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law, which criminalizes the “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers.”2

In December 2017, Omar Abdulaziz, a Canada-based Saudi dissident, stated that a hashtag he created that was critical of General Sport Authority head Turki Al al-Sheikh was removed from Twitter shortly after it was retweeted 6,000 times, and that he received no response from Twitter regarding its removal. That same month, Ghanem al-Dosari, a London-based Saudi dissident who runs a satirical YouTube channel addressing Saudi issues, claimed that Facebook prevented him from accessing his account for nine months.3

In September 2017, Snapchat removed Qatari news channel Al-Jazeera from its Discover platform at the behest of Saudi authorities, in a move that was widely perceived to stem from Saudi Arabia’s ongoing political dispute with Qatar. The Saudi government claimed that Al-Jazeera violated its media and cybercrime laws, but provided no specifics on the alleged violations.4 Snapchat received and complied with a government removal request, according to its May 2018 transparency report.5 Snapchat confirmed the removal was done to “comply with local laws.”6

Google’s latest transparency report shows that as of June 2019, the Saudi government made 11 requests for content removal. All requests related to regulated goods and services.7

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 2.002 4.004

The list of banned sites in Saudi Arabia is not publicly available. In certain cases, users who attempt to access a banned site are redirected to a page displaying the message, “Access to the requested URL is not allowed!” A green background is displayed on CITC-blocked sites, whereas sites blocked by the culture ministry for licensing violations or copyright infringement have a blue background. However, several blocked sites also return a generic “This site can’t be reached” error.1

The government receives blocking requests from members of the public, who can use a web-based form to submit a complaint regarding “undesirable” material.2 Once an individual submits the form, a team of CITC employees determines whether the request is justified.3

Data service providers must block all sites banned by the CITC,4 and failure to abide by these bans may result in a fine of up to 25 million riyals ($6.7 million), according to Article 38 of the Telecommunication Act.5

According to regulations instituted in March 2018, cloud service providers are not liable for “unlawful content or infringing content [that] has been uploaded, processed, or stored” by the providers. However, providers must remove any such content or render it inaccessible within the country after written notice by the CITC “or any other authorized entity.” If cloud providers become aware of stored content that “may constitute a violation” of the cybercrime law, they must notify the relevant authorities. Content may be exempt from filtering via CITC decision if it is privately held and not publicly accessible.6

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 0.000 4.004

Online self-censorship is pervasive. Social media users are extremely cautious about what they post, share, or “like” online due to the threat of harassment or prosecution under broadly worded antiterrorism and other laws. Users who express support for liberal ideals, minority rights, or political reform, in addition to those who expose human rights violations, are closely monitored and often targeted by the government.

Questioning religious doctrine is strictly taboo, particularly content related to the prophet Mohammed. Saudi women have often been pressured to refrain from posting photos of their faces online. However, younger Saudi women increasingly do so, with the growing popularity of social media as a platform for communicating with local audiences. A large number of Saudi women continue to be discouraged by their families from sharing photos or real names online, with many using pseudonymous names. Some have faced repercussions from family members, including physical assault, for flouting these moral codes.1

Twitter users are increasingly fearful of expressing support for outspoken activists who have recently received jail sentences. Such pressure has led many users to use services that purportedly offer more privacy, such as Snapchat, Signal, and Path.

Influential government consultants have stopped contributing to foreign newspaper articles due to pressure from other government agency representatives. According to one prominent Saudi journalist, the “margin for free expression has shrunk significantly” in recent years in both print and online media. He noted increasing intolerance of criticism of the government’s performance—specifically regarding critiques, no matter how minor, of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 reform agenda.2 The threat of imprisonment, coupled with the risk of being labelled a traitor by loyalist Saudi media outlets,3 has also led journalists and activists to self-censor (see B5 and C3).4 Several Saudi journalists stopped writing for local media outlets for fear of falling afoul of government redlines, which can range from questioning the economic outlook of state-run organizations to publicly criticizing an ally of the Saudi government.5 Some of these journalists describe “uncertainty” about parameters of acceptable public discourse that constantly fluctuate, as well as feeling direct and indirect pressure from official messaging to publish content praising the government’s policies.6

