Saudi Arabia

Not Free
7
100
PR Political Rights 1 40
CL Civil Liberties 6 60
Last Year's Score & Status
7 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

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.

header2 Key Developments in 2020

  • Saudi authorities closed borders, initiated a curfew, and restricted foreign travelers from partaking in the hajj pilgrimage as part of its efforts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. The country reported one of the Middle East’s highest infection rates, as infections peaked in June; the World Health Organization reported 362,000 cases and just over 6,200 deaths at year’s end.
  • In November, the government announced reforms that would dismantle parts of the kafala visa-sponsorship system and allow foreign workers to more easily leave Saudi Arabia. The measures are scheduled to take effect in 2021.
  • In December, a terrorism court handed women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul and Maya’a al-Zahrani, who were arrested in 2018, prison sentences of nearly six years. The sentence of al-Hathloul, who was tortured while in detention, was modified to include time served.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

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 Allegiance Council. The king rules for life. King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud appointed 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. Bin Nayef was detained along with a sibling of King Salman in March 2020 on charges of treason over an alleged plot to overthrow both the king and the crown prince.

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.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The king appoints the 150 members of the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council), who serve in an advisory capacity and wield no legislative authority, for four-year terms. King Salman appointed new members in October 2020.

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. New elections were due in 2019, but were postponed indefinitely without any clear official explanation.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0.000 4.004

The electoral framework lacks constitutional protections, and the 2015 municipal elections 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.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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? 0.000 4.004

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; one founder, Abdullah al-Hamid, died in custody in April 2020. Many other political activists continue to serve lengthy prison sentences. A new political party, the National Assembly party, was established by Saudi exiles living abroad in October.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

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 has been designated a terrorist group 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. Prominent reformist clerics Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari were arrested in 2017 as part of a crackdown against those who criticized the government campaign to isolate Qatar over its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran; all three faced the threat of death penalties on terrorism charges, but their cases have been stalled by arbitrary delays––al-Omari’s trial was paused several times by June 2020––and they remained in detention at year’s end.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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? 0.000 4.004

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.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0.000 4.004

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 including 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 served in the last parliament, and a female deputy speaker was appointed in October 2020. Women secured about 1 percent of the seats in the 2015 municipal council elections. Shiites reportedly hold a small number of Majlis al-Shura seats and many municipal council seats in Shiite-majority areas.

Members of religious minorities and women are largely excluded from leadership positions, though some women have held notable roles. A woman was appointed deputy education minister in 2009, and another became deputy labor minister in 2018.

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.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

The kingdom’s only elected officials serve on local advisory councils and have little or no influence over national laws and policies.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1.001 4.004

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. The crown prince 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. Bin Salman’s campaign has targeted potential rivals within the royal family, leading observers to suggest these crackdowns are meant to consolidate his political and economic control. Major crackdowns and arrests continued in 2020, with 298 government employees being arrested for corruption in March. Another 59 were arrested in October, and over $160 million worth of assets were seized. In November, 226 public– and private-sector officials were arrested.

Independent whistleblowers and anticorruption advocates have faced punishment. Al-Watan columnist Saleh al-Shehi received a five-year prison sentence in 2018 after suggesting there was corruption in the royal court in a television appearance.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0.000 4.004

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 income and expenditure information in preparation for an initial public offering. However, amid ongoing questions about its relationship with the government, the company opted that December to list shares only on a domestic stock exchange, which entailed less transparency than would be required on a major international exchange.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0.000 4.004

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. In December 2020, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 24 journalists were imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.

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 Ministry of Information license or face fines and possible closure.

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 criticized the government of bin Salman, had been working as a Washington Post columnist in the United States. Saudi officials blamed rogue intelligence agents, but according to a UN special rapporteur, the evidence suggested the crown prince’s involvement. In December 2019, a Saudi court sentenced five men to death for Khashoggi’s murder, and three others received prison sentences; the death sentences were commuted in September 2020. The most senior officials under investigation were acquitted due to a supposed lack of evidence, and bin Salman himself was never officially investigated.

The government maintains an extensive system of social media surveillance and regulation, and invests considerable resources in automated “bot” and other accounts that influence and distort the social media environment and target prominent users. In May 2020, activist Amani al-Zain was reportedly arrested after a video of her criticizing the crown prince––and making a reference to Khashoggi’s murder––surfaced. Progovernment social media users targeted al-Zain online before her arrest.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 0.000 4.004

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 Shiites and of those who practice Sufism. 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 officially appointed figures who depend on government patronage and independent religious scholars who need a measure of official goodwill in order to function openly, appear on television, and avoid 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 imprisoned in 2020.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1.001 4.004

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 have faced punishment for criticizing government policies or for other reasons. History professor and women’s rights activist Hatoon al-Fassi was arrested in 2018, days after her comments on the crown prince’s reforms were publicized. She was provisionally released in May 2019, along with three other activists, but still awaits a trial for illegal contact with foreign media, diplomats, and human rights groups. In August 2020, academic Abdullah Ibn Ali Basfar was arrested under unclear circumstances.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1.001 4.004

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 within Saudi Arabia, and Saudis living and traveling abroad are also subject to spying and intimidation. In November 2019, US prosecutors accused two former Twitter employees of providing information on users, including perceived government critics, to Saudi authorities. The government is also known to use messaging services to track citizens traveling abroad.

The climate for free expression has deteriorated sharply since 2018, with the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the arrests of government critics serving as warnings to ordinary Saudis to avoid public dissent.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 0.000 4.004

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. Hussein al-Rabi was tried in a terrorism court for his involvement in a protest in Eastern Province, and was threatened with torture if he did not confess; al-Rabi was executed in April 2019.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0.000 4.004

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must obtain a government license 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, the same year that women were allowed to drive for the first time, authorities arrested 13 women’s rights activists; eight were provisionally released by May 2020, though their trials were still pending at year’s end. In December, a terrorism court handed two of the remaining detainees, Loujain al-Hathloul and Maya’a al-Zahrani, prison sentences of nearly six years, though al-Hathloul’s sentence was modified to include time served.

No domestic NGO openly advocates for LGBT+ rights or issues.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0.000 4.004

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. A May 2020 COVID-19-related directive banned “gatherings of workers” to five people, while limits on other gatherings were set at 50.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 1.001 4.004

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.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1.001 4.004

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. Due process is notably lacking in death penalty cases. Statistics on prisoners are lacking, and the number of political prisoners is therefore difficult to assess, but Human Rights Watch counted at least 12 activists serving long prison sentences at year’s end.

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 pass through the judicial system, but were instead compelled to hand over assets to the government in return for their release. Government supporters claimed that the judicial process would have taken several years due to a lack of capacity.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0.000 4.004

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 suffered from cuts, bruises, burns, and malnutrition. Detained women’s rights activists were reportedly given electric shocks, whipped, beaten, sexually abused, and threatened with rape. The family of Loujain al-Hathloul stated she had been offered freedom on the condition that she recant her torture allegations, but she refused.

Corporal punishment, most often lashing, is common in criminal sentencing, though the government ended the use of flogging for some crimes in an April 2020 decision.

Capital punishment is applied to a wide range of crimes other than murder, including drug and protest-related offenses. Defendants facing the death penalty are known to confess under torture, but courts do not consistently investigate subsequent retractions. The use of the death penalty declined in 2020; only 15 people were executed in the first 11 months of the year, compared to 184 in all of 2019. In April 2020, the government restated a previous decision to refrain from using capital punishment against those accused of committing certain crimes as children.

Saudi Arabia has faced 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 late March 2020, Houthi forces launched missiles at the cities of Riyadh and Jāzān; Saudi authorities reported their interception, along with two civilian injuries. Missiles and armed drones were used against several Saudi cities in June and against Riyadh in September, though Saudi authorities claimed to intercept both. The Houthi movement also launched an attack on an oil facility in February, which was reportedly intercepted.

Saudi authorities were accused of firing on, and later detaining, Ethiopian migrants living in Yemen when Houthi forces expelled several thousand of them to the Saudi border in April 2020. After that incident, in which Saudi forces reportedly killed dozens of people, authorities allowed several hundred migrants into the country, but arbitrarily detained them in unsanitary conditions, engaged in acts of torture, and gave detainees no opportunity to challenge deportation orders. Saudi authorities promised to investigate the matter in September.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0.000 4.004

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.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 0.000 4.004

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 have historically imposed especially onerous constraints on women. The long-standing ban on women driving was lifted in 2018. In August 2019, women over the age of 21 were allowed to apply for a passport without a male guardian’s permission.

Foreign workers currently cannot change jobs without a no-objection letter from their existing employer, and some employers confiscate workers’ passports to prevent them from leaving. In November 2020, the government announced reforms that will allow foreign workers to more easily leave Saudi Arabia when they take effect in March 2021.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1.001 4.004

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.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 0.000 4.004

There are a number of official restrictions on marriage. Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims, citizens require the interior ministry’s 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 cannot marry without a male guardian’s permission. Under 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 them without their guardians’ permission.

The religious police’s authority to enforce gender-segregation and personal-attire rules 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.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1.001 4.004

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 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. Some components of the kafala system are to be dismantled as part of a labor reform package announced in November 2020.

Government programs give preferential treatment to companies that hire certain percentages of Saudi citizens and penalize those that fail to meet such targets.

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    7 100 not free
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    26 100 not free