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.
- In February, women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released on probation after serving nearly three years in prison on counterterrorism charges relating to her peaceful activism for women to have the right to drive. She remains banned from travelling for five years and is forbidden from talking to the media. Her release was widely seen as a gesture by the authorities to the new US administration.
- In March, changes to the kafala visa-sponsorship system for foreign workers ended the requirement that they obtain their employer’s permission to leave the country or to take another job, a practice that had been criticized for enabling forced labor. However, foreign workers do need to obtain permission from the government to take those actions. Moreover, the changes do not apply to the nearly 3.6 million people who work as domestic workers, personal security guards, or chauffeurs.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
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 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.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
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. Elections due in 2019 were postponed indefinitely without any clear official explanation.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
The electoral framework lacks constitutional protections, and the 2015 municipal elections were subject to 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. Several candidates were disqualified for unclear reasons, though some were reinstated after appeals. Ultimately, 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?
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 2020.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
The Saudi rulers are explicitly opposed to democracy in their country. 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 for “plotting against the state,” seemingly because they were perceived as sympathetic to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. All three remain detained at the end of 2021, pending trials that have been repeatedly and arbitrarily delayed, and they potentially face the death penalty.
|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?
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 have been 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, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
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 the state-sanctioned interpretation of Sunni Islam. Women make up 30 of the 150 members of the appointed Majlis al-Shura (advisory council). Members of religious minorities and women are largely excluded from leadership positions, though a woman was appointed as deputy speaker in October 2020. Women secured about 1 percent of the seats in the 2015 municipal council elections. Shiites reportedly hold a small number of advisory council seats and many municipal council seats in Shiite-majority areas.
Tribes that have close kinship ties with King Salman, especially from the Najd region, have historically held privileged positions in government. The Shura Council includes members of prominent tribal councils such as the al-Mutairi, al-Murrah, or al-Harbi, and the National Guard, one of the country’s military forces, has relied on tribal loyalties. However, the political influence of tribal networks has ostensibly waned, as the king and the crown prince seek to modernize the state, curb the influence of potentially autonomous social forces, and consolidate a politically loyal elite, one independent of social identity.
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?
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?
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 in out-of-court settlements. Mohammed 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.
Since 2020, the government’s ostensible anticorruption campaign has shifted its focus to lower-level officials. In 2021, the national anticorruption body, Nazaha, announced that several hundred people were arrested from a wide range of government ministries for corruption or abuse of power.
Nontribal nepotism in government is also a challenge.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
The functioning of government is largely opaque. The availability of some economic data is improving, including data on the government budget, but overall, whether or how state funds are disbursed and the internal decision-making process that allocates them are unclear; there is no public mechanism for holding senior officials accountable for their decisions. The defense budget is especially shielded from public scrutiny. The sovereign wealth fund, called the Public Investment Fund, is largely opaque.
The state’s oil revenues make up most of its financial resources. In 2019, the state oil company, Saudi Aramco, listed shares on the domestic stock exchange, which requires little transparency, after questions about the company’s relationship with the royal family deterred them from a public offering on a major international exchange.
|Are there free and independent media?
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. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 14 journalists were imprisoned in Saudi Arabia in 2021.
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.
Saudi officials blamed the 2018 killing in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, one of the country’s most prominent journalists who was self-exiled in the US and working for the Washington Post, on rogue Saudi intelligence agents. A handful of agents were sentenced to prison, but no senior officials were held accountable despite evidence that the killing was coordinated by the then deputy head of the general intelligence presidency and by a senior advisor to the crown prince. The crown prince’s senior advisor was sanctioned by the US government in February 2021.
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 2020, internet 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.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
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 to function openly, appear on television, and avoid penalties.
Online commentary that touches on religion can be harshly punished.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
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 and researchers have faced punishment for being perceived as criticizing government policies.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Saudis can engage in some degree of private discussion on political and other topics, including criticism of certain aspects of government performance, but the climate for free expression has deteriorated sharply since the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the arrests of many prominent writers and activists, which served as warnings to ordinary Saudis to avoid dissent. Self-censorship is virtually ubiquitous.
There are severe criminal penalties for 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. Saudi Arabia is one of at least 10 governments that has had contracts with the Israeli NSO Group for Pegasus spyware, which allows users to secretly hack into a subject’s phone and spy on their whereabouts and communications in real time. Investigations in 2021 by journalists and tech researchers, including from the Canadian privacy rights group Citizen Lab, uncovered a new form of surveillance tool used by the Saudi government that needed no interaction with the user to access personal devices.
In November 2019, US prosecutors accused two former Twitter employees of providing information on users, including perceived government critics, to Saudi authorities. In October 2021, a court upheld a 20-year prison sentence against Abdulrahman al-Sadhan for criticizing the government through an anonymous Twitter account. The number of people detained for criticizing the government is not published, and not all cases are reported as family members fear retribution should theirs be made public.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Freedom of assembly is not respected, and the government has imposed harsh punishments—including at times the death penalty—on those who lead or participate in public protests.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
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; authorities have expressed a desire to encourage the growth of civil society but 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 February 2021, women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released on probation after serving nearly three years in prison on counterterrorism charges relating to her peaceful activism for women to have the right to drive. She remains banned from travelling for five years and is forbidden from talking to the media. Her release was widely seen as a gesture by the authorities to the new US administration.
No domestic NGO openly advocates for LGBT+ rights in the country.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
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.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
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?
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 and other information on prisoners, sometimes including their whereabouts or reason for arrest, are lacking. The number of political prisoners is difficult to assess, with some cases never reported due to fears that publicity will incur retribution from the authorities. Conditional releases sometimes require prisoners not to speak about their experiences.
A 2014 antiterrorism law 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. Several Palestinians and Jordanians were sentenced on terrorism charges in August 2021.
The hundreds of people arrested in the 2017 anticorruption crackdown 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.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
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 2019, international media published leaked prison medical records indicating that many 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. Conditions in migrant detention centers are notoriously poor.
Corporal punishment, most often lashing, is common in criminal sentencing, though the government ended the use of flogging for some crimes in April 2020.
Capital punishment is applied to a wide range of crimes beyond 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 number of executions rose to at least 40 in January–July 2021, according to Amnesty International, after falling sharply to 27 executions during the entirety of 2020, when Saudi Arabia hosted the G20 summit. Meanwhile, three soldiers were executed in April 2021 for alleged treason; no details about their actions were publicized.
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. These include drone attacks, such as an attack on Abha airport in August 2021, which wounded eight people. The country has also experienced waves of domestic terrorism from Al Qaeda in the past.
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 2020.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
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 testimony, 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 2019 included a ban on gender discrimination in employment.
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?
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 or imprisoned. For instance, in 2020, authorities jailed two of the children of Saad al-Jabri, who was formerly the most trusted counterterrorism advisor to the previous crown prince and is now in exile in Canada; Jabri alleged that the Saudi government had sent a hit squad to try to kill him in 2018.
Gender segregation restricts freedom of movement for both men and women, but male guardianship and other factors have historically imposed onerous constraints on women. The long-standing ban on women driving was lifted in 2018, and since 2019 adult women have been able to apply for a passport independently. Gender-segregation norms are easing in some places but unevenly and informally.
In March 2021, the kafala visa-sponsorship system was modified so that certain foreign workers no longer need their employer’s permission to leave their job, take a new job, or leave the country; they instead need to seek permission from the Saudi government.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
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?
There are several 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 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 2019 reforms to the guardianship system, social taboos and other obstacles often deter them 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 was sharply curtailed in law and practice in 2016. Women’s dress is now less tightly controlled, though some Saudis have faced penalties for breaching norms of perceived “modesty” on social media.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
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 system. They also lack pathways to become citizens and face discrimination, including lower wages. However, March 2021 changes to the kafala system ended the requirement that foreign workers obtain their employer’s permission to leave the country or to take another job, a practice that had been criticized for enabling forced labor. However, foreign workers do need to obtain permission from the government to take those actions. Moreover, the changes do not apply to the nearly 3.6 million people who work as domestic workers, personal security guards, or chauffeurs who are governed by separate regulations that provide fewer safeguards against exploitative working conditions.
Government programs give preferential treatment to companies that hire certain percentages of Saudi citizens and penalize those that fail to meet such targets.
Human trafficking remains a problem. In November 2021, UN experts called on the Saudi and Vietnamese authorities to combat the trafficking of women and girls from Vietnam to Saudi Arabia, noting one example in which a 15-year-old Vietnamese girl died after her employer beat her and denied her food; her family was unable to recover her body because her immigration documents had been forged by traffickers.
On Saudi Arabia
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Global Freedom Score8 100 not free
Internet Freedom Score25 100 not free