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 0.000 4.004

The Saudi government controls news outlets across all platforms, including in the digital sphere. Moreover, officials use a variety of online tactics to create an illusion of popular support for government policies. Critics suspect that the government employs an “electronic army” to post progovernment views, particularly on social media. Progovernment trolls have taken to “hashtag poisoning,” a method of spamming a popular hashtag in order to disrupt criticism or other unwanted conversations through a flood of unrelated or opposing tweets.1 Bots frequently share identical messages. A comparative report on global social media manipulation by the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Research Project states that Saudi government actors employ permanent staff to spread disinformation and government propaganda.2

In August 2019, Facebook removed a coordinated and covert government-linked influence campaign that reportedly ran hundreds of Facebook pages and accounts.3 That December, Twitter announced that it blocked 88,000 accounts linked to a “state-backed manipulation effort” to amplify messages favorable to Saudi authorities aimed at both local and international audiences.4 In April 2020, Twitter removed a network of 5,350 accounts “linked to the Saudi monarchy” that were operating from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These accounts reportedly disseminated 36.5 million tweets praising the Saudi government or criticizing Qatari and Turkish operations in Yemen.5

The government sought to silence late journalist Jamal Khashoggi for years before his 2018 murder. In 2010, he lost a column in Al-Watan, where he previously served as editor in chief, due to government pressure.6 In late 2016, he was banned from using Twitter and making televised appearances after criticizing US President Donald Trump;7 the ban was lifted in August 2017.8 Later that year, Khashoggi chose exile in the United States after writing a Washington Post op-ed discussing government intimidation; he reportedly told friends that he feared arrest, and feared for his safety, in Saudi Arabia.9

Shortly after Khashoggi’s October 2018 disappearance, progovernment media outlets published articles reminding readers of Anti-Cyber Crime Law penalties for spreading “fake news” that may result in public disorder (see C2).10 In addition, an influx of progovernment bots and posts appeared on Twitter, where they attempted to displace a trending hashtag about the disappearance and posted unrelated content.11 After news of Khashoggi’s murder broke, the government reportedly employed its “electronic army” to suppress online expressions of dissent and smear government opponents in operations targeting both domestic and foreign audiences.12 Participants were given lists of dissidents to target on platforms including Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram, and along with reported daily quotas.

In October 2018, it emerged that Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court advisor, reportedly shaped media coverage through a WhatsApp group whose members included Saudi newspaper editors and notable journalists.13 While al-Qahtani was dismissed from his media advisory role that month after being implicated in Khashoggi’s killing, Saudi rights activists claimed that he was still active behind the scenes, including through running the “electronic army.”14 In December 2019, Saudi prosecutors cleared al-Qahtani of involvement in Khashoggi’s murder.15 In July 2020, the UK placed economic sanctions on al-Qahtani, who was already sanctioned by the United States in November 2018.16

A March 2018 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report found that several Saudi companies were established to artificially boost the popularity of Twitter hashtags through the use of bots.17 In November 2017, the government and regional allies faced allegations of using Twitter bots to stifle reporting on the war in Yemen.18 The government continues to use “surveillance technology and troll and bot armies” to control or limit coverage and discussion of sensitive issues.19 In November 2019, exiled activist Omar Abdulaziz called Twitter the government’s “propaganda platform” where it deployed trolls and pressured influencers to amplify its messages.20

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 0.000 3.003

Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 due to continued constraints that impact users’ ability to publish content online, specifically government blocking of websites–in particular opposition sites.

The owners of opposition websites struggle to remain financially viable due to censorship. Revenue from third-party advertisers can be heavily impacted by a government decision to block a website. The government can also request advertisers to cancel ads on a particular website in order to pressure it to close. Restrictions on foreign funding further inhibit the sustainability of websites that are critical of the government.

The Saudi media ministry stipulates licensing requirements for those wishing to engage in electronic publishing activities. Article 7 of the Regulations for Electronic Publishing Activity, requires applicants to be Saudi nationals; be at least 25 years old; be a university graduate; be of “good conduct,” and not be employed by the government. The law broadly proscribes certain activities. Article 15 prohibits publishing anything that contravenes Islamic law, violates public order, or serves “foreign interests,” as well as material inciting a “spirit of discord” among society.1

