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 pervasive 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.
- The authorities continued to detain numerous dissidents during the year, and new arrests were reported. More than a dozen people, including two Saudi-US dual nationals, were arrested in April after allegedly expressing support for women’s rights activists who have been behind bars since 2018. At least seven bloggers and other writers were arrested in November.
- In August, the government promulgated legal reforms that granted adult women the ability to obtain passports, travel abroad, and register births without a male guardian’s permission, though a guardian’s approval was still needed for marriage and a variety of other actions.
- In December, a Saudi court sentenced five people to death, and three others to prison terms, for their role in the 2018 assassination of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The most senior officials investigated in connection with the killing were acquitted on grounds of insufficient evidence, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was never investigated by Saudi authorities despite credible evidence that he was involved.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||0 4|
Saudi Arabia’s king is chosen by his predecessor from among male descendants of the country’s founder, though the choice must be approved by a council of senior princes. The king rules for life. King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud appointed his son Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince in 2017, displacing the prince’s older cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, who was stripped of all official positions and put under house arrest. The cabinet, which is appointed by the king, passes legislation that becomes law once ratified by royal decree. King Salman also serves as prime minister, and Mohammed bin Salman serves as deputy prime minister and minister of defense.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||0 4|
The king appoints the 150 members of the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council), who serve in an advisory capacity, for four-year terms. The council has no legislative authority.
Limited nonpartisan elections for advisory councils at the municipal level were introduced in 2005. In the 2015 elections, two-thirds of the seats on the 284 councils were open to voting, while the rest were filled through appointment by the minister of municipal and rural affairs. Women were allowed to vote and run as candidates for the first time, and a small number won seats. The next elections were due in 2019, but they were postponed without any clear official explanation.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||0 4|
The electoral framework lacks constitutional protections, and the 2015 elections for municipal councils were subject to a number of onerous restrictions. The kingdom’s rules on gender segregation were applied to campaigns, meaning no candidates could produce posters showing their faces or meet in person with voters of the opposite sex. Candidates were also barred from giving media interviews, leading many to campaign via social media. A number of candidates were disqualified for unclear reasons, though some were reinstated after appeals. Ultimately only a small fraction of the citizen population participated in the elections, reflecting doubts about the effectiveness of the advisory councils.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||0 4|
Political parties are forbidden, and political dissent is effectively criminalized. Some of the country’s most prominent political rights organizations and activists, including founding members of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), have been arrested and sentenced to prison in recent years. Many other political activists continue to serve lengthy prison sentences.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||0 4|
The current leadership has given no indication that it plans to allow competitive elections for positions of executive or legislative authority in the future. Opposition movements are banned, and the government is increasingly intolerant even of moderate critics. The Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist political organization, is believed to have the sympathy of a substantial minority of Saudis, but it remains banned and has been designated as a terrorist group by the Saudi government since 2014.
Other groups and individuals that criticize the regime or call for political reform—whether Sunni or Shiite, Islamist or secularist—are subject to arbitrary detention. Many of those arrested in a crackdown that began in September 2017 had questioned or declined to vocally support the government’s campaign to isolate Qatar over its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. These included prominent reformist clerics such as Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari, who were arrested in 2017. All three faced the threat of the death penalty on charges of terrorism, though their cases have been stalled by arbitrary delays; the verdict in al-Awdah’s trial was repeatedly postponed in 2019.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||0 4|
The monarchy generally excludes the public from any meaningful political participation. In the absence of political parties, voters in Saudi Arabia’s limited municipal elections are heavily influenced by tribal and religious leaders, many of whom benefit from close ties to the ruling establishment.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||0 4|
Although political rights are curtailed for all Saudi citizens, women, religious minorities, and LGBT+ people face additional obstacles to participation given the kingdom’s strict laws and customs on matters such as gender segregation and sexual activity, and its intolerance of religious groups that deviate from Wahhabism, a highly conservative and literalist interpretation of Sunni Islam. Some 30 women serve on the appointed Majlis al-Shura, and women secured about 1 percent of the seats in the 2015 municipal council elections. Shiites reportedly hold a small number of seats on the Majlis al-Shura and many seats on municipal councils in Shiite-majority areas. Women and religious minorities are largely excluded from leadership positions in the government. A woman was appointed in 2018 as deputy minister of labor and social development to promote women’s employment opportunities.
Noncitizens, who make up roughly a third of the population in Saudi Arabia, have no political rights, and citizenship can only be directly transmitted by a citizen father whose marriage is recognized by the state.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||0 4|
The kingdom’s only elected officials serve on local advisory councils and have little or no influence over national laws and policies.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||1 4|
Corruption remains a significant problem. Although the government generates massive revenue from the sale of oil, which it redistributes through social welfare programs and as patronage, little is known about state accounting or the various direct ways in which public wealth becomes a source of private privilege for the royal family and its clients.
