Saudi Arabia

Not Free
24
100
A Obstacles to Access 12 25
B Limits on Content 8 35
C Violations of User Rights 4 40
Last Year's Score & Status
26 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

Internet freedom remained highly restricted in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government increasingly seeks to expand high-quality internet access across the country; however, the restrictive absolute monarchy limits the range of information available online. Authorities operate extensive censorship and surveillance systems and lend their backing to online networks of bots and accounts that disseminate progovernment messaging and attack perceived dissenters. Activists, journalists, government employees, and other professionals cite a climate of fear in which many feel compelled to self-censor or engage in progovernment discourse online. Critics, activists, and others perceived to voice dissent online face severe punishment, including harassment and arrest. Despite this, several human rights activists were conditionally released or had their prison sentences and travel bans reduced during the coverage period.

The 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, 2020 - May 31, 2021

  • In February 2021, women who recounted their negative experiences at Dar al-Reaya, a Saudi prison for women, online had their videos taken down. Furthermore, Twitter accounts claiming to “reveal problems” at Dar al-Reaya have been suspended (see B2).
  • Authorities continued to disproportionately and opaquely remove content and suspend social media accounts during the reporting period. In 2020, members of the Indigenous al-Huwaitat tribe allegedly had their social media accounts deactivated by Saudi authorities after they criticized a government construction project that was set to displace 20,000 members (see B2, B3, and C7).
  • In March 2021, a coordinated campaign of Saudi-based Twitter accounts using fake profile pictures, repetitive wording, and other tactics sought to shape the public narrative surrounding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (see B5).
  • In April 2021, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) handed aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan a 20-year prison sentence and a subsequent 20-year travel ban for allegedly using a satirical Twitter account to mock the Saudi government (see C3).
  • In February 2021, high-profile women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was conditionally released from prison. She is likely to remain under close government watch under the terms of her release, which includes a 5-year travel ban and other restrictions (see C3, C5, and C7).
  • In December 2020, reports emerged that 36 staff members of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera were hacked by spyware sold by Israeli technology firm NSO Group in attacks allegedly ordered by authorities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (see C5 and C8).
  • In January 2021, a 26-year-old Saudi woman was killed by her brothers, allegedly after discovering she had opened a public Snapchat account (see C7).

A Obstacles to Access

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

Rapid growth in internet and communications technologies (ICTs) has produced robust infrastructure and widespread access to the internet, with 33.6 million internet users in Saudi Arabia as of January 2021,1 up from 28.9 million in 2019.2 In January 2021, the count of mobile subscribers was 39.5 million, equivalent to 112.7 percent of the population. This represented a 1.2 percent decrease from January 2020.3

The Saudi Arabian industry regulator, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), has pressed forward with its 5G hardware rollout plan, and as of October 2020 was awaiting classification as a 5G regulator by the International Telecommunication Union.4 Mobile service providers continued their 5G expansion programs, with the Saudi Telecom Company (STC), Zain, and Mobily developing 5G partnerships with equipment vendors such as Huawei, Nokia, Cisco, and Ericsson.5 In December 2020, TAWAL, an STC subsidiary and tower network infrastructure manager, announced a partnership with Nokia to retrofit and replace 4G cell towers in the west and south of the country..6

According to BuddeComm, a telecommunications research company, Saudi Arabia has a low rate of fixed-line broadband penetration and DSL represents a majority of the market, though fiber-optic development was reported as significant.7 In May 2021, Saudi Arabia ranked fifth in the world by mobile internet speed, with an average speed of 115.8 Mbps.8

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—home to about 16 percent of the population in 2019 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 continued efforts to improve connectivity in these regions alongside major service providers. In September 2020, Zain began deploying 5G services in the cities of Qurayyat, Ras Tanura, and Tabarjal.3

According to UK-based firm Cable, the average monthly cost of consumer broadband in 2021 was $107 per month, up from $83 per month in 2020.4 According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Inclusive Internet Index 2021, Saudi Arabia ranks 87th out of 120 countries in internet affordability, down from 60th place in 2020.5 The EIU noted an uncompetitive environment and rising mobile-phone costs in its 2021 assessment.6 Several internet service providers (ISPs) provide zero-rating services, offering some content or services for free.

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.