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 1.001 4.004

The government blocks a wide range of websites and can order the removal of content, limiting diversity in the online information landscape (see B1 and B2). While opposition blogs and online forums were once the main venue for discussing political and social matters, such discussions now take place on social media, as the use of platforms like Twitter1 and Snapchat2 continues to grow.3 However, pressure on users to self-censor in order to avoid running afoul of authorities remains high (see B4). Some Saudi dissidents have warned that the government’s monitoring of Twitter has limited the platform’s use for open discussion (see B5).4 The fear of arbitrary crackdowns is amplified as the country moves towards “a form of hypernationalism that promotes veneration of rulers” both offline and online.5 Consequently, journalists and online commentators can only present a progovernment narrative safely. In November 2019, at least 11 writers, bloggers, and journalists were arrested across the country, with no reason for their detention publicized by authorities (see C3).6

English-language websites of most international news agencies are available. Arabic content is widely available, as are Arabic versions of commonly used social media sites and mobile apps.

Opposition figures abroad use YouTube as a platform for distributing audio and video content, since their websites are blocked within the country.7 Dissidents Omar Abdulaziz and Ghanem al-Dosari, for example, produce politically themed shows that are critical of progovernment propaganda. Both have experienced several instances of their Twitter and Facebook accounts being blocked in Saudi Arabia (see B2).

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 4.004 6.006

Saudis have increasingly taken to digital activism to express popular concerns and grievances. These online campaigns, most widely proliferating on Twitter, have mobilized diverse groups of constituents, though the most active participants have been young people.

In recent years the country saw an increase in online activism in support of women’s rights, including a widespread 2016 social media campaign to end male guardianship of women, who under Saudi law, are treated as legal minors and cannot make critical decisions on their education, health, and career without a male relative’s supervision. After months of campaigning, King Salman issued royal decrees granting women the right to access certain public services without a male guardian’s approval, and the right to drive, in 2017.1 However, Saudi authorities have widely sought to suppress women’s rights activists, including by prosecuting those who pursued their activism online (see C3).

In April 2020, UK-based news agency Reuters reported that hundreds of Saudis, primarily women, used social media to share their experiences of sexual harassment under the hashtag #Why_I_didn’t_report_it. Twitter users claimed they faced smear campaigns on social media after posting about cases of harassment online, with some of them choosing to self-censor as a result.2

Several women fled the country in 2019 and early 2020; these departures were marked by the accompanying use of social media to publicize their plight.3 In February 2020, a program from German news outlet Deutsche Welle featured a Saudi lesbian couple who sought asylum in the UK to escape persecution over their sexual orientation. The couple, using the pseudonyms Fad and Nanz, publicized their decision on social media upon arriving in the UK, but faced a backlash from social media users in Saudi Arabia for doing so.4 In August 2019, sisters Dalal and Dua al-Showaiki fled from their family while they visited Turkey, and sought asylum in Canada, claiming abuse by their father.5 Several other Saudi women have fled the country and garnered media attention over their stories;6 individuals seeking asylum cited family abuse, enforcement of religious practices, and fear of state retribution for their political views.7

C Violations of User Rights

Saudi Arabia continued to use its Anti-Cyber Crime Law to detain and penalize citizens. Several individuals were arrested during the reporting period for their online activities, including journalists, bloggers, and social media personalities. The status of many detained or “disappeared” individuals from previous reporting periods, who were arrested over their online activism, remains unclear. The Saudi government has continued its campaign of surveillance beyond its borders, and an alleged large-scale location-tracking operation of Saudi citizens was reportedly uncovered in the United States in early 2020.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 0.000 6.006

Saudi Arabia has no constitution. The Basic Law of Saudi Arabia contains language that calls for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but only within certain boundaries. The 2000 Law of Print and Press also addresses freedom-of-expression issues, though it largely consists of restrictions on speech rather than protections. Online journalists employed at newspapers and other formal news outlets maintain the same rights and protections as print and broadcast journalists, and like their counterparts, are subject to close government supervision.

Judges have significant discretion in how they interpret Sharia (Islamic law), which forms the basis of Saudi law.1 However, the Saudi judiciary is also largely subordinate to the executive branch.2

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 0.000 4.004

Laws designed to protect users from cybercrimes contain clauses that limit freedom of expression. The 2007 Anti-Cyber Crime Law criminalizes “producing something that harms public order, religious values, public morals, the sanctity of private life, or authoring, sending, or storing it via an information network,” and imposes penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 3 million riyals ($800,000).1

An antiterrorism law introduced in November 2017 provided broad definitions of terrorist acts. The legislation includes criminal penalties of 5 to 10 years’ imprisonment for portraying the king or crown prince, directly or indirectly, “in a manner that brings religion or justice into disrepute,” and a 15-year prison sentence for those using their “social status or media influence to promote terrorism.” Executive oversight and enforcement power over counterterrorism measures were moved to the Public Prosecution and the Presidency of the State Security; the latter is an intelligence and counterterrorism agency established in 2017. While such powers were previously under the purview of the interior ministry, both bodies now report directly to the king.2

International rights groups continue to condemn the antiterrorism legislation as unacceptably vague and inconsistent with international rights standards. After visiting Saudi Arabia in June 2018, a UN panel stated that dissidents were jailed and tortured under the law.3 UN human rights experts repeated these assertions in March 2019 in relation to an upcoming trial of women’s rights activists (see C3).4 According to a report from London-based NGO Humanists International, “the anti-terror law continues to suppress many forms of criticism or dissent in extremely broad terms, and is actively intended to prosecute political dissent and religion or belief minorities.”5

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 1.001 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because no long prison sentences were issued during the reporting period, though online users were still arrested for content deemed inappropriate or for “offending customs and traditions.”

Saudi Arabia’s restrictive laws are rigorously applied to silence critical voices and human rights defenders—many of whom operate primarily online, in light of a ban on traditional political organizing. Activists are frequently prosecuted for creating websites critical of the government, posting on Twitter, or appearing in YouTube videos documenting human rights abuses or calling for government action.

In October 2019, social media personality Suhail al-Jameel was reportedly arrested after he posted photos of himself on his Snapchat account wearing shorts. Following his detention, he posted a statement to his account that he was being charged by police under “electronic crimes for sharing photos of nudity.” Al-Jameel was previously imprisoned by authorities after posting a photo of himself online with another individual, which authorities deemed morally inappropriate. It is unclear whether al-Jameel was released following his latest arrest, or whether he remained in detention at the end of the coverage period.1

In February 2020, the governor of Makkah, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, ordered the arrest of female rapper Asayel al-Bishi after she posted a music video online in which she extolled the characteristics of women of Makkah. Authorities claimed that the video “offends customs and traditions of the people of Makkah,” while the governor ordered that all those involved in producing the video be prosecuted. Detractors on Saudi social media also criticized the video for allegedly flouting local moral codes.2 Several days later, al-Bishi publicly announced that while she was investigated and questioned by authorities, she was no longer detained.3 Late March 2020 saw Islamic scholar Saleh al-Maghamisi removed from his post as the leader of a Medinah mosque after he tweeted a post supposedly encouraging the authorities to grant amnesty to “wrongfully imprisoned” convicts.4

The Saudi government has also penalized citizens in an attempt to control the online narrative surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, authorities arrested an individual who allegedly shared rumors and “news from unknown sources” on social media about the novel coronavirus. He reportedly faced a possible five-year prison sentence and $800,000 fine under Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law.5 Another citizen was arrested the following month for “spreading false rumours” in an online video about a woman supposedly infected with the virus.6

In November 2019, Saudi authorities detained at least 11 journalists, bloggers and activists. Several were arrested over their “intellectual activities”, according to press sources.7 Most of those detained were reportedly previously active on social media pages and websites that supported the Arab Spring movement of 2011, although they since stopped writing publicly and kept low profiles. Some of the detainees were released later that month,8 and Saudi authorities claimed they released all 11 by December. According to a Saudi official who spoke anonymously to Reuters, their cases remained open and charges could still be brought against them.9

From late 2017, authorities have targeted individuals for their online dissent amid a widespread crackdown on intellectuals, academics, clerics, and critics of the ruling family. These included popular cleric Salman al-Awdah, who has roughly 14.5 million followers on Twitter, along with Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omari, prominent clerics who also have large online followings. Many believe al-Awdah was targeted for a tweet encouraging reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.10 In September 2018, Saudi prosecutors reportedly called for the death penalty for al-Awdah in a “secret trial” in which he had no access to a lawyer.11 He faces 37 charges, including inciting public discord and membership in the Muslim Brotherhood.12 In May 2019, news outlet Middle East Eye reported that all three clerics would be sentenced to death and executed after Ramadan.13 In October 2019, the verdict in al-Awdah’s trial was reportedly postponed.14 However, according to other reports, al-Awdah’s trial did not yet begin within the coverage period.15 He remained in detention as of May 2020.16