The government has taken some steps to combat corruption and recover misappropriated assets, but its opaque methods have raised serious concerns about politicization and lack of due process. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman heads an anticorruption committee, which in 2017 ordered the detention of more than 300 people, many of whom were coerced into turning over billions of dollars in assets to the state. In January 2019 the government said it had obtained a total of $106 billion in settlements with 87 of those arrested. The crown prince’s campaign coincided with a crackdown on dissent and targeted his potential rivals within the royal family, leading observers to suggest that it was part of a broader effort to consolidate Mohammed bin Salman’s political and economic control.
Independent whistle-blowers and anticorruption advocates continue to face punishment. Saleh al-Shehi, a columnist at Al-Watan, was sentenced in 2018 to five years in prison after he suggested in a television appearance that there was corruption in the royal court.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||0 4|
The functioning of government is largely opaque. The availability of some economic data is improving, but overall there is little transparency on whether or how state funds are disbursed, or on the internal decision-making process that allocates them; there is no public mechanism for holding senior officials accountable for their decisions. The defense budget is especially shielded from public scrutiny.
The state’s oil revenues make up the vast majority of its financial resources, but these are tightly controlled by the royal family, which uses the same income to support itself. In 2018 and 2019, the state oil company, Saudi Aramco, provided more information on its income and expenditures in preparation for an initial public offering. However, amid ongoing questions about its relationship with the government, the company opted in December to list shares only on a domestic stock exchange, which entailed less transparency than would be required on a major international exchange.
|Are there free and independent media?||0 4|
The government controls domestic media content and heavily influences regional print and satellite-television coverage. Journalists can be imprisoned for a variety of vaguely defined crimes. A 2011 royal decree amended the press law to criminalize, among other things, any criticism of the country’s grand mufti, the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or government officials; violations can result in fines and forced closure of media outlets. All blogs and websites must have a license from the Ministry of Information or face fines and possible closure. The government has developed an extensive system of social media surveillance and regulation, and it invests considerable resources in automated “bot” and other accounts to influence and at times distort the social media environment.
In October 2018, one of the country’s most prominent journalists, Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, who had been critical of the government under Mohammed bin Salman, had been working in the United States as a columnist at the Washington Post. Saudi officials blamed rogue intelligence agents, but according to a UN special rapporteur, the evidence suggested that the crown prince was involved. In December 2019, a Saudi court sentenced five men to death for their role in the killing, and three others received prison sentences, but the most senior officials under investigation were acquitted due to a supposed lack of evidence. Mohammed bin Salman was never officially investigated.
In December 2019, Reporters Without Borders said that at least 32 journalists and citizen journalists were behind bars in Saudi Arabia. At least seven bloggers and columnists were arrested in November, including some who had been inactive after writing in favor of the 2011 Arab Spring protests in previous years.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||0 4|
The 1992 Basic Law declares that the Quran and the Sunna are the country’s constitution. Islam is the official religion, and all Saudis are required by law to be Muslims. A 2014 royal decree punishes atheism with up to 20 years in prison. The government prohibits the public practice of any religion other than Islam and restricts the religious practices of the Shiite and Sufi Muslim minority sects. The construction of Shiite mosques is constrained through licensing rules and prohibited outside of Eastern Province, where most Shiites live. Although the government recognizes the right of non-Muslims to worship in private, it does not always respect this right in practice.
The government exercises significant influence over Muslim clerics—both the officially appointed figures who depend on government patronage and more independent religious scholars who need a measure of official goodwill in order to function openly, appear on television, and avoid prison or other penalties.
Online commentary that touches on religion can be harshly punished. Among other prominent cases, liberal blogger Raif Badawi, arrested in 2012, received a 10-year prison sentence for blasphemy in 2014 and remained behind bars in 2019.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||1 4|
Academic freedom is restricted, and informers monitor classrooms for compliance with curriculum rules, including a ban on teaching secular philosophy and religions other than Islam. Despite changes to textbooks in recent years, intolerance in the classroom remains a significant problem, as some educators continue to espouse discriminatory and hateful views of non-Muslims and Muslim minority sects.
Academics face punishment for critical public analysis of government policies. Among other cases, Hatoon al-Fassi, a history professor and women’s rights advocate, was arrested in 2018, days after she had been quoted in the New York Times about her views on the crown prince’s reforms. She was provisionally released in May 2019, along with three other rights activists, but still faced trial for illegal contact with foreign media, diplomats, and human rights groups. Also in 2018, the well-known economist Essam al-Zamil, who had critiqued the plan to privatize part of the state oil company, was charged with terrorism. In March 2019, university lecturer Anas al-Mazroui was arrested after expressing support for detained women’s rights activists during a panel discussion at the Riyadh book fair the previous month.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||1 4|
Saudis are able to engage in some degree of private discussion on political and other topics, including criticism of certain aspects of government performance, both online and offline. However, severe criminal penalties deter more direct criticism of the regime and free discussion on topics like religion or the royal family. Laws are often vaguely worded, giving the state considerable discretion to determine what constitutes illegal expression. Surveillance is extensive inside Saudi Arabia, and even Saudis living abroad are subject to spying and intimidation.
The climate for free expression has deteriorated sharply since 2018, with the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the arrests of even mild critics of government policy, such as high-profile women’s rights activists, serving as warnings to ordinary Saudis to avoid public dissent.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||0 4|
Freedom of assembly is not respected, and the government has imposed harsh punishments—including the death penalty—on those who lead or participate in public protests. In one case in 2018, six Shiite activists were put on trial in a terrorism court for protest-related offenses. These included Israa al-Ghomgham, a female activist, who was threatened with the death penalty until a court confirmed in January 2019 that she would not be executed, though she reportedly remained behind bars at year’s end.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||0 4|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must obtain a license from the government to operate. Until the adoption of an NGO law in 2015, officials had approved licenses only for charitable groups; the authorities have expressed a desire to encourage the growth of civil society, but they discourage independent work on human rights and governance issues. Reformist organizations have been denied licenses in practice, in some cases through arbitrary delays. Human rights activists and other civil society representatives face regular harassment and detention.
In 2018, a month before women were allowed to drive for the first time, the authorities arrested several women who had campaigned for the change; prominent campaigners against the kingdom’s male guardianship laws were also arrested later in the year. In April 2019, another 13 activists and writers who had supported women’s rights were arrested, including two Saudi-US dual nationals. The arrests were seen as a signal that the government sought to discourage further independent activism on women’s rights.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||0 4|
No laws protect the rights to form independent labor unions, bargain collectively, or engage in strikes. Workers who engage in union activity are subject to dismissal or detention.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||1 4|
The judiciary has very little independence in practice. Judges are appointed by the king and overseen by the Supreme Judicial Council, whose chairman is also the justice minister. A special commission of judicial experts issues opinions that serve as guidelines for judges on the interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law), which forms the basis of Saudi law. Judges have significant discretion in how they interpret Sharia and do not have to publish an explanation of their judgments.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||1 4|
Defendants’ rights are poorly protected by law. Detainees are often denied access to legal counsel during interrogation, and lengthy pretrial detention and detention without charge are common. Statistics on prisoners are lacking, and the number of political prisoners is therefore difficult to assess, but a Human Rights Watch report found that dozens of dissidents were on trial or in prison as of mid-2019.
An antiterrorism law that took effect in 2014 includes lengthy prison sentences for criticizing the monarchy or the government. Among other provisions, it expanded the power of police to conduct raids targeting suspected antigovernment activity without judicial approval.
The hundreds of people arrested in the anticorruption crackdown in 2017 did not go to trial or pass through the judicial system, but were instead compelled to hand over assets to the government in return for being released. Supporters of the government claimed that the courts lacked the capacity to process the cases swiftly, and that taking the judicial route would have led to a years-long process.
Due process is notably lacking in death penalty cases. In April 2019, for example, 37 people—mostly Shiites—were put to death in a single day. Human rights groups noted that the defendants were denied access to a lawyer while their charges were being investigated, and many had retracted confessions made under torture.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||0 4|
Allegations of torture by police and prison officials are common, and access to prisoners by independent human rights and legal organizations is extremely limited. In March 2019, international media published leaked prison medical records indicating that a number of political prisoners were suffering from cuts, bruises, burns, and malnutrition. Human rights groups had reported in late 2018 that detained women’s rights activists were given electric shocks, whipped, beaten, sexually abused, and threatened with rape. The family of one of them, Loujain al-Hathloul, said she had been offered freedom if she publicly recanted her allegations of torture, which she refused to do.
Corporal punishment, most often lashing, is common in criminal sentencing. Capital punishment is applied to a wide range of crimes other than murder, including drug and protest-related offenses; juvenile offenders are not exempt from the penalty. Use of the death penalty has increased in recent years. According to the British human rights group Reprieve, Saudi Arabia executed at least 184 people in 2019, compared with 149 in 2018.
Saudi Arabia has faced a series of cross-border military attacks from Yemen since 2015, when it entered a war against that country’s Shiite-led and Iranian-backed Houthi (Ansarallah) movement. In 2019 the Saudi military said it had intercepted several hundred missiles and drones, most of which came from Yemen, though it was unclear over what period the interceptions took place. A missile attack in September disabled the kingdom’s main oil refinery; while the Houthis claimed responsibility, UN investigators reportedly disputed the claim, and Saudi Arabia as well as the United States and several European governments said Iran was responsible.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||0 4|
The courts engage in routine discrimination against various groups, citing their interpretations of Sharia. A woman’s testimony is generally given half the weight of a man’s, and the testimony of anyone other than observant Sunni Muslims can be disregarded by judges.
Shiites, who make up 10 to 15 percent of the population, face socioeconomic disadvantages, discrimination in employment, and underrepresentation in government positions and the security forces.
Education and economic rights for Saudi women have improved significantly in recent years, but women are still subject to extensive legal and societal discrimination, most notably through the guardianship system, in which women must rely on a close male relative to approve many basic activities. Although legal reforms have recently reduced the scope of the guardianship system, it remains deeply entrenched in societal practices and customs, and an individual woman’s degree of freedom depends to a large extent on the attitudes of her family. Reforms announced in August 2019 included a ban on gender discrimination in employment, potentially preventing employers from requiring women to obtain a guardian’s permission to work.
Same-sex sexual activity is generally understood to be prohibited under Sharia, and LGBT+ people are at risk of harassment, discrimination, criminal punishment, and violence.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||0 4|
The government punishes activists and critics by limiting their ability to travel outside the country, and reform advocates are routinely stripped of their passports. Family members of activists can also be banned from travel.
Gender segregation restricts freedom of movement for both men and women, but male guardianship and other factors impose especially onerous constraints on women. The long-standing ban on women driving was lifted in June 2018. Also in 2018, women were able to attend sporting events in stadiums for the first time, and both men and women could visit the movie theaters that began opening in April. Under reforms announced in August 2019, adult women would be able to obtain passports and travel abroad without a male guardian’s permission.
Foreign workers cannot change jobs unless they have a no-objection letter from their existing employer, and some employers confiscate workers’ passports to prevent them from leaving.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||1 4|
While a great deal of business activity in the kingdom is dominated by or connected to members of the government, the ruling family, or other elite families, officials have given assurances that special industrial and commercial zones are free from interference by the royal family.
Women face legal discrimination regarding property rights, with daughters typically receiving half the inheritance awarded to sons. Women are no longer legally required to obtain permission from a male guardian to obtain business licenses.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||0 4|
There are a number of official restrictions on marriage. For example, Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims, citizens typically require permission to marry noncitizens, and men are barred from marrying women from certain countries. All sexual activity outside of marriage is criminalized, and the death penalty can be applied in certain circumstances. Women face legal disadvantages in divorce and custody proceedings, and they cannot marry without a male guardian’s permission. Under the reforms announced in August 2019, women can register children’s births and oversee children’s travel.
A 2013 law broadly defined and criminalized domestic abuse, prescribing fines and up to a year in prison for perpetrators. However, enforcement remains problematic, with some officials prioritizing privacy and family integrity over safety and justice for victims. Prosecutions are extremely rare. Women’s practical ability to leave abusive relationships is severely limited. While women are no longer legally required to live with their husbands under the August 2019 reforms, social taboos and other obstacles often deter women from leaving their family home; there are a limited number of shelters for women escaping abuse, but women are not allowed to leave the facilities without the permission of their guardian.
The authority of the religious police to enforce rules governing gender segregation and personal attire has been sharply curtailed in both law and practice since 2016. Nevertheless, some Saudis have faced penalties for breaching similar rules on social media. In October 2019, an openly gay Saudi man was arrested for electronic crimes and public nudity after using social media to post pictures of himself wearing shorts on the beach.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||1 4|
A number of amendments to the labor law that went into effect in 2015 granted broader rights and protections to workers in the private sector. However, the law does not apply to household workers, who are governed by separate regulations that provide fewer safeguards against exploitative working conditions.
Foreign workers—who make up more than half of the active labor force—enjoy only limited legal protections and remain vulnerable to trafficking and forced labor, primarily through employers’ exploitation of the kafala visa-sponsorship system. In 2014, the Ministry of Labor ruled that expatriate workers who are not paid their salaries for more than three consecutive months are free to switch their work sponsors without approval. In practice, foreign workers are subject to periodic mass deportations for visa violations or criminal activity, though due process is often lacking in such cases. Government programs give preferential treatment to companies that hire certain percentages of Saudi citizens and penalize those that fail to meet such targets.
On Saudi Arabia
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Global Freedom Score7 100 not free
Internet Freedom Score25 100 not free