Saudi Arabia

Not Free
73/100
Key Developments: 

June 1, 2017 - May 31, 2018

  • An antiterrorism law introduced in November 2017 laid out lengthy prison terms for offenses linked to nonviolent political and religious speech, such as portraying the king or crown prince “in a manner that brings religion or justice in disrepute” (see Legal Environment).

  • Authorities jailed several prominent women’s rights activists, journalists, and other government critics for their online activities. Human rights defender Mohammed al-Otaibi was given a 14-year prison sentence after he was forcibly deported to Saudi Arabia while on his way to Norway, which had granted him special travel documents (see Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities).

  • Amid the crackdown on those who do not signal their strict allegiance to the crown prince and king, as internet users are increasingly cautious about what they post, share, or “like” online (see Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation).

 

Introduction: 

Internet freedom in Saudi Arabia declined in 2018 amid an escalating intolerance for all forms of political, social, and religious dissent.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman initiated a chaotic consolidation of power over the coverage period, with dire consequences for freedom of expression and human rights more broadly. A new antiterrorism law instituted in November 2017 set out criminal penalties for, among several offenses, portraying the Saudi king or crown prince “in a manner that brings religion or justice into disrepute,” or using one’s “social status or media influence to promote terrorism.” State authorities have widely interpreted “terrorism” to encompass a variety of nonviolent political, social, and religious offenses. In addition, oversight and enforcement power for counterterrorism measures was transferred from the Ministry of Interior to the Public Prosecution and the Presidency of the State Security, two newly established bodies that report directly to the king.

Beginning in September 2017, authorities arrested several prominent intellectuals, academics, religious clerics, and members of the ruling family. While the reasons for the arrests have not been publicly disclosed, it was widely interpreted that the individuals were targeted for criticizing government policies, including through their social media posts. Two months later, the crown prince detained hundreds of businessmen and members of the royal family in what was described as an anticorruption drive; many were forced to come to opaque agreements as a condition of their release. In the aftermath, at least 17 individuals were hospitalized and 1 died from apparent torture at the hands of authorities.1

Online, some Saudis vocalized their support for the anticorruption measures, recommending that he tackle specific cases of suspected malfeasance. Many people have also used smartphones to spread awareness about popular concerns such as sexual harassment and women’s rights. While the internet remains the least repressive forum to air and exchange views, prominent activists and journalists perceived a shrinking space for online expression during the reporting period, resulting in a rise in self-censorship.

In a graphic display of the government’s assault on free expression, Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist, was forcibly disappeared in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Mounting evidence strongly indicates that he was tortured and murdered by the government – and that the subsequent cover up also occurred at the direction of Saudi leaders. In his final column for the Washington Post, published after his death, Khashoggi called for free expression in the Arab World, noting that “There was a time when journalists believed the Internet would liberate information from the censorship and control associated with print media. But these governments, whose very existence relies on the control of information, have aggressively blocked the Internet.”2 In the aftermath, new revelations reported by the New York Times evidenced the government’s broad online manipulation efforts and its grooming of a Saudi Twitter employee to spy on local users.3

Obstacles to Access: 

Overall, infrastructure is not considered a major barrier to internet access, except in remote and sparsely populated areas, where the government has allocated funds to introduce high-speed connections. Internet penetration is highest in major cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah, as well as in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Young Saudis make up the majority of the user population throughout the country.

Availability and Ease of Access

Saudis have enjoyed a rapid growth in internet and communications technologies (ICTs). According to BuddeComm, an online research organization, internet penetration reached over 76 percent in 2018,4 up from 47 percent in 2011.5 Saudi Arabia is home to around 24.5 million internet users. The number of those with household fixed broadband ADSL subscriptions continued to decline, accounting for a 40 percent penetration rate in the third quarter of 2017. This corresponds to the general decline in the fixed telephony market, largely due to competition with mobile services. By contrast, 88 percent of the population used mobile broadband services in the same time period.6

In January 2018, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology demanded that mobile service providers in remote areas of the country provide local roaming services to users within two months.7 In March, the state-owned telecommunications provider Saudi Telecom Company awarded Ericsson with a contract to upgrade and expand the 4G network. This includes plans to deploy Ericsson’s 5G-ready hardware in the country, a process that began in December 2017.8 Additionally, a number of telecommunications companies have forged partnerships to achieve improved network services and infrastructure. Examples include a March 2018 cooperation agreement between Zain Saudi Arabia and Huawei.9

As part of its overall economic and social reform strategy, the government has streamlined laws to attract foreign companies, including cloud computing and technology service providers. Authorities have eased rules around foreign ownership of companies and other regulatory hurdles. In December 2017, global technology companies such as Amazon Web Services held discussions with Saudi authorities to explore potentially offering cloud services in Saudi Arabia.10 In early March 2018, the telecommunications regulator began regulating cloud computing in the country, establishing registration, disclosure, and other requirements for cloud service providers.11

Mobile broadband penetration fell from 102 percent in 2015 to 76 percent at the end of 2016, with roughly 24 million mobile broadband subscriptions. Overall, the number of mobile subscriptions fell from 54 million in 2011 to 51.8 million in 2016. The decrease was due to the deportation of thousands of undocumented workers and the deactivation of their prepaid mobile accounts,12 in addition to new requirements for all mobile subscribers to register using their fingerprints in order to obtain service (see Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity).

Restrictions on Connectivity

Regulators and telecommunications companies have historically taken an aggressive stance against free or low-cost voice over internet protocol (VoIP) call services that potentially reduce the amount of standard mobile calls, circumvent the regulatory environment, and in some cases bypass the surveillance apparatus. Internet providers previously blocked VoIP apps including Viber,13 WhatsApp,14 and Facebook Messenger.15

In September 2017, the government announced that it had lifted a year-long ban on all VoIP call services that satisfied its regulatory requirements, including Skype and WhatsApp. This shift represented part of the government’s broader economic reforms aimed at rationalizing the business environment. This specific policy was intended to reduce operational costs for businesses and “spur digital entrepreneurship,” according to a statement by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology.16 However, despite the announcement, several VoIP call services, including WhatsApp and FaceTime, remain blocked, and can only be accessed using a virtual private network (VPN).

Saudi Arabia is connected to the internet through two country-level data service providers, the Integrated Telecom Company and Bayanat al-Oula for Network Services. The servers they utilize are split between the state-owned internet backbone and global servers. All user requests that arrive via Saudi internet service providers (ISPs) travel through these servers, making them subject to censorship at a centralized point. International internet bandwidth doubled from 1,484 Gbps in 2015 to 3,185 Gbps in 2016.17

ICT Market

The two country-level service providers offer services to licensed ISPs, which in turn sell connections to dial-up and leased-line clients. Broadband and mobile phone service is provided by the three largest telecommunications companies in the Middle East: Saudi Telecom Company (STC), Mobily (owned by Etisalat in the United Arab Emirates), and Zain (from Kuwait). In addition to these companies, two relatively new companies have been operating since 2014: Virgin Mobile (operating with STC) and Lebara (operating with Mobily). Virgin Mobile, which is the fastest-growing telecommunications operator in the country, reached 2.8 million subscribers by the end of 2017.18 Several ISPs provide zero-rating services, offering some content or services for free. For example, Zain provides unlimited access to YouTube as part of a prepaid mobile packages,19 while a Virgin Mobile promotion launched in January 2018 allows customers to double the amount of data in their monthly internet plans at no further cost.20

The main telecommunications providers have been accused by campaigners and trade associations of engaging in unfair trade practices.21 Most recently, Ibrahim Al al-Alsheikh of Asharqia Chamber, a government-linked trade promotion organization, criticized STC and Mobily after they increased the prices of data packs by up to 50 percent in January 2018.22 In the following month, local press sources reported that the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) intervened and ordered both companies to reinstate the previous prices for the packages.23

Internet cafes, once prevalent, have become less popular in recent years due to the broad availability and affordability of home broadband access. Internet cafes are mainly used by young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to congregate and socialize. Coffee shops have grown in popularity among business people, young adults, and single males, who enjoy free Wi-Fi access with their paid beverages. In addition, more female-only coffee shops have been opened to serve women and girls who previously had to go to family sections.

Regulatory Bodies

The CITC is responsible for regulating the internet,24 and also tasked with controlling the price that telecommunications companies are allowed to charge for cross-network calls. For example, in 2015, the maximum charge for local voice calls between different networks was lowered.25Furthermore, the CITC sends content removal requests to social networks, usually related to political or sexual content (see Content Removal). The board of directors of the CITC is headed by the minister of communications and information technology, Abdullah Amer Al-Swaha.26 Al-Sawaha has held this post since April 2017, and has been tasked with developing the country’s ICT infrastructure in line with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform agenda.27 In September 2016, the CITC suspended all unlimited internet packages in coordination with telecommunications companies, starting with prepaid packages. The CITC cited unsustainable pressure on national bandwidth as the reason for the move.28

Previously, all internet governance fell under the purview of the Internet Services Unit (ISU), a department of the King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology (KACST). Established in 1998 and reporting directly to the vice president for scientific research support of KACST, the ISU now only provides internet access to government departments, as well as Saudi research and academic institutions.29

Limits on Content: 

The government continued to employ strict filtering of internet content throughout 2017 and early 2018. Self-censorship remained prevalent when discussing politics, religion, and the royal family, and increasingly in relation to the supposed reform agenda of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Nonetheless, social media has driven an immense diversification of online content, offering Saudis a multitude of perspectives beyond state-controlled media. These tools have been used by ordinary citizens and human rights activists to raise awareness of issues surrounding political reform, poverty, gender inequality, sexual harassment, and corruption.

Blocking and Filtering

Popular social media and communication apps are not blocked, although authorities have imposed restrictions on their use. For example, messaging app Telegram has faced temporary throttling since January 2016, when users reported severe bandwidth limitations preventing file and image sharing.30 Telegram’s CEO confirmed the issue, but said that the “reasons [behind the restrictions] are unknown.”31

Officially, sites that are judged to contain “harmful,” “illegal,” “anti-Islamic,” or “offensive” material are routinely blocked, including pages related to pornography, gambling, and drugs. Websites that may be used to distribute copyrighted materials, such as the Pirate Bay,32 are blocked.33 Authorities also seek to disrupt the dissemination of violent extremist content,34 sometimes resulting in the blocking of licensed news sites for publishing photos of militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS).35 Authorities do not tolerate criticism of the Saudi royal family or its allies among the Gulf Arab states. The website of the London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and its English equivalent The New Arab were blocked in January 2016.36 The English language websites of most international news agencies are available.

Websites and social media pages belonging to human rights or political organizations, such as the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Organization (ACPRA) and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), are blocked.37 Sites belonging to several Saudi religious scholars and dissidents are blocked,38 as well as some related to the Shiite religious minority, such as YahoseinAwamia,39 and Rasid,40 which has discontinued operations.41 Authorities have also blocked the website of the Islamic Umma Party, the country’s only political party, which operates underground because political parties are illegal. The party has called for the royal family to step down.

The government receives blocking requests from members of the public, who can use a web-based form to submit a complaint regarding “undesirable” material.42 Once an individual submits the form, a team of CITC employees determines whether the request is justified. In 2015, the CITC received 732,504 blocking requests.43

The government is somewhat transparent about what content it blocks. While the list of banned sites is not publicly available, users who attempt to access a banned site are redirected to a page displaying the message, “Access to the requested URL is not allowed!” In addition, a green background is displayed on sites blocked by the CITC, whereas sites blocked by the Ministry of Culture and Information for licensing violations or copyright infringement have a blue background.

Data service providers must block all sites banned by the CITC,44 and failure to abide by these bans may result in a fine of up to SAR 5 million (US$1.33 million), according to article 38 of the Telecommunication Act.45

Many Saudi internet users have become savvy at using circumvention tools such as Hotspot Shield, which allows users to access a VPN) to bypass censorship.46 However, the websites of many similar tools, such as Tor and the major VPN providers, are blocked by the government.47 In January 2018, authorities blocked Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project, a publishing protocol that has reportedly been used by local groups to evade restrictions on news websites.48

Content Removal

Blocking and filtering are compounded by censorship and forced content removal. Gatekeepers frequently delete user-generated content that could be deemed inappropriate or inconsistent with societal norms, as they can be held legally liable for content posted on their platforms.49As a result, it is unusual to find any antigovernment comments on the websites of major Saudi newspapers, which do not reflect the diversity of political views seen on social networks.

Commentators have accused social media companies of complicity with governmental authorities in censoring online content. In December 2017, Omar Abdulaziz, a Canada-based Saudi dissident who founded the Yakathah channel on YouTube, stated that a hashtag he created was removed from Twitter shortly after it was retweeted 6,000 times. The hashtag was critical of Turki Al al-Sheikh, head of the General Sport Authority. Abdulaziz claimed that he received no response from Twitter regarding the hashtag’s removal. Ghanem al-Dosari, another Saudi dissident based in London, claimed that Facebook prevented him from accessing his account for nine months.50

In September 2017, Snapchat blocked Qatari news channel Al Jazeera from its platform at the behest of Saudi authorities, in a move that was widely perceived to stem from Saudi Arabia’s ongoing political dispute with Qatar.

According to new regulations instituted in March 2018, cloud service providers are not liable for “unlawful content or infringing content [that] has been uploaded, processed, or stored” by the providers. However, cloud providers must remove any such content or render it inaccessible within the country after written notice by the CITC “or any other authorized entity.” If cloud providers become aware of any content on their platforms that “may constitute a violation” of the cybercrime law, they must notify the relevant authorities. Content may be exempt from filtering by a CITC decision if it is privately held and not publicly accessible.51

Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation

Social media users are increasingly cautious about what they post, share, or “like” online, particularly after the passage of a new antiterrorism law in 2014. This law was replaced in November 2017 with similarly broad legislation. Users who express support for liberal ideals, minority rights, or political reform, in addition to those who expose human rights violations, are closely monitored and often targeted by the government. Questioning religious doctrine is strictly taboo, particularly content related to the prophet Mohammed. Saudi women are often pressured to refrain from posting photos of their faces online. This social pressure has led many users to join social networks that offer more privacy, such as Snapchat and Path. Influential Twitter users are increasingly fearful of expressing support for outspoken activists who have recently received jail sentences. Government consultants have stopped contributing to foreign newspaper articles due to pressure from other government agency representatives. According to one prominent Saudi journalist, the “margin for free expression has shrunk significantly” during the reporting period in both print and online media channels. He noted that there is less tolerance for criticism of government performance than before, specifically regarding critiques, no matter how minor, of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 reform agenda.52

Jamal Khashoggi had previously lost his column on Al-Watan (where he formerly served as editor-in-chief) in the wake of government pressure. Khashoggi went into self-imposed exile in the U.S. after writing in a Washington Post op-ed about the changing environment for reform-minded intellectuals in Saudi Arabia, as well as government intimidation and public shaming of popular media figures.53 Previously, in December 2016, the government banned Khashoggi from using Twitter and making televised appearances after he criticized the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump.”54 The ban was lifted in August 2017.55

With so much activity occurring on social networks, the government maintains an active presence online as a means of creating the illusion of popular support for its policies. Critics suspect that the government employs an “electronic army” to continuously post progovernment views, particularly on social media. Progovernment trolls have taken to “hashtag poisoning,” a method of spamming a popular hashtag in order to disrupt criticism or other unwanted conversations through a flood of unrelated or opposing tweets.56 Bots, or automated accounts created by combining random photos of faces with names culled from the internet, frequently share identical messages.

In November 2017, the government and its regional allies faced allegations of using Twitter bots to stifle reporting on the war in Yemen.57 A BBC report published in March 2018 found that several Saudi companies have been established to artificially boost the popularity of Twitter hashtags through the use of such bots.58 The government also influences online news reporting by offering financial support to news sites such as Sabq and Elaph in return for coordination between site editors and the authorities.59

Following the coverage period and in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder, reports emerged that the government employed an electronic army based in Riyadh to suppress online expressions of dissent and smear government opponents in information operations targeting both domestic and foreign audiences.60 Those involved were given lists of dissidents to target on platforms including Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram, and must reach daily quotas. The New York Times also revealed that in 2015 Western intelligence authorities informed Twitter that the Saudi government was working with a Twitter employee who had access to the personal information of several accounts.

The owners of opposition websites struggle to remain financially viable as a result of censorship. Revenue from third-party advertisers can be heavily impacted by a government decision to block a website. The government can also request advertisers to cancel their ads on a particular website in order to pressure the website to close. Restrictions on foreign funding further inhibit the sustainability of websites that are critical of the government.

Arabic content is widely available, as are Arabic versions of commonly used social media sites and mobile applications. While opposition blogs and online forums were once the main venue for discussing political and social matters, most Saudis now use social media. Saudi Arabia has the highest percentage of internet users who are active on Twitter in the world.61

Opposition figures abroad use YouTube as a platform for distributing audio and video content, since their websites are blocked within the country.62 Omar Abdulaziz and Ghanem al-Dosari, two Saudi dissidents based in Canada and London respectively, produce politically themed shows that are critical of progovernment propaganda. However, both have experienced several instances of their accounts being blocked on Twitter and Facebook (see Content Removal).

Digital Activism

Saudis have increasingly taken to digital activism to express popular concerns and grievances over the last few years. These online campaigns, most widely proliferating on Twitter, have mobilized diverse groups of constituents, though the most active participants have been young people.

In 2016, there was a widespread social media campaign to end male guardianship of women. Under Saudi law, women are treated as legal minors and cannot make critical decisions on their education, health, and career without the supervision of a male relative. For more than eight months, these hashtags trended locally, with many female activists documenting their experiences and calling for an end to the restrictions. Social media users widely shared videos and other online content in support of women’s rights.63 In May 2017, King Salman issued a royal directive to government agencies to limit any restrictions on women’s access to public services to cases where the limits are established by law.64 On September 26, King Salman announced that women would be given the right to drive starting in June 2018.65 Saudi women have since been granted additional freedoms, including the right to join the military,66 and the right to retain custody of their children following divorce without resorting to legal battles.67 Nonetheless, the guardianship system and other legal and social barriers still pose restrictions on women’s rights.

A large number of women and men have also taken to social media to speak out against and expose sexual harassment.68 In March 2018, a video circulated widely on social media channels showing a Saudi woman striking men who verbally harassed her with a stick as she walked in a park in Riyadh. Several online users encouraged her actions, while others criticized her and claimed she “provoked” men by not dressing modestly.69 In the same month, a hashtag trended on Twitter calling for the arrest of a taxi driver after a video went viral that showed him verbally and physically harassing and threatening a female passenger. The video had garnered over one million views at the end of the reporting period. An arrest warrant was promptly issued, and the man in question was detained within a matter of hours.70 These online campaigns have been widely covered by local news websites.

Saudis have also used smartphones to document corruption and improper behavior by government officials.71 Dedicated social media pages have been established to document and protest administrative and financial corruption, including a Twitter account entitled Enough Corruption, launched in November 2017, which has garnered 2,600 followers.72 Saudis have used social media to express support for the crown prince’s corruption crackdown, which has been criticized by human rights groups for lacking transparency and due process. Some urged authorities to focus on specific cases of perceived corruption, including widespread corruption that many claim led to over 100 deaths during the Jeddah floods of 2009, allegedly due to shoddy infrastructure and bribery in construction contracting.73

Violations of User Rights: 

Saudi courts have delivered some of the harshest prison sentences against internet users in the world, with numerous human rights defenders jailed for up to 11 years for their online activities. During the reporting period, both conservative and liberal social media users were arrested and prosecuted for criticizing the government.

Legal Environment

Saudi Arabia has no constitution. The Basic Law of Saudi Arabia contains language that calls for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but only within certain boundaries. The 2000 Law of Print and Press also addresses freedom of expression issues, though it largely consists of restrictions on speech rather than protections. Online journalists employed at newspapers and other formal news outlets maintain the same rights and protections as print and broadcast journalists, and like their counterparts, are also subject to close government supervision. Similarly, laws designed to protect users from cybercrimes also contain clauses that limit freedom of expression. The 2007 Anti-Cyber Crime Law criminalizes “producing something that harms public order, religious values, public morals, the sanctity of private life, or authoring, sending, or storing it via an information network,” and imposes penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to SAR 3 million (US$800,000).74

The new antiterrorism law introduced in November 2017 continues to define terrorist acts in broad terms. The legislation includes criminal penalties of 5 to 10 years in prison for portraying the king or crown prince, directly or indirectly, “in a manner that brings religion or justice into disrepute;” and a 15-year prison sentence for those using their “social status or media influence to promote terrorism.” Executive oversight and enforcement power over counterterrorism measures were moved to the Public Prosecution and Presidency of the State Security; the latter is an intelligence and counterterrorism agency established in 2017. While such powers were previously under the purview of the Ministry of Interior, both bodies now report directly to the king.75

In September 2017, the government requested that citizens and residents monitor social media channels for subversive comments against the state. They were urged to report such comments to authorities using a phone app that was originally launched in 2016 to report traffic violations and theft. Many Saudis expressed support for these measures on social media, stating that they would enhance the country’s security.76

Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities

Saudi Arabia’s restrictive laws have been rigorously applied to silence critical voices and human rights defenders. Since traditional political organizing is banned, many human rights activists carry out their activities online. As a result, the authorities often prosecute activists for creating websites critical of the government, posting on Twitter, or appearing in YouTube videos documenting human rights abuses or calling for government action.

Authorities targeted several individuals for their online dissent during a widespread crackdown on dozens of intellectuals, academics, clerics, and members of the ruling family in September 2017. All those detained are thought to have opposed or failed to voice sufficient public approval of government policies:

  • Essam al-Zamil, a writer, economist, and active Twitter user, was detained after scrutinizing Saudi plans to privatize a portion of Saudi Aramco’s shares.77

  • Ziyad bin Naheet, a poet, was also held after criticizing local media outlets that vilified Qatar in a YouTube video.

  • Popular cleric Salman al-Awdah, who has roughly 14.5 million followers on Twitter, was also detained. Many believe he was targeted for a tweet encouraging reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.78

  • Jameel Farsi, a prominent journalist and businessman, was detained after expressing his concerns over the introduction of the value-added tax (VAT) and the sale of state-owned companies on social media.

  • Mustafa al-Hassan, a journalist and professor of Islamic studies at King Fahad University, was also arrested as part of the crackdown. Al-Hassan was active and popular on Twitter and YouTube, where he posted content on social and cultural issues, as well as literature, on his personal channel.79

As of January 2018, al-Awdah continued to be held in solitary confinement without trial, and had been hospitalized temporarily due to an unspecified medical condition.80 The current status of the other detainees and the charges against them was unclear as of mid-2018.

Several prominent women’s rights activists were also detained during the reporting period, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Youssef, who were arrested in a May 2018 crackdown and held without formal charges being leveled against them.81 Two additional women’s rights activists were arrested in August.82 Many of the women detained were campaigning against the government’s ban on women drivers, which was lifted in June, as well as the male guardianship laws that remain on the books.

In January 2018, authorities sentenced human rights activists Mohammad al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi to 14 and 7 years in prison, respectively.83 Charges against the pair, some of which were brought under the cybercrime law, included setting up an organization without prior authorization, and making public statements harmful to the country, such as publishing information about their interrogations. Al-Otaibi and al-Attawi had established the Union for Human Rights in April 2013, a short-lived civil society organization, and have since been repeatedly detained and interrogated by the public prosecutor.84

In February 2018, a criminal court sentenced Saleh al-Shehi, a prominent columnist with over one million Twitter followers, to five years in prison for insulting the Royal Court.85 Al-Shehi wrote for the website of Saudi pro-government newspaper Al-Watan, where he covered the government's use of funds recovered during its anticorruption drive, among other issues (see Digital Activism).86 The charges against al-Shehi followed comments he made accusing the Royal Court of favoritism in an appearance on the Rotana television channel.

Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity

Surveillance is rampant in Saudi Arabia. The government justifies the pervasive monitoring of nonviolent political, social, and religious activists by claiming that they are protecting national security and maintaining social order. The authorities regularly monitor websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails, and text messages. After the government announced that it would lift its ban on online voice and video call services in September 2017, authorities claimed that all calls would be monitored and censored by the Communications and Information Technology Commission.87 However, it is unclear whether there is the ability to monitor platforms that use end-to-end encryption, such as WhatsApp. In the same month, the Ministry of Interior urged citizens to monitor each other and report social media posts that damaged “the state's reputation,” referring to such posts as “information crimes.”88

The Ministry of Culture and Information requires that all blogs, forums, chat rooms, and other sites obtain a license from the ministry to operate, thus putting more pressure on online writers to self-regulate their content.89 However, this rule is generally enforced only on popular online publications. Even anonymous users and writers who employ pseudonyms when making controversial remarks face special scrutiny from the authorities, who frequently attempt to identify and detain them.

In January 2016, the CITC required mobile network operators to register the fingerprints of new SIM card subscribers, and in August 2016, unregistered subscriptions were suspended. Subscribers were given a period of 90 days to document their fingerprints before the suspension became permanent.90 The CITC said that the new requirement is meant to “limit the negative effects and violations in the use of communication services.”91 The new regulation built upon previous requirements to register subscribers' real names and identity numbers, even to recharge a prepaid mobile card,92 which was often circumvented in practice.93

Saudi Arabia has long invested in technologically sophisticated mass surveillance systems. In June 2017, a report by BBC Arabic and Danish newspaper Dagbladet presented evidence that UK aerospace and defense conglomerate BAE Systems sold Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region sophisticated surveillance systems.94 In January 2018, media reports surfaced that the government acquired a stake in Italian spyware technology company Hacking Team through intermediaries.95

Intimidation and Violence

Numerous individuals report that they were tortured by police while held in custody, often to force confessions. Munir al-Adam, who was sentenced to death in 2016 for his role in antigovernment protests in the Shiite-majority town of al-Qatif in 2011, said he was severely beaten by police and coerced into signing a confession. Among other accusations against him, police claimed he was “sending texts,” although he denied owning a mobile phone.96 Raif Badawi, a writer and activist who founded the website Saudi Liberals, has so far received fifty lashes as part of his sentence on charges of contempt of religion. He was handed a total sentence of ten years imprisonment, a fine of SAR 1 million (US$266,500), and 1,000 lashes in May 2014.97

Authorities have allegedly physically and verbally abused detainees who were rounded up as part of the anticorruption crackdown that began in November 2017 (see Digital Activism). Notably, a number of sources claimed that Major General Ali al-Qahtani, who worked in the Saudi Arabian Royal Guard and managed the private office of Prince Turki Bin Abdullah, was tortured to death in December.98

Mounting evidence strongly indicated that Jamal Khashoggi was tortured and murdered at the hands of the state security agents in October 2018, following this report’s coverage period. According to reports by the Turkish government, audio recordings demonstrated that Khashoggi was murdered soon after entering the consulate, and his body was reportedly beheaded and dismembered within two hours by Saudi officials.99

Progovernment Twitter accounts often defame and harass activists by using hashtags to call for their arrest. Anonymous accounts often show photos of the king or the interior minister as their avatars. Government officials have also been accused of intimidating activists and vocal critics of the government’s policies. In August 2017, Royal Court adviser Saud al-Qahtani published a tweet that threatened to place those “conspiring” against Arab states on a “blacklist.”100 Turki al-Ruki, founder of the newspaper al-Wi’am, had previously charged al-Qahtani with enlisting an “army of hackers” to target and defame critics of the royal family on social media.101

Technical Attacks

Government-linked Twitter accounts experienced cyberattacks during the coverage period. The Twitter account of the Citizen Accounts Program—a national cash-transfer program created to provide economic support to families—was hacked in January 2018.102 Hackers reportedly posted a series of “offensive and false” statements, in addition to a message sent to Royal Court advisor Saud al-Qahtani stating that the group planned to launch further attacks. In January the previous year, the Twitter account of the spokesperson of the Ministry of Education was hacked by an unknown actor who called on the government to provide schools with medical equipment, offer job opportunities for unemployed postgraduate teachers, and reduce the number of foreign teachers, among other demands.103 In February 2017, the Twitter account of the Eastern Province office of the Ministry of Health was separately hacked; the perpetrator called for better measures to fight medical malpractice, and reduce the number of foreign health practitioners.104

In October 2017, the General Authority for Entertainment, a government body, announced that it was targeted by unknown cyberattackers.105 A number of public and private institutions have previously faced security breaches. Attacks by the Greenbug group in November 2016 caused the loss of critical data at the General Authority of Civil Aviation, though air travel, airport operations, and navigation systems were not affected.106 The virus was configured to wipe the disks of infected computers and display a photo of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee whose body was found on a beach in Turkey.107 Another attack occurred in January 2017, affecting the Ministry of Labor, the Human Resources Development Fund,108 and Sadara, a chemical company jointly owned by Saudi Aramco and Dow Chemical.109 Sadara announced that they had resolved the issue three days after the attack. Symantec analyzed two variants of the virus,110 and in March 2017, Kaspersky Lab reported the discovery of more malware that played a role in the recent attacks, named “StoneDrill.” The new malware was also found to be infecting computers in Europe.111 A group of hackers known as Shamoon had carried out similar attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2012, infecting over 35,000 computers belonging to Saudi Aramco. In 2017, the government put out a high alert about the Shamoon virus.112 In March 2018, press reports emerged that further cyberattacks on petrochemical companies occurred in 2016. Those investigating the attacks, which include the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), assert that an attack on an unspecified petrochemical company was intended to sabotage its operations and trigger an explosion. Investigators also believed that the attack was likely supported by a government.113

In early November 2017, the government launched the National Authority for Cyber Security, a central authority aiming to bolster the state’s cybersecurity apparatus and protect its vital interests and national security. The agency is also tasked with fortifying the country’s networks and IT systems.114

Notes: 

1 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/11/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-corruption-mohammed-bin-salman.html

4 BuddeComm Report, “Saudi Arabia - Telecoms, Mobile and Broadband - Statistics and Analyses.” January 12, 2018, http://bit.ly/2gnHMpv.

52 International Telecommunications Union, “Percentage of Individuals using the Internet,” 2011-16, http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx.

6 Communications and Information Technology Commission, “KSA IC Indicators End of Q3 2017,” http://bit.ly/2p4UQpW.

7 “Saudi Telecom and IT minister directs mobile service providers to ensure roaming services, network in remote areas,” Arab News, January 6, 2018, http://bit.ly/2Ioz607.

8 “LTE Advanced and NB-IOT drive STC 4G expansion in Saudi Arabia,” Ericsson, March 5, 2018, http://bit.ly/2I6KPQW.

9 “Zain Saudi carves a new network strategy in partnership with Huawei,” CommsMEA, March 5, 2018, http://bit.ly/2FM6Nai.

10 Katie Paul, “Apple and Amazon in talks to set up in Saudi Arabia,” Reuters, December 28, 2017, http://reut.rs/2CfTNZn.

11 CITC, “Cloud Computing Regulatory Framework,” 2018, http://bit.ly/2pi4hl9.

12 Matt Smith, “Saudi mobile subscriptions shrink on labor crackdown, hajj limits,” Al Arabiya News, January 26, 2014 https://bit.ly/1HaGC9I.

13 “Saudi Arabia clamps down on messaging apps with ban of Viber” The Verge, June 5, 2013, http://bit.ly/2t6zHPY.

14 “WhatsApp's new call service to be blocked in KSA” ITP.net, March 17, 2015, http://bit.ly/2bPpYm0.

15 “Facebook Messenger blocked in Saudi Arabia: Chat apps have voice and video call functions banned over ‘regulations’”, The Independent, May 13, 2016, http://ind.pn/2t6juKX.

16 “Saudi Arabia to lift ban on internet calls,” BBC, 20 September 2017, http://bbc.in/2p5Cxkj.

17 CITC, “Annual Report, 2015,” 2016, http://bit.ly/2ov9tk.

18 “Virgin Mobile fastest growing telecom provider in Saudi Arabia,” Saudi Gazettehttp://bit.ly/2GkX23X.

19 Zain, “Shabab Package,” http://bit.ly/1NpWlWH.

20 “Virgin Mobile Saudi Arabia launches a pre-paid plan,” al-Bawaba, January 4, 2018, http://bit.ly/2GlbXuN

21 “‘We will render you bankrupt’: a campaign to boycott Saudi telecommunication companies,” [in Arabic] Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, October 2, 2016, http://bit.ly/2op5lFw.i

22 “STC, Mobily hike data pack charges,” Saudi Gazette, January 8, 2018, http://bit.ly/2HDOFjw.

23 “After the intervention of the Communications and Information Technology Commission, two companies revise internet prices,” [in Arabic] Arabian Business, January 24, 2018, https://bit.ly/2sbgAAX

24 CITC, “Background,” accessed on March 2, 2017, http://bit.ly/2nsg8dh.

25 “The Communication Commission Reduces the Charge Between Telecommunication Companies,” [in Arabic] Al Riyadh Newspaper, February 22, 2015, http://www.alriyadh.com/1024133.

26 CITC, “Board of Directors”, accessed on March 2, 2017, http://www.citc.gov.sa/en/aboutus/Pages/Boardofdirectors.aspx.

27 Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, “Abdullah Amer Al-Swaha” October 22, 2017, https://bit.ly/2wTXNQp

28 Arab News, “CITC to stop the sale of unlimited Internet cards,” September 27, 2016, http://bit.ly/2nrWu19.

29 CITC, “CITC Roles and Responsibilities”, accessed March 2, 2017, http://bit.ly/2oooHLh.

30 Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh , "UPDATED: Telegram’s Troubled Times In The Middle East" TechCrunch, January 12, 2016, http://tcrn.ch/1PpVhhB.