Several prominent women’s rights activists who were arrested as early as mid-2018 remain in detention. These include Maya’a al-Zahrani, Nouf Abdulaziz, Alam al-Harbi Shadan al-Anezi, and Loujain al-Hathloul. As of May 2020, 11 women’s rights activists, including the above and others who were temporarily released on bail in March 2019, faced prison sentences for their activism under Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law.17 All 11 engaged in online campaigns promoting women’s rights, and most were initially held without formal charges against them.18

Additionally, in August 2018, prosecutors recommended the death penalty for Shiite activist Israa al-Ghomgham. Arrested in 2015, she and four others were charged under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law with protesting and publishing footage of protests on social media, among other crimes. A trial was scheduled in Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal in October 201819. In January 2019, authorities denied seeking the death penalty for al-Ghomgham.20 The current status of al-Ghomgham’s case remains unclear.

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 1.001 4.004

Encrypted communications are banned in Saudi Arabia, though this is not often enforced.1 Authorities frequently attempt to identify and detain anonymous or pseudonymous users and writers who make critical or controversial remarks.

In January 2016, the CITC required mobile service providers to register the fingerprints of new SIM card subscribers. That August, unregistered subscriptions were suspended. Subscribers were given 90 days to document their fingerprints before the suspension became permanent.2 The CITC said the new requirement is meant to “limit the negative effects and violations in the use of communication services.”3 The new regulation built upon previous requirements to register subscribers' real names and identity numbers, even to recharge a prepaid mobile card,4which were often circumvented in practice.5

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 0.000 6.006

Surveillance is rampant in Saudi Arabia. The government justifies the pervasive monitoring of nonviolent political, social, and religious activists by claiming that they are protecting national security and maintaining social order. The authorities regularly monitor websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails, and text messages. After the government announced that it would lift its ban on online voice and video call services in September 2017, authorities claimed that all calls would be monitored and censored by the CITC.1 However, it is unclear whether authorities have the ability to monitor platforms that use end-to-end encryption, such as WhatsApp. Nonetheless, Saudis have increasingly turned to encrypted communications platforms like Signal.

In September 2017, the government asked citizens and residents to monitor social media channels for subversive comments against the state and report them using a mobile app that was originally meant to report traffic violations and theft. Many Saudis expressed support for these measures on social media, saying that they would enhance the country’s security.2

Saudi Arabia has long invested in sophisticated mass surveillance systems. In June 2017, a report by BBC Arabic and the Danish newspaper Dagbladet presented evidence that British aerospace and defense conglomerate BAE Systems sold Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region such systems.3 In January 2018, media reports surfaced that the government acquired a stake in Italian spyware technology company Hacking Team through intermediaries.4 Saudi Arabia continues to purchase high-tech surveillance systems from technology firms based abroad. In October 2018, the European Parliament approved a resolution calling for an embargo on sales of surveillance equipment to Saudi Arabia.5

In January 2020, a UN report found that Mohammed bin Salman may have been involved in hacking Jeff Bezos’s mobile phone in 2018 by sending a malicious file. UN officials called for a formal investigation into the allegations that Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the hacking of Bezos’s phone.6

In late 2018, activist Omar Abdulaziz filed a lawsuit against Israeli company NSO Group, whose Pegasus surveillance tool was allegedly used to monitor phone calls between him and Jamal Khashoggi.7 The Toronto-based research center Citizen Lab later concluded with “high confidence” that the NSO Group targeted him on behalf of a government customer linked to the Saudi government and security services.8 NGO Amnesty International also alleged that attempts were made to install Pegasus on the devices of Saudi activist Yahya Asiri along with one of its own staff members, as Amnesty campaigned against the arrests of Saudi women’s rights activists. Amnesty subsequently requested that Israel rescind NSO Group’s export license. 9 After the Israeli defense ministry refused, Amnesty said it would seek a legal order to compel the ministry to do so.10 In January 2020, an Israeli court rejected NSO Group’s attempt to have the case dismissed.11

In May 2019, Norway-based activist Iyad al-Baghdadi and Canada-based Omar Abdulaziz received warnings from the CIA and the Norwegian and Canadian intelligence services over potential threats to their safety originating from Saudi Arabia. Both were associates of Jamal Khashoggi and were publicly continuing his activism (see C7). A third, unnamed activist was also reportedly warned.12

In October 2018, reports emerged that in 2015, Western intelligence officials informed Twitter that Saudi intelligence authorities groomed and eventually “persuaded” a Twitter employee to spy on Saudi dissidents’ Twitter accounts. The employee, Ali al-Zabarah, joined Twitter in 2013, and was originally dismissed over these allegations in December 2015. However, Twitter executives could not find proof that al-Zabarah offered data to Saudi Arabia. Twitter subsequently informed the owners of “a few dozen” accounts reportedly accessed by al-Zabarah of a potential breach by “state-sponsored actors.” According a New York Times report, al-Zabarah now works for the Saudi government.13 In November 2019, US authorities charged al-Zabarah and Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen and a former Twitter employee, with spying for the Saudi government. A third person, Saudi citizen Ahmed al-Mutairi, was also accused of spying.14

After the coverage period, in September 2020, it was reported that an Israeli firm, Cellebrite, provided phone-hacking services to Saudi Arabia. In November 2019, a representative from Cellebrite flew to Riyadh at the request of the Saudi prosecutor’s office and helped the Kingdom hack into a Samsung cellphone. As far as it is known, the owner of the Samsung cellphone is unknown, as is the motive for the hacking.15

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 1.001 6.006

There does not appear to be specific legislation related to data retention or interception. In 2013, a Saudi company approached a security researcher for help in surveilling mobile subscribers by intercepting traffic.1 Given Saudi Arabia’s highly restrictive regime and known surveillance efforts, it is likely that telecommunication companies retain and intercept customer data for use by law enforcement agencies and state authorities.

In March 2020, the Guardian reported on data revealed by a whistleblower which showed millions of alleged secret tracking requests originating from Saudi Arabia over a four-month period from November 2019. Experts said these requests, which attempted to establish the US location of Saudi-registered mobile phones, suggested a systematic spying campaign operated by the Saudi government. The location-tracking requests specifically originated from STC, Mobily and Zain, though it was unclear if the service providers were “knowingly complicit” in a government-run surveillance program.2

Google reported that Saudi authorities made no “emergency disclosure requests” between July and December 2019.3 Three requests were issued to Twitter during the same period, though the company did not comply,4 while none were made to Facebook.5

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 1.001 5.005

The Saudi government reportedly maintains a secret campaign to monitor, detain, kidnap, and torture dissidents, which was launched by Mohammed bin Salman in 2017.1 Many individuals detained over their online activism or other activity have reported physical abuse including torture while in custody,2 and deaths have been reported.3 Some convicted of crimes have received sentences that include whipping.4 The government also targets dissidents’ relatives, and dissidents have reported threats and violence even after fleeing Saudi Arabia.

In November 2019, Human Rights Watch released a report stating that a large number of activists, clerics and other perceived government critics, including activists who worked online, continued to be detained, sexually assaulted and tortured by authorities.5

Mounting evidence strongly indicates that Jamal Khashoggi was tortured and murdered at the hands of state security agents in October 2018, who operated under the covert program launched in 2017.6 According to Turkish government reports, audio recordings indicate Khashoggi was murdered after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and his body was then dismembered by Saudi officials.7 After denying that he was killed, Saudi authorities later classified the killing as part of a “rogue operation” before admitting that it was “premeditated.”8 December 2019, five people were sentenced to death and three others were jailed over Khashoggi’s murder.9 The operation responsible for his death has reportedly performed 12 operations against Saudi citizens since 2017, according to classified reports seen by US officials. 10

In September 2018, human rights groups reported that Marwan al-Muraisy, a Yemeni writer and online activist who vanished that June, had been abducted by the Saudi government.11 In May 2019, al-Muraisy was able to call his wife to confirm he was alive, though his location remains unknown.12 In early June 2020, Saudi and Yemeni activists used social media to call for Saudi authorities to release al-Muraisy on the second anniversary of his disappearance.13

Separately, during their trial, a number of female activists arrested in May and August 2018 told the court they were subjected to torture and sexual abuse during their detention (see C3).14 Loujain al-Hathloul, who was still detained at the end of the coverage period, faced electric shocks, flogging, and threats of sexual violence, according to family members.15 In early June 2020, al-Hathloul’s sister reported she was unable to contact her for three weeks in detention, claiming the last time she was unable to reach her sister was when she was being tortured in an interrogation center.16

An increasing number of journalists who have openly scrutinized government policies in the past are considering leaving the country for fear of reprisal.17 However, Saudi-based family members and associates of exiles remain at risk of becoming targets, and dissidents living abroad have reportedly been subjected to acts of violence. In November 2019, Omar Abdulaziz claimed that over 30 influencers were blackmailed by the Saudi government with content obtained through hacking. They were reportedly given the options of tweeting progovernment propaganda or having private and potentially compromising material published on Twitter.18 Two of Omar Abdulaziz’s brothers and several friends were previously arrested in August 2018,19 supposedly to induce the dissident to cease his online activism.20

In October 2018, a man assaulted critic Ghanem al-Dosari on a London street. The perpetrator, along with another man, also criticized al-Dosari for insulting the royal family. Al-Dosari claimed the attack was carried out by Saudi government agents.21

Progovernment Twitter accounts defame and harass activists by using hashtags to call for their arrest. The government reportedly uses an “electronic army” to target dissidents on Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram (see B5). For example, after Khashoggi was killed, progovernment bots tweeted threats and violent images in order to counter social media coverage of the murder.22

Private actors have been encouraged by authorities to persecute government critics online.23 Royal advisor al-Qahtani, who reportedly manages the “electronic army” (see B5), managed online campaigns that harassed bloggers and activists, and reportedly kept a “blacklist” of government enemies, urging citizens to add the names of those engaging in purported treachery or showing an alleged lack of patriotism.24

In June 2020, Saudi television channel al-Ekhbariya broadcast a report on a trend where anonymous Twitter users carry out smear campaigns against other users. These campaigns are run by users who adopt progovernment images and slogans on their profiles, appearing to act in the Saudi government’s name and with its support. The perpetrators, sometimes using “ghost accounts,”25 target individuals by examining their Twitter history to find potentially incriminating tweets and disseminating them to a wider audience. According to the report, the trend has made Twitter a less welcoming platform for Saudis, many of whom face intimidation, threats, and accusations that they are “traitors.”26 High-profile Saudi users have long complained about this issue.27 Publicly prominent individuals of mixed ethnic backgrounds, including those with government links, are often targeted; this is apparently linked to the rise of hypernationalism in the Saudi online environment and civil society.28

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 1.001 3.003

While activists and government critics have experienced cyberattacks, such as the malicious installation of spyware on their phones, government-linked web accounts have also been targeted. For example, the Twitter account of the Citizen Accounts Program—a national cash-transfer program—was hacked in January 2018.1 That September, Microsoft published an intelligence report warning that Saudi Arabia was vulnerable to cyberattacks due to nonsecure consumer behavior and inadequate security measures, with botnets highlighted as particular concerns. According to that report, 43 percent of bots in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries originate from Riyadh.2

A number of public and private institutions and projects have faced security breaches in recent years. In October 2018, the Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics, a research group owned by the Russian state, was reportedly linked to a cyberattack that resulted in a Saudi petrochemical plant’s explosion in 2017.3 According to March 2018 press reports, cyberattacks on petrochemical companies previously occurred in 2016.4

In early November 2017, the government launched the National Cybersecurity Authority (NCA), a central authority aiming to bolster its cybersecurity apparatus and protect core interests and national security. The agency is also tasked with fortifying the country’s networks and IT systems.5 In September 2018, the NCA announced a new cyberresilience program, with the aim of training 800 participants; the program’s subsequent status was unclear. That June, the NCA signed an agreement with the education ministry that funded 1,000 cybersecurity degrees over five years.6

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabian entities experienced several cyberattacks during the coverage period. In January 2020, authorities discovered a new data-wiping malware program that cybersecurity analysts believed was linked to Iran.7 In February 2020, the chief information security officer of national oil company Saudi Aramco reported that it experienced an increase in attempted cyberattacks since the fourth quarter of 2019.8

In June 2019, the Guardian was warned that a “cybersecurity unit” in Saudi Arabia targeted it, with the aim of hacking into email accounts of journalists investigating the Saudi royal court.9

On Saudi Arabia

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

See More
  • Global Freedom Score

    7 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    26 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes