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
24 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Overview

Internet freedom remained highly restricted in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities continued with plans to digitize and expand internet connectivity across the country, as well as to increasingly regulate the online sphere. The government uses its absolute power to severely restrict individuals’ online activities as well as the information they have access to. Censorship and high-tech surveillance systems remain prevalent in the country, with the Saudi leadership increasing its reliance on global providers of spyware software to monitor the online footprint of Saudi residents. Activists based in Saudi Arabia and abroad must increasingly contend with networks of trolls and “inauthentic accounts” or bots that spread progovernment propaganda and launch smear campaigns against critics of the government. Saudi authorities continue to jail, detain, and torture those they deem to have crossed a red line in terms of their online activities.

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, 2021 - May 31, 2022

  • In November 2021, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) proposed the Digital Content Platform Regulations. The framework includes requirements for online content platforms to comply with content removal requests, local data protection legislation, and to obtain registration certificates from the CITC (see B2, B6, and C6).
  • Progovernment commentators and automatic online accounts continued to target dissenting online voices through harassment and smear campaigns. Progovernment trolls spread disinformation on social media around Tunisia’s political crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, often promoting a narrative in line with the government’s policy agenda (see B5 and B7).
  • While several prominent activists were released from prison during the coverage period, social media users continued to receive lengthy prison sentences for their online content. In October 2021, a Saudi court sentenced Ali Aboluhom, a Saudi-based Yemeni journalist, to 15 years in prison for spreading “ideas of apostasy” on Twitter (see C3).
  • Online surveillance remained problematic throughout the coverage period. Authorities used spyware from Israeli firm NSO group to target activists and journalists, and in December 2021 reports revealed that Saudi authorities had likely purchased Predator spyware from Cytrox, a North Macedonia–based spyware company (see C5).
  • The Saudi government published its first Personal Data Protection Law in September 2021. The law, which regulates the collection, processing, storing, and transfer of data also includes a clause stating that the unlawful transfer of personal data outside the country can result in “criminal conviction and imprisonment” (see C6).
  • Reporting from rights groups sounded the alarm on the “brutal torture” of high-profile political detainees in Saudi prisons. Victims of this abuse reportedly included online journalists and activists (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. There were 34.84 million internet users in Saudi Arabia and internet penetration rate stood at 97.9 percent as of January 2022.1 Mobile usage is widespread, and there were over 41 million mobile connections at the start of 2022.2

The Saudi Arabian industry regulator, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), has pressed forward with its fifth-generation (5G) technology rollout plan. In March 2022, the CITC in partnership with UK company Stratospheric Platforms Limited, facilitated a successful trial of the High-Altitude Platform System, which provides 5G network coverage from the stratosphere.3 The mobile service providers Saudi Telecom Company (STC), Zain, and Mobily also continued 5G expansion programs. In March 2022, STC and Ericsson signed a partnership to further drive 5G connectivity in the country4 —while Zain announced its launch of a 5G local area network, providing (primarily business) subscribers with a virtual network fully reliant on 5G standalone technology.5

While Saudi Arabia’s fixed broadband penetration remains relatively low, telecommunications research company BuddeComm reported that the country has developed one of the fastest fiber-optic cable services regionally.6 In May 2022, Saudi Arabia ranked eighth globally for mobile internet speed, with a median download speed of 101.62 megabits per second (Mbps), according to Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index.7 Fixed broadband speeds are relatively slower, with Saudi Arabia ranking 39th globally, with a median download speed of 83.79 megabits per second (Mbps).8 That being said, a large number of Saudi internet users report experiencing far lower mobile broadband speeds than what is quoted to them by their providers—including STC and Mobily. Many customers have reportedly conducted independent internet speed checks to find that the speed does not match that which they are paying for as part of their internet packages.9

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. As of February 2022, 60 out of the country’s 136 governorates had access to 5G coverage.3

According to UK-based firm Cable, the average monthly cost of consumer broadband services in 2022 was $95.96 per month, down from $107 per month in 2021.4 The average annual salary in Saudi Arabia is around 101,300 Riyals ($27,000), which is the equivalent of a monthly salary of 8,400 Riyals ($2,200).5 A significant wage gaps exist between men and women, governmental and private sector jobs, as well as between nationals and foreigners working in Saudi Arabia.6 While both women and men have relatively equal access to internet services, the income gap does present obstacles to access for lower socioeconomic groups.7

Several internet service providers (ISPs) offer zero-rating services, providing some content or services for free. However, these services are sometimes considered subpar (see A1).

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 as well as integrated chat systems on certain social media websites such as Facebook Messenger.4 A study released in April 2020 found that nearly all messaging services were accessible in the country, except for WhatsApp, though some user accounts differ.5 As of May 2022, Saudi users reported that WhatsApp calls were inaccessible without a VPN.6

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, financial and security concerns, and an attempt to limit encrypted communications (see C4).7

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.8

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 In July 2021, the CITC announced it had awarded licenses to two new Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs)—Integrated Telecom Mobile Company and Future Networks Communications—bringing the total number of MVNOs in the country to seven.2

Certain barriers to market entry exist. For example, new entrants are required to have a prelicensed local operator to operate under. Further structural reforms are required to level the playing field in the sector, but this is not an apparent priority for the CITC.3

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.

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.4 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.5

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.

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.

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 In July 2021, the CITC announced it would begin imposing fines of up to 25 million Riyals ($6.7 million) against those supplying unlicensed telecommunications devices, including those that do not align with specifications approved by the authority such as illegal network boosters.5

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. Furthermore, criticism of the Saudi government, its policies, inner circle, or its regional allies is not tolerated, online or otherwise.

News websites that publish content critical of the government are blocked. These include, for instance, the London-based online news outlet Middle East Eye as well as the website of London-based Al-Araby al-Jadeed and its English-language New Arab, which has been blocked since January 2016.1 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.2 Turkish broadcasters, such as the state-run Anadolu Agency, were blocked until May 2022, when the two countries resumed diplomatic relations.3 News sites with opposing views to the Saudi government or its geopolitical and strategic aims are also blocked, including the website of Beirut-based broadcaster al-Manar, which is owned by Hezbollah; and websites run by the Yemeni Houthi movement, with which Saudi Arabia has been warring with since 2015.4

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.5 In November 2021, local sources reported that the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property, a government body, blocked 1,100 websites in a “crackdown on piracy infringements.”6

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.7 LGBT+ content is also widely blocked. A 2021 report by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) found that Saudi Arabia has the highest percentage of LGBT+ “website blocking consistency” globally. According to the report, Saudi ISPs have used WireFilter censorship technology to block specifical webpages. WireFilter, which is manufactured by Riyadh-based IT company Sewar Technologies Ltd, is a network filtering device made for service providers and other commercial entities.8

Popular social media and communication apps are not consistently blocked, although several platforms’ VoIP services have been intermittently blocked by authorities in the past (see A3).

Saudi internet users regularly use circumvention tools such as Hotspot Shield, which allows users to access a virtual private network (VPN) to bypass censorship.9 However, the websites of many circumvention tools, such as Tor and major VPN providers, are blocked by the government.10

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.

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.2 In February 2021, New Lines Magazine reported that women who published content recounting their experiences in the Dar al-Reaya prison for women 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.3 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. This came amidst accusations that the government had forcibly disappeared members of the tribe (see C7).4

In November 2021, the CITC launched a public consultation on its draft Digital Content Platform Regulations, a proposed regulatory framework for digital content.5 A new version, which was updated in March 2022, includes provisions requiring video sharing platforms, e-sports platforms, and social media platforms to obtain a registration certificate from the CITC in order to operate.6 The draft version includes requirements for online audio and video streaming platforms as well as social media companies to comply with requests to remove content in line with the “applicable law in the Kingdom.”7 The proposed regulations have further financial and regulatory implications for online service providers and content hosts (see B6). The regulatory framework appeared to still be in draft format as of June 2022.

The government at times requests social media platforms remove content. According to a Google transparency report, the Saudi government made nine content-removal requests relating to defamation, copyright, and trademarks between June and December 2021.8 According to Twitter’s January–June 2021 transparency report, the government made 47 legal content removal requests, of which Twitter complied with 17 percent.9 In January 2022, the Saudi Ministry of Commerce blocked 40 social media accounts that were found to have “deceived customers” by impersonating popular brands.10

A February 2022 report by Arab Center Washington DC, a Doha-based research institute, found that Saudi Arabia has the second highest number of accounts removed by Twitter, second only to China.11

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

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 Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) filtering, augmented with transport layer security–level filtering for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) connections.2

The government receives blocking requests from members of the public, who can use a web-based form to submit a complaint regarding “undesirable” material.3 Once an individual submits the form, a team of CITC employees determines whether the request is justified.4

Data service providers must block all sites banned by the CITC,5 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.6

Content removal provisions in the draft Digital Content Platform Regulations lack specificity. As it stands, companies need to comply with “content regulations and rulings by competent authorities.” However, it is unclear if how the CTIC will carry out the provisions of the draft rules (see B2).7

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 are often targeted by the government (see C5).

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.1 Saudi-based journalists and online commentators continue to feel increasing pressure to censor their content, or avoid particular topics entirely, out of fear of provoking the government or those acting on its behalf.2

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 and many continue to be discouraged by their families from disclosing their names online, with many using pseudonyms. Some have faced repercussions from family members, including physical assault, for flouting these moral codes.3

The threat of imprisonment, coupled with the risk of being labelled a traitor by loyalist media outlets,4 has also led journalists and activists to self-censor (see B5 and C3).5 Several Saudi journalists stopped writing for local media outlets for fear of falling afoul of government redlines.6 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.7

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 mediums, including in the digital sphere. Moreover, officials use a variety of online tactics to create an illusion of popular support for government policies at home and abroad.

Critics suspect that the government employs an “electronic army” to promote 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 posts, particularly on Twitter.1 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. The same report notes that Saudi Arabia was named by Facebook and Twitter as one of seven countries that have used these platforms to “influence global audiences.”2 Activists and journalists have identified “entire Saudi-based marketing firms” dedicated solely to running inauthentic accounts for the Saudi government.3

The Saudi government has also invested in online outlets that help promote its narrative across various channels, often in association with foreign news organizations. This includes partnerships between the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), the country’s largest publisher that is linked to the Saudi royal family, and news corporations such as Bloomberg and the Independent. After concerns emerged over the SRMG’s level of editorial control within Bloomberg, the outlet reduced its role and exposure in the $90 million partnership.4 In July 2021, CNBC reported that Taqnia ETS, a company controlled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund, planned to launch an international digital news platform that would have a studio in Washington DC.5

During the coverage period, automated social media accounts sought to manipulate the online narrative around several regional events, often pushing progovernment positions. In July 2021, Al-Jazeera reported that a surge of social media propaganda from Saudi Arabia was attempting to skew the online narrative to portray Tunisian President Kais Saied’s decision to suspend parliament and dismiss the prime minister as a popular revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood.6 The article, citing years of analysis of propaganda hashtags, found that Saudi influencers were often retweeted by progovernment trolls and bots that had a history of spreading disinformation. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a group of online trolls originating in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) spread Russian disinformation about the war. Specifically, these accounts—many of which have Saudi or Emirati flags in their profile pictures, attempted to draw attention and sympathy away from Ukraine by promoting a narrative about the “supposed evils of Western liberal democracies.”7

Following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, there has been an ongoing effort to shape the public narrative surrounding Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the killing. In March 2021, the Washington Post reported that Twitter suspended 3,500 accounts used to comment on a US intelligence report concluding that bin Salman “approved” the operation that led to the murder, though the firm could not determine the source of the campaign.8 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.9 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.10

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 and antisemitism.11 Since 2019, Facebook has removed several hundred government-linked pages used in influence campaigns, while Twitter blocked tens of thousands of accounts that amplified progovernment messages to local and international audiences.12 In January 2021, international press sources including the Washington Post reported on an alleged Saudi troll campaign against “The Dissident,” an investigative documentary about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The film’s IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes webpages were flooded with negative. The trolls were reportedly acting on behalf of the Saudi government.13

Progovernment commentators frequently smear government critics so as to control the online narrative. For example, Hussain al-Ghawi, a progovernment online commentator has played a key role in multiple online attacks that are circulated or amplified by a network of progovernment nationalists, bots, and other inauthentic accounts, including the campaign against journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the months preceding his death. An August 2021 article published by The Intercept examined al-Ghawi’s eight-minute YouTube video in which he characterized Geoff Golberg—a US-based journalist who has tracked social media manipulation by governments extensively, including Saudi Arabia—as a “mortal enemy” of Saudi Arabia. Golberg claimed the video seemed designed to send a message on behalf of the Saudi government to “perceived enemies” in the US.14

The government frequently issues warnings and guidelines to reporters and internet users. Hefty fines and prison sentences are used to discourage internet users from publishing information deemed by authorities as contrary to the “public order” (see C2).

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, at least 25 years old, a university graduate, of “good conduct,” and not employed by the government. 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

Under the draft Digital Content Platform Regulations, the new regulatory framework proposed by the CITC in November 2021, audio and video service providers and social media platforms could potentially be required to “pay annual fees of between 0.2 percent and 0.5 percent” of their yearly earnings.3 Earlier provisions that would’ve required foreign companies to have a physical presence in the country have been rewritten, now stating that “foreign service providers who do not possess at the date of application a commercial registration and/or foreign investment license in the Kingdom, may contact the CITC to further clarify the requirements to obtain a CITC license and status of the application upon submission” (see B2 and C6).4

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). Existing news sources in Saudi Arabia largely offer the same narrative and views—in line with that of the government—given that dissenting voices are frequently censored.1

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 Twitter2 and Snapchat3 continues to grow.4 Opposition figures abroad use YouTube to distribute content since their websites are blocked within the country.5 However, pressure on users to self-censor remains high (see B4). The fear of arbitrary crackdowns has amplified as the country increasingly moves towards “a form of hypernationalism that promotes veneration of rulers” both offline and online.6 Consequently, journalists and online commentators can only safely present a progovernment narrative.

Some Saudi dissidents have warned that the government’s monitoring of Twitter has limited the platform’s use for open discussion (see B5).7 Within the country, scholars note that Twitter previously served as a popular platform for debate, but has since fallen under effective government control,8 which has resulted in many formerly active participants abandoning it, while others steer clear of debate.9 Local commentators have noted a similar trend with the audio-chat app Clubhouse, which gained popularity among Saudi users in 2021. Citizens have cited reluctance to join conversations hosted by Saudi dissidents for fear of monitoring by state intelligence services (see C5).10

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 C7).

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.

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.1 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.2

Authorities often hinder online mobilization or campaigning efforts. During the coverage period, an online campaign emerged in opposition of a government plan to demolish slums and informal neighborhoods in Jeddah to create new tourist attractions, reportedly affecting 500,000 people, most of them migrants.3 Residents reportedly often had only a few weeks to clear their homes, and in the case of some neighborhoods, no more than 24 hours.4 Some exiled Saudi opposition members as well as Saudi-based social media users posting under anonymous names published photos, videos, and commentary relating to the demolitions on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram using the hashtags “#destructionofJeddah” and “#slumclearance.” As the online campaign gained followers, several local activists stated that they were reluctant to campaign over this issue online out of fear of retribution from the government (see B4).5

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.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

Saudi authorities and state run media outlets regularly remind citizens of the penalties applicable for breaching the Anti-Cyber Crime Law, the scope of which includes spreading rumors or “fabrications” on social media.2 In March 2022, the government stated that those found guilty for spreading rumors pertaining to COVID-19 would face a potential five-year prison term and a fine of up to 1 million riyals ($270,000), warning that the fine would be doubled for repeat offenders.3

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.”4 The Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) was initially founded in 2008 to try terrorism cases but has since been used extensively to imprison human rights activists and defenders (see C3).

International rights groups have condemned the antiterrorism law as unacceptably vague and inconsistent with international rights standards.5 Rights groups lament that the law suppresses criticism and dissent through prosecution and the threat of arrest and detention.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

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.

Authorities frequently arrest and prosecute activists and ordinary citizens for their social media content, including in two prominent cases during the coverage period. Ahmad Ali Abdelkader, a Sudanese media figure based in Saudi Arabia, was handed a four-year prison sentence in June 2021 for “insulting the state’s institutions and symbols” and negatively speaking about the kingdom’s policies. Abdelkader had shared comments and media interviews on Twitter in which he criticized the Saudi government’s actions in Sudan and Yemen.1 In October 2021, Saudi authorities sentenced Ali Aboluhom, a Saudi-based Yemeni journalist, to 15 years in prison for spreading “ideas of apostasy” via his Twitter account. According to Reporters Without Borders, he was initially detained on the pretext that he owed work to an employer, and his initial interrogations were conducted without a lawyer present.2 Prosecutors reportedly accused Aboluhom of denying the existence of God, and impersonating, doubting, and mocking God and Islamic ideas.3

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. Al-Sadhan was initially forcibly disappeared in March 2018 after being kidnapped from the Saudi Red Crescent’s Riyadh headquarters. Al-Sadhan’s case is reportedly connected to the 2014–15 infiltration of Twitter by government agents (see C5).4

After the coverage period, two Saudi women received decades-long prison sentences for their social media content. In August 2022, the SCC sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a university student, to 34 years in prison for following activists and retweeting their posts on her Twitter account. The charges handed to al-Shehab include “assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilize civil and national security” via social media.5 Also in August, another woman, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, was sentenced to 45 years in prison by the SCC. She was charged with “using the internet to tear [Saudi Arabia’s] social fabric.”6

According to Channel Draw, the website of political activist Gianluca Costantini, in May 2021 Saudi authorities began arresting individuals allegedly linked to the “bee movement,” which was cofounded by Jamal Khashoggi. The movement is an online network of Saudi activists combating misinformation and proregime social media trolls.7 Those arrested reportedly include Abdullah Jelan, who was abducted by Saudi State Security forces in Medina after speaking out on Twitter regarding fundamental freedoms in Saudi Arabia. The legal status of his detention, as well as his whereabouts, remained unknown as of June 2022.8

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.9

Authorities have targeted individuals for their online dissent amid a widespread crackdown on intellectuals, academics, clerics, and critics of the ruling family. These included Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari, all prominent clerics who have large online followings; al-Awdah was potentially targeted for a Twitter post encouraging reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.10 In May 2019, Middle East Eye reported that all three clerics would be sentenced to death and executed after Ramadan.11 However, in October 2019, the verdict in al-Awdah’s trial was reportedly postponed.12 A closed court session was reportedly held in March 2021 and another session was due in July.13 All three remained in detention as of June 2022.14

Several prominent women’s rights activists who were arrested as early as mid-2018 remain in detention or in prison. All the women engaged in online campaigns promoting women’s rights, and most were initially held without formal charges (see B8).15 Maya’a al-Zahrani and Loujain al-Hathloul received sentences of nearly six years in December 2020,16 though both were conditionally released in early 2021.17 Al-Hathloul, a particularly high-profile activist, will likely remain under close government watch under the restrictive terms of her conditional release.18 In March 2021, al-Hathloul’s appeal of a five-year travel ban, one of the conditions, was denied.19

Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, was released in March 2022 after completing his prison sentenced. He was originally sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in 2012 after criticizing religious figures and promoting liberal views of Islam on his online forum. He is subject to a 10-year travel ban.20 Badawi’s sister, Samar, was released from a Saudi prison after serving a three-year sentence. She had been imprisoned since July 2018 over her human rights activities, including allegations that she ran a pro-reform Twitter account.21

Other journalists and bloggers currently detained in Saudi Arabia over their online activities include Turki al-Jasser, a journalist who has been jailed since March 2018 after authorities identified him as the owner of “Kashkol,” an anonymous Twitter account that was critical of the government.22 Human rights organizations have raised concerns over al-Jasser’s continued disappearance, while unconfirmed reports have emerged that he was killed while being tortured in a Saudi prison.23 Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian-born author, has been jailed in Saudi Arabia since 2013 over charges including apostasy and “unlawful relations with women.” He was sentenced to death in 2015, though the sentence was commuted to eight years in prison. PEN International has since suggested that the reason behind Fayadh’s arrest may in fact be that he filmed and posted a clip online showing members of the Saudi religious police whipping a man.24

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 They also must have their fingerprints processed.3 This information is then saved in a database maintained by the Interior Ministry.

In January 2016, the CITC required mobile service providers to register the fingerprints of new SIM card subscribers. 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 they are protecting national security and maintaining social order. 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

Saudi Arabia has long invested in sophisticated mass surveillance systems. According to Citizen Lab, a Canadian watchdog, spyware developed and sold by Israeli firm NSO Group has been used to target activists and dissidents in Saudi Arabia. However, Citizen Lab reported in December 2021 that the Saudi authorities had likely switched from Pegasus spyware, created by NSO, to Predator spyware, distributed by North Macedonia–based “mercenary spyware developer” Cytrox.2 A report by Meta likewise stated that Cytrox customers likely include Saudi entities.3

In February 2022, Reuters reported that an “unusual error” in NSO’s spyware—discovered on Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul’s iPhone—provided direct evidence that the group had built an espionage tool that penetrates devices without interaction from the user. Al-Hathoul was targeted with NSO spyware in the past on behalf of the Saudi government, as have other Saudi activists like Omar Abdulaziz.4 As a result of the findings obtained from al-Hathloul’s device, Apple sued NSO in November 2021 in the United States, alleging the latter had violated US laws by building products designed to target and attack Apple and its users.5 The following month, al-Hathloul herself sued three former US intelligence and military officials who she claims helped hack her phone, as well as Emirati cybersecurity company DarkMatter.6

In October 2021, reports emerged that New York Times journalist Ben Hubbard had been subjected to several phone hacking attempts, likely by Saudi Arabia.7 Research by Citizen Lab found that he was targeted with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware between June 2018 and June 2021 while he was reporting on Saudi Arabia and writing a book on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.8

In December 2020, reports emerged that 36 Al-Jazeera staff members were hacked via spyware sold by NSO Group. Researchers at Citizen Lab concluded with “medium confidence” that the reported attacks, likely only a minority of the total attacks that occurred, were carried out on behalf of the Saudi and Emirati governments.9 Specifically, Al-Jazeera journalist Ghada Oueiss described a “suspicious” process associated with NSO’s Pegasus surveillance tool present within her mobile phone (see C8).10 Oueiss covered issues sensitive to the Saudi government, including the Khashoggi murder. 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 sought a legal order to compel the Israeli defense ministry to rescind the NSO’s export license.11 In January 2020, an Israeli court rejected the NSO attempt to have the case dismissed.12

According to a report by the New York Times in July 2021, Israel “secretly authorized” and encouraged at least four Israeli cybersurveillance companies to work for the Saudi government, including Verint, Candiru, and Quadream.13

In November 2019, a representative from Cellebrite, an Israeli firm, reportedly visited Riyadh at the request of a Saudi prosecutor and hacked into a mobile phone.14 In September 2020, reports surfaced that Israeli firm Cellebrite had provided phone-hacking services to the Saudi government. In January 2018, media reports surfaced that the Saudi government acquired a stake in Italian spyware technology company Hacking Team through intermediaries.15 In October 2018, the European Parliament approved a resolution calling for an embargo on sales of surveillance equipment to Saudi Arabia.16

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. While Twitter found no proof of al-Zabarah offering data to Riyadh, according to a New York Times report, al-Zabarah subsequently became a Saudi government employee after being dismissed from Twitter.17 In October 2021, one dissident, Ali al-Ahmed, sued Twitter for a second time in California over the spying charges after a New York court refused to accept jurisdiction over the case the previous year.18

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 September 2021, the Saudi government published the Personal Data Protection Law, which regulates the collection, processing, storing, and transfer of data. The law prohibits, for example, the processing of personal data without the data subject’s consent, except in specific circumstances. In addition, any processing of Saudi “resident” data—used to refer to both citizens and noncitizens—performed in the country or by entities located outside its borders is subject to the law’s requirements.1 According to the law, the Saudi Arabian Authority for Data and Artificial Intelligence, a government agency, will be the industry regulator for at least two years. The law incorporates similar features of other modern data protection laws, such as a clause about the unlawful transfer of personal data outside of the country, which can lead to “a criminal conviction and imprisonment.”2 The law is expected to be implemented in March 2023.3

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.” 4

In November 2021, the CITC launched a public consultation on its draft Digital Content Platform Regulations, a proposed regulatory framework for digital content platforms that included provisions to establish a local branch in the country and comply with the CITC’s data protection laws (see B2).5 The draft was updated in March 2022, and the new version eases the language around foreign service providers establishing a physical presence in Saudi Arabia (see B6). It is unclear if language around data protection law compliance has been updated.6

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. While this practice existed before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power, it has allegedly worsened under his rule.1 Many individuals detained over their online activism have reported physical abuse including torture while in custody,2 and deaths have been reported.3 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 prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul (see C3).4 In July 2021, Human Rights Watch published reports from an individual identifying himself as a Saudi prison guard detailing “brutal torture” of high-profile political detainees, including women’s rights activists like al-Hathloul, at a prison in Dhahban as well as at another “secret prison.” According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi authorities failed to independently investigate allegations of torture, which included electric shocks, whippings, and sexual assault.5

Mohamed al-Bokari, a Saudi-based Yemeni blogger, was sentenced to 10 months in prison and a 10,000 riyal ($2,700) fine in July 2020 after showing support for LGBT+ rights online. He was reportedly held in solitary confinement for weeks, where he was subjected to sexual assault and physical violence. Al-Bokari has since been released.6

At times online journalists or activists have been forcibly disappeared. The whereabouts of Marwan al-Muraisy, a Yemeni writer and online activist who was reportedly abducted by the Saudi government in June 2018,7 remain unknown as of June 2022.8 Lina al-Sharif, a Saudi physician, was reportedly forcibly disappeared in July 2021. She was arrested two months earlier for her social media activism, according to the London-based rights group ALQST for Human Rights.9

In February 2021, the Washington Post reported on the disappearance of Ahmed Abdullah al-Harbi, a Canada-based Saudi dissident who visited the Saudi embassy in Ottawa in January and later reappeared in Saudi Arabia. Al-Harbi’s fellow activists claimed his return was coerced by Saudi authorities, citing fears that he had been pressured to reveal identifying information that would endanger the activists and their families.10 Al-Harbi had reportedly been granted asylum in Canada in 2019 after making statements critical of the Saudi government while studying in the United States. He was later active in an opposition talk show on YouTube as well as being part of a Twitter-based volunteer network countering Saudi government-backed social media manipulation. Al-Harbi’s whereabouts remained unknown as of December 2021.11

An increasing number of online journalists who have openly scrutinized government policies in the past are considering leaving the country for fear of reprisal.12 However, Saudi-based family members and associates of exiles risk becoming targets. In March 2021, Canada-based video blogger Omar Abdulaziz claimed that some of his Saudi-based family members bad been detained in an apparent attempt to force Abdulaziz to cease his online activism.13

Private actors have been encouraged by authorities to harass government critics online.14 Royal adviser Saud 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 allegedly engaging in treachery or showing a lack of patriotism.15 Subsequent evidence suggests that citizens have adopted those tactics, contributing to a climate of fear.16

Online harassment targeting high-profile individuals is not uncommon. In February 2022, Washington Post columnist Rana Ayyub reported receiving a large number of violent death threats from pro-regime Saudi nationalists after posting a tweet critical of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.17

The government sought to silence late journalist Jamal Khashoggi for years before his 2018 murder. In 2017, 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.18 Evidence strongly indicates that Khashoggi was tortured and murdered at the hands of state security agents in October 2018 (see B5 and C5).19

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 malware on their phones, government-linked web accounts have also been targeted.

Several public and private institutions and projects have faced security breaches in recent years. In July 2021, 1,000 gigabytes of data from the Saudi national oil company, Saudi Aramco, were held by extortionists on a dark webpage. According to the Associated Press, the page offered to delete the data in exchange for $50 million in cryptocurrency. The identity of the individuals behind the ransom attack remains unknown.1 In May 2020, researchers at Bitdefender, a Romanian cybersecurity company, found that Chafer, a hacking group with apparent links to Iran, had targeted Saudi air-transport and government entities as far back as 2018.2

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).3 In December 2020, Al-Jazeera journalist Ghada Oueiss was subject to a hacking operation allegedly led by Saudi and Emirati officials (see C5).4

On Saudi Arabia

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

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  • 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