31 Pavel Durov on Twitter https://bit.ly/1Qy2fHM, and The Telegram Team, “Voice Messages 2.0, Secret Chats 3.0 and…” Telegram Blog, February 12, 2016, https://bit.ly/1QWdTqr.

32 Ernesto, "Saudi Arabia Government Blocks The Pirate Bay (and More)," TorrentFreak, April 2, 2014, http://bit.ly/1KZwhQz.

33 “Ministry of Culture and Information blocks 52 websites for infringing the rights of authors,” [in Arabic] Al Riyadh Newspaper, October 2012, https://bit.ly/1PrEspC.

34 “The censorship policy of websites that spread extremist ideologies has proven its success” [in Arabic] Al Arabiya News, December 22, 2012, https://bit.ly/1Fr25fm.

35 “Anha Newspaper Blocked,” Al Hayat, May 24, 2016, http://bit.ly/2mZUGBf.

36 Jasper Jackson, “Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt block access to Qatari-owned news website,” The Guardian, January 5, 2016, https://bit.ly/1mzqvw2.

37 According to the Alkasir.com, which provides information on blocked websites, the URLs acpra6.org and anhri.net are blocked in Saudi Arabia: “Cyber-Censorship Map,” Alkasir, accessed on March 2, 2013, https://alkasir.com/map.

38 Blocked websites of Saudi religious scholars include: www.almoslim.netwww.albrrak.net, and islamqa.info/ar;“Blocking some sites because they violate rules and spread bold ideas and theses” [in Arabic] Al Arabiya, April 6, 2012, http://bit.ly/1EUWChv.

39 “Cyber-Censorship Map,” Alkasir, accessed on March 2, 2013, https://alkasir.com/map.

40 Adala Center, “A list of blocked sites from within Saudi Arabia” [in Arabic] accessed on December 22, 2012, http://bit.ly/1NpMiAZ.

41 “Time for Rasid to go,” (Archived) Rasid, June 5, 2014, http://bit.ly/2udr6La.

42 CITC, “Block Request Form, “Internet.gov.sa, http://web1.internet.sa/en/block.

43 CITC, “Annual Report, 2015,” 2016, http://bit.ly/2ov9tk.

44 CITC, “General Information on Filtering Service”, Internet.gov.sa, accessed on September 30, 2012, http://bit.ly/1MbhO5y.

45 Telecommunication Act of Saudi Arabia, http://bit.ly/2oomcIR.

46 Saudis refer to this circumvention tool as a “proxy breaker.”

47 Examples include Hotspot Shield, Hide My Ass! and AirVPN.

48 “Saudi Arabia blocks Google AMP portal used on Facebook,” The New Arab, 15 January, 2018, http://bit.ly/2pbOnsu.

49 “Raif Badawi’s wife provides “Anhaa” with the list of charges against her husband and calls for his release [in Arabic] Anhaa, April 25, 2013, http://www.an7a.com/102662.

50 “Saudi Arabia’s government might be getting help from social media giants to shut down dissent,” Newsweek, December 22, 2017, http://bit.ly/2zxUCKl.

51 CITC, “Cloud Computing Regulatory Framework,” 2018, http://bit.ly/2pi4hl9.

52 “Interview with Saudi journalist,” March 2018, Riyadh, telephone interview.

53 Jamal Khashoggi, “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable,” The Washington Post, September 18, 2017, http://wapo.st/2FLNm1s.

54 Ibid; “Saudi journalist banned from media after criticising Trump”. Middle East Eye, December 4, 2016, https://bit.ly/2gsEsJw

56 “Fake accounts and drowning the hashtag in Twitter [in Arabic] Osama Al Muhaya, March 16, 2013, http://bit.ly/1Q13N8g.

57 “Thousands of Twitter Bots Are Attempting to Silence Reporting on Yemen,” al-Bawaba, November 22, 2017, http://bit.ly/2zgtU9K.

58 “How much to fake a trend on Twitter? In one country, about £150,” BBC Trending, March 2, 2018, http://bbc.in/2oBPDFL.

59 “Othman Al-Omair in Turning Point 8-5” [in Arabic] YouTube video, 8:11, published by Alnahry, 2009, May 31, 2010, http://bit.ly/1LXn9um.

61 Arab Social Media Report 2017, p45 http://bit.ly/2kG5vGh.

62 Examples include Sa'ad Al-Faqih, Mohammad al-Massari and Mohammad al-Mofarreh.

63 “Women Defy Saudi Restrictions in Video, Striking a Nerve,” New York Times, January 5, 2017 http://nyti.ms/2umVyTO.

64 “Saudi King issues new law on women's guardianship,” Khaleej Times, May 5, 2017, http://bit.ly/2pMyWXC.

65 Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Arabia agrees to let women drive,” September 26, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-women-drive.html.

66 “Saudi Arabia allows women to join military,” BBC, 28 February, 2018, http://bbc.in/2FwTET1.

67 Tamara Qiblawi, “Divorced Saudi women win right to get custody of children,” CNN, March 12, 2018, http://cnn.it/2FNmnWw.

68 Aisha Fareed, “Saudi social media users break silence on violence against women,” Arab News, February 13, 2017, http://bit.ly/2lIjYiY.

69 “Saudi woman beats up men for harassing her,” Khaleej Times, March 6, 2018, http://bit.ly/2IpiXYx.

70 Nada Hameed, “Driver held in Saudi Arabia after video shows his harassment of special needs girl,” Arab News, March 13, 2018, http://bit.ly/2pcI48W.

71 “Saudi Arabia: The head of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Riyadh Abdullah al-Fawaz was dismissed” Arabian Business, February 14, 2016, http://bit.ly/2boxEvh.

73 Habib Toumi, “Saudis welcome anti-corruption drive,” Gulf News, November 5, 2017, http://bit.ly/2zlBFMs.

74 Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Royal Decree No. M/17, Anti-Cyber Crime Law, March 2007, http://bit.ly/2ovxLuB.

75 “Saudi Arabia: New Counterterrorism Law Enables Abuse,” Human Rights Watch, November 23, 2017, http://bit.ly/2A1XXVR.

76 “Saudi calls for social media informants decried as 'Orwellian,” Reuters, 13 September, 2017, http://reut.rs/2y0SNoJ

77 Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Arabia Detains Critics as New Crown Prince Consolidates Power,” The New York Times, September 14, 2017, http://nyti.ms/2phrxjS.

78 Ibid.

79 “At least 15 journalists held arbitrarily in Saudi crackdown,” Reporters Without Borders, February 9, 2018, https://bit.ly/2nTA5N7.

80 Samah Hadid, “Saudi Arabia: Cleric hospitalized after five months in solitary confinement must be released,” Amnesty International, January 17, 2018, http://bit.ly/2rfUAI5.

83 “Saudi Arabia sentences human rights activists to prison: Amnesty,” Reuters, 26 January 2018, https://reut.rs/2yFHeZz

84 “Saudi Arabia Sentences Mohammed al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi,” Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, 29 January 2018, https://bit.ly/2MjzfDk

85 “Saudi writer gets prison for criticizing royal court,” New York Post, February 8, 2018, http://nyp.st/2FX9mcI.

86 “Saudi columnist Saleh al-Shehi jailed for five years for 'insulting the royal court,” al-Araby al-Jadeed, February 8, 2018, http://bit.ly/2pfhITA.

87 “Saudi lifting ban on Skype, WhatsApp calls, but will monitor them,” Reuters, September 21, 2017, http://reut.rs/2jQpd3j.

88 “Saudi Arabia Urges People to Monitor Each Other on Social Media and Report Critics,” Haaretz, September 13, 2017, http://bit.ly/2GB6iBj.

89 Reporters Without Borders, “Saudi Arabia,” Internet Enemies, 2012, http://bit.ly/JrLevJ.

90 Al Riyadh Newspaper, “Unauthenticated mobile subscriptions to be suspended, tomorrow”, August 3, 2016, http://bit.ly/2nMziOl.

91 “Communication Commission mandates companies to register fingerprints before issuing cards ” [in Arabic], Al-Riyadh Newspaper, January 22, 2015, http://bit.ly/1WEBQ9H.

92 “User’s ID number now required to recharge prepaid mobile phones”, Arab News, July 4, 2012, http://bit.ly/1azmvzS.

93 Faleh Al-Buyani, “Black market for SIM cards with ID thriving”, Saudi Gazette, December 31, 2012, http://bit.ly/1Q1amYu.

94 “How BAE sold cyber-surveillance tools to Arab states,” BBC, June 15, 2017, http://bbc.in/2ryroXS.

95 Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, “Hacking Team Is Still Alive Thanks to a Mysterious Investor From Saudi Arabia, Motherboard, January 31, 2018, http://bit.ly/2DvzlD6.

96 Charlotte England, “Saudi Arabia to behead disabled man for taking part in protests,” The Independent, November 4, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/saudi-arabia-behead-disabled-protester-executions-reprieve-amnesty-a7396906.html.

97 “Saudi Public Prosecutor v. Raif Badawi,” Global Freedom of Expression, Columbia University, https://bit.ly/2MVHeHP

98 “Saudi general 'may have been tortured to death' during Ritz-Carlton crackdown,” The Telegraph, March 12, 2018, https://bit.ly/2FwXYoH.

101 “Saudi writer attacks Royal Court official and accuses him of corruption,” Arabi21, February 27, 2017, http://bit.ly/2pfptbm.

102 Nayef al-Rashid, “Saudi Arabia recovers citizen account program on Twitter after hack,” Asharq al-Awsat, January 3, 2018, http://bit.ly/2Dvaa3B.

103 “Hacker sends 6 messages after hacking the spokesperson of the Ministry of Education,” Al Watan Newspaper, January 6, 2017, http://bit.ly/2nZ2OkH.

104 “Hackers hijack the ‘Eastern Health’ Twitter account and send messages to the minister,” Okaz Newspaper, February 13, 2017 http://bit.ly/2oMZExA.

105 “Saudi entertainment authority says hit by cyber attack,” Reuters, September 29, 2017, http://reut.rs/2pdYzSe.

106 “Cyberattacks Strike Saudi Arabia, Harming Aviation Agency,” The New York Times, December 1, 2016, http://nyti.ms/2opluv1.

107 “Shamoon wiper malware returns with a vengeance,” Ars Technica, December 1, 2016, http://bit.ly/2opps6I.

108 “Saudi Arabia warns of new crippling cyberattack,” CNN Tech, January 26, 2017, http://cnnmon.ie/2nNJuX9.

109 “Saudi's Sadara gets cause of network disruption resolved (SYMC),” Business Insider, January 26, 2017, http://read.bi/2nZ1xKr.

110 “Greenbug cyberespionage group targeting Middle East, possible links to Shamoon,” Symantec Official Blog, January 23, 2017, http://symc.ly/2n0OZmw.

111 “From Shamoon to StoneDrill,” Securelist, March 6, 2017, http://bit.ly/2mAb2iB.

112 “Saudi Arabia warns of new crippling cyberattack,” CNN Tech, January 26, 2017, http://cnnmon.ie/2nNJuX9.

113 ‘A Cyberattack in Saudi Arabia Had a Deadly Goal. Experts Fear Another Try,” The New York Times, March 15, 2018, http://nyti.ms/2pcVjGw.

114 “Saudi Arabia sets up new authority for cyber security,” Reuters, November 1, 2017, http://reut.rs/2hxRfjx.