Saudi Arabia

Not Free
PR Political Rights 1 40
CL Civil Liberties 7 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 members of religious minority groups face extensive discrimination in law and in practice. Working conditions for the large expatriate labor force are often exploitative.

header2 Key Developments in 2022

  • In an unusually large mass execution in March, the authorities put to death 81 men who had been convicted on terrorism charges. As of late November, at least 147 people had been executed in the kingdom during the year.
  • In August, two Saudi women received draconian prison sentences for allegedly criticizing the government via social media. Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for following and sharing the posts of activists and dissidents on Twitter, and for being in possession of a banned book. Noura al-Qahtani was sentenced to 45 years in prison for using social media to allegedly “spread lies,” among other purported crimes.
  • In September, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was promoted by royal decree from deputy prime minister and defense minister to prime minister, a position previously occupied by his father, King Salman.

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 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. 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 doubled as prime minister until September 2022, when Mohammed bin Salman, who had been deputy prime minister and minister of defense, was appointed to the premiership. The move was expected to provide the crown prince with sovereign immunity from a US lawsuit related to his role in the 2018 murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Turkey. Mohammed bin Salman’s younger brother Khalid bin Salman, who had been the deputy defense minister, became defense minister.

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 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.

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 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.

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 2020. Many other political activists continue to serve lengthy prison sentences.

The National Assembly Party (NAAS), which was founded abroad by Saudi exiles in 2020, claimed in July 2022 that one of its key members, Manea al-Yami, had been killed in Beirut under suspicious circumstances. Lebanese security forces issued a statement alleging that al-Yami’s brothers had stabbed him to death for “family reasons.” The official Saudi Press Agency did not report on al-Yami’s death.

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 monarchy is explicitly opposed to democracy in the 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 the Qatari government and the Muslim Brotherhood. All three remained detained without basic due process rights at the end of 2022, pending trials that have been repeatedly and arbitrarily delayed, and they potentially face the death penalty.

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 have been 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, members of 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. Members of religious minorities and women are largely excluded from the council’s leadership positions, though a woman was appointed as deputy speaker in 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. In 2022, several women were appointed to or continued to serve in relatively high-ranking positions in bodies such as cabinet, the stock exchange, and the sovereign wealth fund.

Tribes that have close kinship ties with King Salman, especially from the Najd region, have historically held privileged positions in government. The Majlis al-Shura includes members of prominent tribal groups, 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 an elite whose political loyalty is independent of social identity.

Noncitizens, who make up roughly one-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. Nontribal nepotism in government is also a challenge.

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 initially targeted potential rivals within the royal family, leading observers to suggest that these crackdowns are meant to consolidate his political and economic control. Since 2020, the government has shifted its focus to offenses by lower-level officials. In July 2022, the national anticorruption body announced that it had arrested 78 officials accused of bribery, forgery, and money laundering, and 116 were investigated for several other crimes.

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 not transparent. The availability of some economic and financial 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, and 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 it from pursuing a public offering 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. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 11 journalists were imprisoned in Saudi Arabia as of December 2022.

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.

Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent self-exiled Saudi journalist who was working for the Washington Post in the United States, was killed by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018. Some of the perpetrators were sentenced to prison in Saudi Arabia, but no senior officials were held accountable despite evidence that the murder was coordinated by the then deputy head of the general intelligence presidency and by a senior adviser to the crown prince.

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. It also uses a vaguely worded and broad-ranging cybercrime law as a means of cracking down on the sharing of critical news and commentary online.

In May 2022, the General Commission for Audiovisual Media (GCAM) fined two female social media celebrities for violating a law against content that would harm the kingdom’s relations with friendly countries. The names of the influencers and of the country in question were not disclosed by the commission. In July, Saudi authorities requested that YouTube delete advertisements that they considered contradictory to Islamic values, and in September, the Saudi government joined its counterparts in the Gulf Cooperation Council to demand that Netflix remove video content related to LGBT+ people.

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 observance of any religion other than Islam and restricts Shiite and Sufi Muslims’ religious practices. 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. In July 2022, a Saudi citizen was arrested for having helped a non-Muslim to illegally enter Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.

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.

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 and researchers have faced punishment for being perceived as criticizing government policies.

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 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 killing 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.

Surveillance is extensive within Saudi Arabia, and Saudis living and traveling abroad are also subject to spying and intimidation. The government is known to have purchased Pegasus spyware, which allows users to secretly hack into a target’s phone and spy on their whereabouts and communications in real time. Investigations in 2021 by foreign journalists and technology researchers uncovered a new form of surveillance tool used by the Saudi government that needed no interaction with the targeted user to access their personal devices.

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. In August 2022, two women received long prison sentences for using Twitter to share posts by dissidents or make remarks that were critical of the government: Salma al-Shehab, a doctoral student in Britain who was arrested while visiting her family in the kingdom, was sentenced to 34 years in prison and a 34-year travel ban. Nourah al-Qahtani was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Neither had a large online following or was known for political activism.

In addition to criminal penalties, individuals can face dismissal from employment in reprisal for their online activity. In February 2022, two expatriate workers were fired in separate incidents after they posted content that was deemed offensive to the kingdom.

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 at times the death penalty—on those who lead or participate in public protests.

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; 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. No domestic NGO openly advocates for LGBT+ rights in the country. Individual human rights activists and other civil society representatives face regular harassment and detention.

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.

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 over how they interpret Sharia and do not have to publish an explanation of their judgments.

In what appeared to be a political purge of the judiciary in April 2022, state security officials arrested nine prominent judges on charges of “high treason.”

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 deficient 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.

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.

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 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 flogging, is common in criminal sentencing, though the government ended its use for some crimes in 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. In March 2022, the Interior Ministry announced that 81 people had been executed on terrorism charges, marking the largest mass execution in the country’s recent history; about half of them were Shiites. In November, another 20 men were executed after being convicted of drug crimes, ending a two-year moratorium on use of the death penalty for such offenses. The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights estimated in late November that there had been a total of 147 executions to date that year.

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 movement, also known as Ansar Allah (Supporters of God). The incidents have included drone and missile attacks on key infrastructure such as airports. The kingdom has also experienced waves of domestic terrorism from Al-Qaeda in the past.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 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 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.

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.

Despite these enduring obstacles, education and economic rights for Saudi women have improved significantly in recent years. Reforms announced in 2019 included a ban on gender-based discrimination in employment, and job sectors that were previously reserved for men have been gradually opened to women. Women’s rate of participation in the labor force has grown rapidly in tandem with the legal changes, rising from 19 percent in 2016 to 37 percent in 2022.

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. Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti stated in May 2022 that homosexuality is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $800,000. In June, authorities conducted raids on stores selling rainbow-colored products that were thought to be associated with LGBT+ identity.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 due to the removal in recent years of some legal barriers that had prevented women from entering the workforce and obtaining employment in certain sectors of the economy.

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 or imprisoned.

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 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.

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 apply for 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 several official restrictions on marriage. For example, 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. In March 2022, Saudi Arabia adopted a personal status law that codifies matters such as a divorced woman’s rights to child custody, alimony, and child support, reducing the scope of judicial discretion. It also prohibits girls under 18 from being forcibly married, and allows a woman to appeal to a court if her male guardian rejects a proposed marriage. The law nevertheless retains the system of male guardianship and leaves women at a disadvantage on a variety of topics.

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. In February 2022, authorities indicated that men would be fined for wearing shorts only if they did so in mosques or government offices.

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

Saudi citizens generally enjoy generous welfare benefits from the government. State programs give preferential treatment to companies that hire certain percentages of Saudi citizens, while penalizing those that fail to meet such targets.

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. The 2021 reforms 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 rule 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 employed as domestic workers, personal security guards, or chauffeurs, as they are governed by separate regulations that provide fewer safeguards against exploitative working conditions.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    8 100 not free
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    24 100 not free