Regulators and telecommunication companies have historically taken an aggressive stance against free or low-cost Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services that potentially reduce the amount of standard mobile calls, circumvent the regulatory environment, and sometimes bypass the country’s surveillance apparatus. ISPs and the CITC have previously blocked VoIP apps including Viber,1 WhatsApp,2 and FaceTime.3,4 Integrated chat systems on certain social media websites, including Facebook Messenger, have also been blocked in the past.5 A 2-year study completed in April 2020 by researchers at the University of California, Riverside and Taibah University found that nearly all previously blocked messaging services, including WhatsApp, were accessible.6 Saudi users report reliable service on VoIP platforms such as Signal, Telegram, Google Duo, Skype, and FaceTime, though they report that WhatsApp calls remain blocked.7

While the reasons behind the historical blocking of VoIP services have never been formally disclosed either by Saudi authorities or providers, local observers are of the opinion that this is a combination of protectionary measures on behalf of service providers and an attempt to limit encrypted communications (see C4). One prominent Saudi journalist noted that the government-controlled CITC and service providers previously blamed each other for the unavailability of these services, with each side claiming that decisions on access were the other’s responsibility. According to the journalist, financial and security concerns were possible reasons for the CITC and providers to restrict VoIP services.8

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.9

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. 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 market entry 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

Major service providers have been accused by campaigners and trade associations of engaging in unfair trade practices in the past, such as arbitrary price hikes.3 In December 2020, the General Authority for Competition fined STC $2.7 million for “abusing its dominant position,” though no further details on the specific infractions were provided.4

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 foreign-ownership rules and other regulatory hurdles. In December 2020, Google announced it would begin providing cloud-computing infrastructure in Saudi Arabia through a joint venture with Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company.5 That same month, STC finalized a $500 million deal with a subsidiary of Chinese technology firm Alibaba for similar services.6

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.7 The CITC granted unified licenses to Zain and Mobily in 2016; previously, only STC was permitted to operate with one.8 Unified licenses allow providers to offer integrated packages, increasing the services they can offer to consumers and their market competitiveness. In March 2020, the administrative court in Riyadh rejected GO’s appeal, providing no reason for its ruling.9 The matter was reportedly under investigation as of that April, though the outcome of the matter was unclear.10

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. Abdallah bin Amer al-Sawaha2 has held the post since April 2017.3 There is no public evidence of explicit legal guarantees protecting the CITC from political or commercial interference. As with all other sectors, telecommunications policy is subject to government influence, especially as the Saudi government seeks to implement bin Salman’s Vision 2030 agenda.

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 cross-network calls (see A4).

The CITC regularly imposes fines on service providers for various violations, including those relating to the internet. However, specific information on the nature of infractions is rarely provided, therefore making it difficult to judge to what extent these penalties result from stakeholders’ feedback. For example, in January 2021, the CITC fined STC, Mobily, Lebara, and Zain a combined $10.7 million for a range of violations, including “failing to comply with the CITC’s decisions regarding a number of user complaints.”4 No further information on the complaints was available.

The CITC has regulated cloud computing since early 2018, establishing registration, disclosure, and other requirements for cloud service providers.5 In February 2019, the CITC published a revision 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

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 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 were blocked in the country between 2007 and 2020.1

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 June 2021.3 Saudi authorities frequently block news and other websites due to geopolitical considerations. Some Qatari, Iranian, and Turkish news sites were blocked in 2017, 2018, and 2020 respectively, amid continued political tensions between those countries and Saudi Arabia.4 News sites with opposing views to the Saudi government are also blocked, including the website of Beirut-based broadcaster al-Manar, which is considered pro-Hezbollah and pro-Damascus.5

The government routinely blocks websites disseminating violent extremist content, as well as those related to pornography, gambling, drugs, and websites used to distribute copyrighted materials.6 Following a June 2020 “online inspection campaign,” the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property (SAIP), a government agency established in 2018, blocked 231 websites. These included sites where users downloaded or streamed digital content including music, films, and e-books, along with encrypted sports channels. According to SAIP’s statement, those infringing copyright laws face fines as large as $66,000, while site owners face the revocation of their commercial licenses and prison terms as long as six months.7

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 2019.8

Websites and social media pages belonging to human rights or political organizations, such as Avaaz and the National Assembly Party, a prodemocracy political party founded by Saudi dissidents abroad, are blocked.9

Popular social media and communication apps are not consistently blocked, although authorities have imposed restrictions on their use. Telegram faced temporary throttling from January 2016, when users reported severe bandwidth limitations preventing file and image sharing.10 Users report that the service 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 virtual private network (VPN) to bypass censorship.11 However, the websites of many circumvention tools, such as Tor and major VPN providers, are blocked by the government.12

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, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 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.

The Saudi government has made several content takedown requests that received a high degree of publicity, with commentators often accusing social media companies of complicity with government 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 the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (see B5) and criticized Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen from its Saudi catalog. 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 September 2020, Netflix executive Reed Hastings disclosed that the company agreed to remove the episode in exchange for the approval of other programs, some of which included sexual content.3

Saudi dissidents and political activists who post content critical of the Saudi government from outside the country have reported incidents where platforms like Facebook and Twitter have removed content or blocked access to their accounts.4 In February 2021, Newslines Magazine reported that women who published content recounting their experiences in the Dar al-Reaya prison for females in need of “social correction” had their videos taken down. According to the article, Twitter accounts claiming to “reveal problems” at Dar al-Reaya were suspended.5 In 2020, several social media accounts belonging to members of the Indigenous al-Huwaitat tribe were removed by the authorities after they criticized the government (see B3 and C7).6

According to a Google transparency report, the Saudi government made 14 content-removal requests relating to impersonation, copyright, fraud, and regulated goods and services between July and December 2020.7 According to Twitter’s January–July 2020 transparency report, the government made two emergency removal requests, though the report does not indicate whether Twitter complied.8 Facebook reported no data requests in 2020.9

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? 1.001 4.004

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to the lack of transparency around website blocks and content takedowns by Saudi authorities.

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 A digital-filtering study (see B1) found that most filtering is based on HTTP filtering, augmented with transport layer security–level filtering for HTTPS connections.2

Content restrictions are usually opaque. For example, in late 2020, the Indigenous al-Huwaitat tribe claimed that members’ social media accounts were deactivated by Saudi authorities after they criticized a government construction project that was set to displace 20,000 of the tribe's members (see B2 and C7).3

The government receives blocking requests from members of the public, who can use a web-based form to submit a complaint regarding “undesirable” material.4 Once an individual submits the form, a team of CITC employees determines whether the request is justified.5

Data service providers must block all sites banned by the CITC,6 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.7

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.8

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 or otherwise scrutinize government policy, are closely monitored and often targeted by the government (see C5). In December 2020, a financial analyst questioned the government’s decision to increase value-added tax from 5 percent to 15 percent via Twitter but deleted the tweet moments after posting, which a local journalist described as a “sign of the current atmosphere of fear related to any perceived criticism of government policy.”1

Foreign correspondents have cited difficulties in obtaining quotes or information from Saudi industry professionals, including economists, on issues like unemployment. On several occasions, journalists for international news outlets have had interview requests denied on the basis of their outlets being “too negative” about Saudi Arabia.2 Some commentators attribute this to a fear on the part of professionals of associating with organizations perceived as critical of 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. Many women continue to be discouraged by their families from sharing photographs or disclosing their names online, with many using pseudonyms. Some have faced repercussions from family members, including physical assault, for flouting these moral codes.3

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.

According to one prominent Saudi journalist, the “margin for free expression has shrunk significantly” in recent years in both print and online media, especially when concerning bin Salman and Vision 2030. According to the journalist, authorities have generally succeeded in framing any outside criticism of bin Salman or his plans as an attack on the country, and the state-sponsored rise of ultranationalism in recent years “makes it nearly impossible for anyone to openly deviate from that message dictated from the top.”4

The threat of imprisonment, coupled with the risk of being labelled a traitor by loyalist media outlets,5 has also led journalists and activists to self-censor (see B5 and C3).6 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 government.7 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.8

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 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 government actors employ permanent staff to spread disinformation and government propaganda.2 Human rights and technology experts refer to the recent tightening of control over the online environment, social media manipulation, and use of technology to repress critics as “digital authoritarianism.”3

Following the August 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut, verified Twitter accounts linked to Saudi Arabia blamed Hezbollah for the blast. The hashtag “Hezbollah’s Ammonia Burns Beirut” was trending within 24 hours, despite Hezbollah and Lebanese authorities denying their involvement. Intelligence sources claimed the disinformation was disseminated by four verified Saudi-linked accounts, which have spread disinformation with the intent of impacting Iranian interests in the region in recent years.4

The Saudi government has also invested in online outlets that help promote its narrative across various channels, often in association with foreign news organizations. In November 2020, the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), the country’s largest publisher that maintains long-term links to the royal family, launched a television channel in a $90 million partnership with Bloomberg. However, concerns over SRMG’s level of editorial control reportedly surfaced within Bloomberg, leading that outlet to reduce its role and exposure. Bloomberg removed its name from the wider channel, Asharq News, though its brand remains attached to the channel’s business segment.5 In 2018, the Independent, a British newspaper, launched an agreement with SMRG to create news sites, with Independent Arabia launching in 2019. That July, the UK government claimed that the Independent was partially owned by the Saudi government via transactions facilitated by businessman Evgeny Lebedev.6

In March 2021, the Washington Post reported on a coordinated campaign of Saudi-based Twitter accounts meant to shape the public narrative surrounding Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This began before the publication of a US intelligence report concluding that bin Salman “approved” the operation that led to the murder. Twitter suspended 3,500 accounts used to comment on the report, though the firm could not determine the source of the campaign.7

In 2018, 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.8 Participants were given lists of dissidents to target on platforms including Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram, along with reported daily quotas. That October, it emerged that royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani reportedly shaped media coverage through a WhatsApp group whose members included Saudi newspaper editors and notable journalists.9 While al-Qahtani was dismissed from his advisory role that month after being implicated in Khashoggi’s killing, Saudi rights activists claimed that he remained active behind the scenes, including through running the “electronic army.”10

Scholars have warned that Riyadh has proven largely successful in bringing Twitter, which was popularly used by Saudis to exchange views, under its effective control (see B7).11 In addition to long-standing efforts to shape public discourse on domestic and regional events, the government also uses bots and inauthentic accounts to disseminate propaganda and disinformation, including hate speech, antisemitism, and conspiracy theories regarding the Khashoggi murder.12 Since 2019, Facebook has removed several hundred government-linked pages used in influence campaigns, while Twitter has blocked tens of thousands of accounts that amplified progovernment messages to local and international audiences.13 However, researchers have questioned social media firms’ potential complicity; Twitter, for example, has reportedly failed to explain its reasoning for hiding archived material related to al-Qahtani. 14

Saudi professionals, particularly government employees, feel compelled to ensure their online presence and activities align to the state’s agenda and narrative. In August 2020, London-based publication Arab Weekly cited a Saudi government employee who made anti-Qatar statements on Twitter to avoid accusations of “being unpatriotic.”15 Riyadh engaged in a diplomatic dispute with Qatar between June 2017 and January 2021, which involved a wide-ranging blockade against the latter.16

In June 2020, a debate on Saudi state-television channel Al-Ekhbariya suggested that such campaigns may be slipping out of the government’s control. The hosts questioned the sustainability of Riyadh’s social media strategy, though the debate’s participants were themselves subjected to attacks on Twitter following the program’s airing.17

The government frequently issues warnings and guidelines to reporters and internet users. In April 2021, the Interior Ministry issued a statement warning that those who spread rumors or publish purportedly false information about the COVID-19 pandemic would face imprisonment, fines, or both.18

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

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 to pressure it to close. Restrictions on foreign funding further inhibit the sustainability of websites critical of the government.

Online and print outlets cannot operate without explicit approval from the highest levels of government.1 The Media Ministry stipulates licensing requirements for those seeking to publish online. 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” within society.2

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability? 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 venues 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 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 April 2019, at least 15 writers, bloggers, and journalists were arrested nationwide, all of whom had previously engaged in public discourse on reform, with no reason for their detention publicized by authorities. Another crackdown on online activists was launched that November (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. Information on certain minority groups, such as the LGBT+ population, is largely unavailable. In July 2020, a Saudi court imprisoned Yemeni blogger Mohamad al-Bokari for a social media post supporting LGBT+ rights (see C3).

Opposition figures abroad use YouTube to distribute content since their websites are blocked within the country.7 Dissidents Omar Abdulaziz and Ghanem al-Dosari, for example, produce politically themed shows that criticize progovernment propaganda. Both have experienced several instances of their Twitter and Facebook accounts being blocked in Saudi Arabia (see B2). Within the country, scholars note that Twitter previously served as a popular platform for debate, and was even considered as a “substitute for parliament,” but has since fallen under effective government control.8 This was done through various means, including strict policing, blocking individuals’ access to their accounts, state-sponsored intimidation, and increasingly through the manipulation of trending algorithms by automated accounts and government employees (see B5). This “clampdown” has resulted in many formerly active participants abandoning platforms like Twitter, while others steer clear of debate.9 Saudi journalists liken the current atmosphere on Twitter to a “hellscape” by virtue of state surveillance and the domination of ultranationalist voices.10

During the coverage period, the invitation-only audio-chat app Clubhouse gained popularity among Saudi social media users. However, local commentators note that Saudi citizens are reluctant to join conversations hosted by Saudi dissidents for fear of monitoring by state intelligence services (see C5).11 Saudi journalists compared the engagement on Clubhouse to the initial excitement surrounding Twitter before government campaigns altered that platform’s environment. Nonetheless, commentators also reported a sense of pessimism that any new platform can provide any level of neutral, safe debate, noting the government’s ability to “dominate and manipulate” those platforms through similar tactics.12 Progovernment commentators have warned Saudis against using Clubhouse, claiming the platform hosts discussions that can “harm society,” including conversations “questioning people’s beliefs and religions.”13

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 many basic decisions without a male relative’s supervision. After months of campaigning, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud 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). The government has also sought to discourage online activism by detaining individuals linked to dissidents abroad (see C7). In 2020, hundreds of women used social media to share experiences of sexual harassment under the “Why I didn’t report it” hashtag. Twitter users claimed they faced social media smear campaigns after posting about their experiences, with some users self-censoring 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 Several other Saudi women have fled the country and garnered media attention over their stories; individuals seeking asylum cited family abuse, the enforcement of religious practices, and fear of state retribution for their political views.4

In July 2020, Reuters reported on a campaign by thousands of Saudi Twitter users who accused ousted former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef and aide Saad al-Jabri of corruption. Saudi sources claimed this was the result of a government-backed smear campaign against bin Nayef—who is currently under house arrest in the country— ahead of a possible corruption-related indictment.5 Al-Jabri is in exile in Canada, while his two adult children were detained by Saudi authorities in March 2020.6

C Violations of User Rights

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 currently has no constitution, though the government announced plans in February 2021 to move towards an entirely codified law.1 The Basic Law of Saudi Arabia contains language that calls for freedom of speech and of the press, but only within certain boundaries. The Law of Print and Publication also addresses freedom-of-expression issues, though it largely consists of restrictions on speech rather than protections.2 Online journalists employed at newspapers and other formal news outlets maintain the same rights and protections as print and broadcast journalists and are similarly subject to close government supervision.3

Judges have significant discretion in how they interpret Sharia (Islamic law), which forms the basis of Saudi law.4 However, the judiciary is also largely subordinate to the executive branch.5

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 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’ imprisonment 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 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 In June 2020, Saudi authorities amended Article 12 of the antiterrorism law, allowing the Public Prosecution to temporarily release detainees accused of breaching the law so long as they do not represent a flight risk and their release does not impact investigations.3

International rights groups have condemned the antiterrorism law 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.4 UN human rights experts repeated these assertions in March 2019 in relation to an upcoming trial of women’s rights activists (see C3).5 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.”6

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 0.000 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 due to a 20-year prison sentence handed down to a Red Crescent aid worker for allegedly using a satirical Twitter account to mock the Saudi government.

Restrictive laws are rigorously applied to silence critical voices and human rights defenders—many of whom operate primarily online due to 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.

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 for sharing rumors and “news from unknown sources” on social media about the coronavirus. He reportedly faced a five-year prison sentence and an $800,000 fine under Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law.1 In May 2020, Saudi daily Arab News reported that several other citizens had been arrested for spreading “false claims” related to the pandemic. These reportedly related to methods of curbing the virus’s spread, warnings of food shortages, and suggestions that health authorities were deliberately concealing the number of cases.2 The status of these cases is unclear, with no further details being subsequently published.

In April 2021, the SCC handed Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, a 37-year-old Red Crescent aid worker, a 20-year prison sentence and a subsequent 20-year travel ban for allegedly using a satirical Twitter account to mock the government. The SCC was initially founded in 2008 to try terrorism cases but has since been used extensively to imprison human rights activists and defenders. Al-Sadhan was initially forcibly disappeared in March 2018 after being kidnapped from the Saudi Red Crescent’s Riyadh headquarters according to his mother and sister, who are US citizens and did not hear from him for 23 months following his disappearance. Al-Sadhan’s case is reportedly connected to the 2014–15 infiltration of Twitter by government agents (see C5).3

In July 2020, a Saudi court sentenced Mohamad al-Bokari, a Yemeni blogger who fled to Saudi Arabia in June 2019 after receiving threats from armed groups in Yemen, to 10 months’ imprisonment followed by his deportation, along with a 10,000 riyal ($2,700) fine, after he called for equal rights for LGBT+ people in a video posted to Twitter. Al-Bokari was charged with violating public morality and with “imitating women.”4

Also in July 2020, reports emerged that former deputy finance minister Abdulaziz al-Dakhil was arrested that April after Saudi authorities broke into his home, seized documents and assets, and subsequently froze his bank account, according to al-Dakhil’s son Abdulhakim.5 Al-Dakhil was reportedly arrested after he eulogized dissident Abdullah al-Hamid, who died in detention after suffering a stroke, via Twitter (see C7). Al-Dakhil was believed to be held in detention as of March 2021, with no charges formally announced.6 According to Middle East Eye, journalist Aql al-Bahili and activist Sultan al-Ajmi were also detained in April 2020 for posting condolences following al-Hamid’s death on Twitter.7

In December 2020, US-Saudi physician Walid al-Fitaihi received a six-year prison term after he was convicted of charges including obtaining US citizenship without permission, supporting a “terrorist organization,” and “disobedience against the state’s rulers.” Al-Fitaihi—who was first arrested in November 2017 for social media posts criticizing the killings of peaceful protesters since the Arab Spring movement of 2011—received a reduction in his sentence to three years and a suspension of his remaining prison time in January 2021. According to court documents, al-Fitaihi’s six-year travel ban was cut to 38 months.8

In November 2019, Saudi authorities detained at least 15 journalists, bloggers, and activists, with several of them reportedly arrested over “intellectual activities.”9 Most of those detained were reportedly previously active on pro–Arab Spring social media pages and websites, although they subsequently stopped writing publicly and kept low profiles. Some detainees were released later that month,10 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.11 In February 2021, Salah al-Haidar and Bader al-Ibrahim, two detainees who both hold US citizenship, were bailed pending their trials.12

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 13 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.13 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.14 He faces 37 charges, including inciting public discord and membership in the Muslim Brotherhood.15 In May 2019, Middle East Eye reported that all three clerics would be sentenced to death and executed after Ramadan.16 However, in October 2019, the verdict in al-Awdah’s trial was reportedly postponed.17 A closed court session was reportedly held in March 2021 and another session was due in July.18 Brother Khaled received a five-year prison sentence and a travel ban in November 2020 for “inciting discord” after expressing solidarity with his brother on social media.19

Several prominent women’s rights activists who were arrested as early as mid-2018 remain in detention or in prison. These include Maya’a al-Zahrani, Alam al-Harbi Shadan al-Anezi, Samar Badawi, and Nassima al-Sadah, who were mostly arrested because of their peaceful activism online. For example, Badawi’s charges were linked to her human rights activism on social media as well as “communicating with foreign entities,” while al-Zahrani was reportedly arrested after posting social media comments relating to the arrest of fellow activist Nouf Abdulaziz.20 Al-Zahrani and Loujain al-Hathloul received sentences of nearly six years in December 2020,21 though al-Hathloul and Nouf Abdulaziz were conditionally released in February 2021.22 The rest remained in detention as of June 2021, facing prison sentences for their activism under Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. All the above women engaged in online campaigns promoting women’s rights, and most were initially held without formal charges (see B8).23 Al-Hathloul, a particularly high-profile activist, will likely remain under close government watch under the restrictive terms of her conditional release.24 In March 2021, al-Hathloul’s appeal of a five-year travel ban, one of the conditions, was denied.25

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. Individuals are required to use their legal names when signing mobile-service contracts and must provide a national identification card or residence permit.2 This information is then shared with a database maintained by the Interior Ministry.3

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.4 The CITC said the new requirement is meant to “limit the negative effects and violations in the use of communication services.”5 The new regulation built upon previous requirements to register subscribers' legal names and identity numbers, even to recharge a prepaid mobile card,6 which were often circumvented in practice.7

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.

Saudi Arabia has long invested in sophisticated mass surveillance systems. In June 2017, a report by BBC Arabic and Danish newspaper Dagbladet presented evidence that British aerospace and defense conglomerate BAE Systems sold Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region such systems.2 In January 2018, media reports surfaced that the government acquired a stake in Italian spyware technology company Hacking Team through intermediaries.3 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.4

In September 2020, reports surfaced that Israeli firm Cellebrite provided phone-hacking services to Saudi Arabia. In November 2019, a Cellebrite representative reportedly visited Riyadh at the request of a Saudi prosecutor and hacked into a mobile phone. The motive of the hack and the owner of the mobile phone were both unknown.5

In December 2020, reports emerged that 36 Al-Jazeera staff members were hacked via spyware sold by the Israeli NSO Group. Researchers at Toronto-based Citizen Lab concluded with “medium confidence” that the attacks were carried out on behalf of the Saudi and Emirati governments, while stating that the reported hacks were likely only a minority of the total attacks in this case.6 Specifically, Al-Jazeera journalist Ghada Oueiss described a “suspicious” process associated with NSO Group’s Pegasus surveillance tool present within her mobile phone (see C8).7 Oueiss covered issues sensitive to the Saudi government, including the Jamal Khashoggi murder.

In late 2018, activist Omar Abdulaziz filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group, whose Pegasus tool was allegedly used to monitor phone calls between him and Khashoggi.8 Citizen Lab later concluded with “high confidence” that the NSO Group targeted him on behalf of a customer linked to the Saudi government.9 Amnesty International also alleged that attempts were made to use Pegasus against a staff member as well as Saudi activist Yahya Asiri, as Amnesty campaigned against the arrests of Saudi women’s rights activists. Amnesty subsequently requested that Israel rescind the NSO Group’s export license.10 After the Israeli defense ministry refused, Amnesty said it would seek a legal order to compel the ministry to do so.11 In January 2020, an Israeli court rejected the NSO Group’s attempt to have the case dismissed.12

In May 2019, Norway-based activist Iyad al-Baghdadi and Canada-based Omar Abdulaziz, both whom were both associates of Khashoggi and continued his activism, received warnings from US, Norwegian, and Canadian intelligence services over potential threats originating from Saudi Arabia (see C7). A third, unnamed activist was also reportedly warned.13

In 2015, Western intelligence officials reportedly warned Twitter that their Saudi counterparts had “persuaded” an employee, Ali al-Zabarah, to spy on the accounts of Saudi dissidents; reports of this emerged in October 2018. Al-Zabarah was dismissed over the allegations in December 2015. While the firm found no proof of al-Zabarah offering data to Riyadh, it did inform owners of “a few dozen” accounts reportedly accessed by al-Zabarah of potential breaches. According to a New York Times report, al-Zabarah subsequently became a Saudi government employee.14 In November 2019, US authorities charged al-Zabarah and Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen and a former Twitter employee, with spying for Riyadh, along with Saudi citizen Ahmed al-Mutairi.15 In July 2020, a US-based Saudi dissident reportedly targeted by Riyadh sued Twitter on grounds including “reckless endangerment,” claiming a 2016 hack of his account led to the torture and deaths of whistleblowers within Saudi Arabia.16

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 1.001 6.006

Given Saudi Arabia’s highly restrictive regime and known surveillance efforts, telecommunications companies likely retain and intercept customer data for use by law enforcement agencies and state authorities. In October 2020, the Saudi government published interim data-governance regulations informing how government entities will collect and use personal data online. The regulations include “requirements around obtaining consent from Data Subjects, maintaining data localization within Saudi Arabia, and limiting personal data collection to data that is necessary and relevant to the activities of Data Controllers.” Users have the right to be informed of the legal rationale behind the collection and processing of data. Data collectors will be expected to store and process data within the country to ensure “digital national sovereignty” unless they obtain written approval.1

In March 2020, the Guardian reported on data revealed by a whistleblower which showed millions of alleged secret location-tracking requests originating via STC, Mobily, and Zain between November 2019 and February 2020. According to experts, the efforts to establish the US location of Saudi-registered mobile phones suggested a systematic spying campaign orchestrated by the Saudi government, though it was unclear if the mobile service providers were “knowingly complicit.” 2

Google reported that Saudi authorities made no “emergency disclosure requests” between January and June 2020.3 Two requests were issued to Twitter during that 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 relation to their online activities? 1.001 5.005

The Saudi government reportedly maintains a secret campaign to monitor, detain, kidnap, and torture dissidents, which bin Salman launched 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.

Reports of torture have frequently surfaced in relation to those detained and imprisoned for their online activities, including US-Saudi doctor al-Fitaihi and women’s rights activist al-Hathloul (see C3).5 In November 2020, the London-based NGO Grant Liberty reported that 51 prisoners of conscience faced torture or ill-treatment. Some have died in custody, including Abdullah al-Hamid, who died in April 2020 after he did not receive medical care.6

In late 2020, the al-Huwaitat tribe called for a UN investigation after several of its members were allegedly arrested, abducted, and harassed, with some of their social media accounts deactivated by Saudi authorities (see B2 and B3). This came after tribe members had criticized NEOM, a planned urban-construction project that may displace 20,000 tribe members. In April 2020, Saudi security forces killed Abdul Rahim Ahmad Mahmoud al-Hwaiti, who vocally criticized the NEOM project online, after he refused to surrender his home to make way for the project. Government authorities claim he was killed in a “gun battle” at his home.7 Aliaa Abutayah, a London-based activist from the same tribe, reported that she received death threats from Saudi agents for opposing the government.8

In January 2021, a 26-year-old Saudi woman identified as Qamar was killed by her brothers, allegedly after discovering she had opened a public Snapchat account. When Qamar’s sister, identified in reporting as Manal, attempted to start an online campaign to bring her brothers to justice, police in Al-Kharj Governorate temporarily detained her for “publicizing the murder” on social media.9 In a video posted online later that month, the sisters’ mother appealed for Mohammed bin Salman to intervene.10 It is unclear whether the brothers were charged with her murder.

In a declassified February 2021 report, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that bin Salman approved the October 2018 torture and murder of Jamal Khashoggi.11 After denying that he was killed, Saudi authorities later classified the killing as part of a “rogue operation” before admitting that it was “premeditated.”12 In December 2019, five people were sentenced to death and three others were jailed over Khashoggi’s murder.13 The group responsible for his death has reportedly performed 12 operations against Saudi citizens since 2017, according to classified reports seen by US officials. 14

As of March 2021, rights campaigners continued to call for the release of Marwan al-Muraisy, a Yemeni writer and online activist who was reportedly abducted by the Saudi government in June 2018. The charges against him and his location remain unknown.15

In June 2020, two female Al-Jazeera journalists, Ghada Oueiss and Ola al-Fares, faced a misogynistic campaign executed via Saudi social media accounts, which experts described as “industrial level.” Thousands of primarily Saudi-based accounts, which displayed the national flag and progovernment imagery, levelled “sexual allegations and innuendo” against the journalists. Oueiss’s mobile phone was reportedly hacked and images of her wearing a swimsuit were leaked (see C8). Both journalists had recently covered issues sensitive to Saudi Arabia, including the Khashoggi murder. Qatar-based academic Marc Owen Jones, who focuses on disinformation in the region, noted that while many of the accounts targeting Oueiss and al-Fares were acting in contravention of Saudi law, no action was taken by the government. Jones also claimed that the campaign was “amplified” by local news outlets reporting unverified tweets relating to the journalists.16

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).17 Loujain al-Hathloul, who was conditionally released in February 2021, faced electric shocks, flogging, and threats of sexual violence according to family members.18 Notably, members of al-Hathloul’s family, who are based abroad and campaign on her behalf, announced they would appeal her suspended prison sentence and called on the government to hold accountable those accused of torturing her during her detention. A Saudi appeals court rejected the claims in February 2021.19

An increasing number of journalists who have openly scrutinized government policies in the past are considering leaving the country for fear of reprisal.20 However, Saudi-based family members and associates of exiles risk becoming targets and dissidents living abroad have reportedly been subjected to acts of violence. During the reporting period, Canada-based Omar Abdulaziz states that his two younger brothers, along with at least 22 friends, have been detained in a Jeddah prison, in an apparent attempt to force Abdulaziz to cease his activities.21 When contributing to the November 2020 Grant Liberty report, Abdullah al-Ghamdi, a Saudi activist who received asylum from the United Kingdom in 2012, reported that his brother and mother were arrested and tortured in front of each other because of his activism.22

Private actors have been encouraged by authorities to persecute government critics online.23 Royal adviser 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 Subsequent evidence suggests that citizens have adopted those tactics, contributing to a climate of fear. After Loujain al-Hathloul was conditionally released in February 2021, a Clubhouse discussion room established to discuss the issue quickly “descended into chaos” and was shut down after some speakers accused other participants of being traitors, threatening to take screenshots of attendees’ names and report them to the authorities.25

In June 2020, Al-Ekhbariya reported on smear campaigns being waged by anonymous Twitter users against other users on the platform. The users, who display progovernment images and slogans and act with Riyadh’s apparent support, employ “ghost accounts,”26 search for incriminating Twitter posts, and disseminate their targets’ posts to a wider audience. According to the report, Saudi Twitter users face intimidation, threats, and accusations of betraying the government.27 High-profile Saudi users have been known to complain about the resulting environment.28 Prominent users with mixed ethnic backgrounds, including those linked to the government, are commonly targeted, as hypernationalism becomes more prevalent online and offline.29

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.30 In late 2016, he was banned from using Twitter and making televised appearances after criticizing then US president Donald Trump;31 the ban was lifted in August 2017.32 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 for his safety in Saudi Arabia.33 Evidence strongly indicates that Khashoggi was tortured and murdered at the hands of state security agents in October 2018 (see C5).34

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 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 May 2020, researchers at Bitdefender, a Romanian cybersecurity company, found that Chafer, a hacking group with apparent links to Iran, targeted Saudi air-transport and government entities as far back as 2018.5

The Saudi government has reportedly been tied to attacks on foreign news outlets and journalists. In June 2019, the Guardian was warned that a Saudi “cybersecurity unit” targeted it, with the aim of hacking into email accounts of journalists investigating the royal court (see C5).6 In December 2020, Al-Jazeera journalist Ghada Oueiss filed a lawsuit in a US federal court; in it, Oueiss accused Mohammed bin Salman, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nayhan, UAE-based cybersecurity firm DarkMatter, and several alleged coconspirators of involvement in a hacking operation that targeted her (see C7).7

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

    24 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes