Saudi Arabia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The Saudi royal family was beset by internal and external tensions during 2001. The increasing unpopularity of its alliance with the United States exacerbated public frustration with declining living standards, increasing unemployment, official corruption, fiscal mismanagement, and the denial of basic civil and political rights. Saudi-U.S. relations were strained in light of the Palestinian uprising and Saudi reluctance to cooperate with U.S. investigations in high-profile terrorism cases, but tensions escalated in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

King Abd al-Aziz al-Saud consolidated the Nejd and Hejaz regions of the Arabian peninsula into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. His son, Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz al- Saud, ascended the throne in 1982 after a series of successions within the family. The king rules by decree and serves as prime minister as well as supreme religious leader. The overwhelming majority of Saudis belong to the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. In 1992, King Fahd appointed a 60-member consultative council, or majlis al-shura. The majlis plays only an advisory role and is not regarded as a significant political force. Majlis committees, set up to address financial, Islamic, social, and other affairs, debate and issue recommendations on topics selected by the king. The king expanded the majlis to 90 members in 1997, and to 120 members in May 2001.

King Fahd's poor health has raised serious concerns about succession. The system of fraternal succession adopted by King Abd-al-Aziz to prevent fratricide among his 44 sons presents the possibility that a series of aging, sickly rulers will leave Saudi Arabia with no direction at a time when strong leadership is required. Although Crown Prince Abdullah, 77, has effectively ruled since Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, the succession after Abdullah is unclear. A 1994 decree gives the king the unilateral right to name his successor, but philosophical and ideological rifts within the ruling family and varying degrees of power and spheres of influence among potential heirs will make any choice problematic. Of Abd al-Aziz's 25 living sons, many regard themselves as contenders, while others advocate passing power to the next generation.

Saudis have sacrificed civic freedom and political participation for material wealth, modernity, education, and a heavily subsidized welfare state in a social contract that has been the main source of legitimacy for the government. But economic mismanagement, combined with lavish spending by members of the royal family has endangered that contract. Unemployment is estimated at up to 35 percent and is expected to rise as the slow-growing job market provides one job for every two people entering the workforce each year. Per capita income, more than $28,000 in the early 1980s, has dropped below $7,000, while the population has doubled. Billions of dollars have disappeared in unbudgeted expenditures by royals, who keep some 300 palaces in Jeddah alone. Meanwhile, ordinary Saudis must struggle with rolling blackouts and water rationing. While dissent has not seriously threatened the regime, there is concern over the decreased ability of the government to placate citizens. Some within the royal family have advocated political reform, including some form of popular participation in the political process.

Observers note that Saudi Arabia appears to have abandoned efforts at privatization, structural reform, and diversification aimed at alleviating the kingdom's economic problems. Many measures taken to address economic concerns and attract foreign investment are incomplete, vague, or insufficient in meeting investors' concerns. A plan for U.S.-based SBC Communications to invest in the Saudi Telecommunications Company fell through in December 2000 because the Saudi company refused to meet SBC's demands for transparency in its accounting procedures. Meanwhile, the government has issued an extensive "negative list" of industries closed to foreign investment, including the military, publishing, education, insurance, transportation, fishing, real estate, employment services, and poison control. In addition, Islamic law forbids interest, insurance, and income tax; is randomly applied; and allows for no means of redress for economic grievances.

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has become another source of domestic discontent. As the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank continued, Saudi media carried unprecedented criticism of the United States' perceived pro-Israel bias. Saudis also blamed the United States for maintaining a sanctions policy against Iraq that is viewed as catastrophic for the Iraqi people. Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Saudi-born terrorist-in-exile Osama bin Laden blasted the Saudi government as "godless" for allowing American troops in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed and home of Mecca, Islam's holiest site. He also warned that the United States would not enjoy security "before we can see it as a reality in Palestine and before all the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammed." Bin Laden's message resonates with Saudis, who privately donate to Islamic charities used as fronts to support bin Laden's network. It also chips away at the government's claim to religious legitimacy as the defender of Islamic faith and law.

The Saudi regime has attempted to downplay its ties to Washington, and relations between the two were increasingly strained. Crown Prince Abdullah had so far refused to meet with President George W. Bush. Following the September 11 attacks, the Saudi government cut ties with Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which harbors and sympathizes with bin Laden, and froze the assets of some groups and individuals suspected of having terrorist links after Bush warned that countries refusing to act against terrorists would be barred from doing business with American companies. Otherwise, Saudi Arabia was reluctant to cooperate with Washington. It criticized the U.S. policy of support for Israel and spirited a number of Saudis out of the United States before it could be determined whether or not they had information about the terrorists, at least ten of whom were Saudis. Saudi Arabia has been uncooperative in other high-level terror cases as well; it announced in June 2001 that 13 Saudis indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury in connection with the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 American servicemen, would go to trial in Saudi courts. The FBI complained that Saudi authorities restricted its access to the suspects and evidence in the case. Tensions increased in October when U.S.-led airstrikes on Afghanistan drew harsh criticism from the Muslim clerics whose support gives the Saudi ruling family its legitimacy.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Saudis cannot change their government democratically. Political parties are illegal, and the king rules by decree according to a constitution based on a strict interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law). There are no elections at any level. Majlis membership is not representative of the population. A council of senior ruling family members was established in 2000 with Crown Prince Abdullah as chair. Membership includes a broad cross-section of royals, including Prince Talal bin Abd al-Aziz, who has been a vocal proponent of liberalization. Noticeably absent is Interior Minister Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz, who is known for his ultraconservative views. The apparent aim of the council is to facilitate decision making and to provide a wider power base for Abdullah in the interest of political stability.

The judiciary is subject to the influence of the royal family and its associates. The king has broad powers to appoint or dismiss judges, who are selected based on their strict adherence to religious principles. The legal system, based on Sharia, allows for corporal punishments, such as flogging and amputation, which are widely practiced. Trials are routinely held in secret. Death by beheading is the prescribed punishment for rape, murder, armed robbery, adultery, apostasy, and drug trafficking. People sentenced to death are often unaware of the sentence and receive no advance notice of their execution. Some are never made aware of the charges against them. The law enables heirs of a murder victim to demand "blood money" in exchange for sparing the life of a murderer. Saudi Arabia executes about 100 people per year, many of them foreigners.

Arbitrary arrest and detention are widespread. Under a 1983 law, authorities may hold detainees for 51 days without trial, but this limit is often exceeded in practice. Detainees are frequently not informed of their legal rights, and may or may not be granted access to counsel at the judge's discretion. Police routinely torture detainees, and signed or videotaped confessions extracted under torture are used, uncorroborated, as evidence. In February 2001, three foreign residents in the kingdom--from the United Kingdom, Canada, and Belgium--confessed on Saudi television to two car bombings in November 2000 that killed a British man. The confessions were made after the accused were held incommunicado for more than a month, and aired before the criminal investigation was complete. The accused face the death penalty if convicted. In October, the government adopted a new code of criminal procedure. The new regulations allow defendants and suspects in criminal cases to seek legal counsel, limit administrative detention to five days, prohibit the abuse of detainees, subject authorities who have powers of arrest to prosecution, ban detention or imprisonment in places other than jails, and require search warrants for private homes, offices, and vehicles.

Freedom of expression is severely restricted by prohibitions on criticism of the government, Islam, and the ruling family. The government owns all domestic broadcast media and closely monitors privately owned but publicly subsidized print media. The information minister must approve, and may remove, all editors in chief. The entry of foreign journalists into the kingdom is tightly restricted, and foreign media are heavily censored where possible. The government outlawed private ownership of satellite dishes in 1994. Internet access was made available in 1999 with filters to block information deemed pornographic, offensive to Islam, or a threat to state security. All Internet traffic is routed through the official Internet Services Unit which, along with inadequate infrastructure, slows connection speeds. In April 2001, the government announced that it would double the number of banned websites to 400,000. Saudi Arabia is estimated to have some 300,000 Internet users.

Public demonstrations are prohibited, and public gatherings are segregated by sex. There are no publicly active human rights groups, and the government prohibits visits by international human rights groups and independent monitors.

Islam, particularly the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, is the state religion, and all citizens must be Muslim. Shiite Muslims, who constitute about a third of the population, face systematic political and economic discrimination, such as arbitrary arrest on suspicion of subversion or pro-Iranian activities. Riots reportedly occurred in April 2000 following the closure of a Shiite mosque by religious police.

Women are segregated in the workplace, in schools, in restaurants, and on public transportation, and they may not drive. They are required to wear the abaya, a black garment covering the head, most of the face, and the body. Officers of the Mutawwai'in, or Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, harass women for violating conservative dress codes and for appearing in public with unrelated males. Women may not travel within or outside the kingdom without a male relative. Although they make up half the student population, women account for less than six percent of the workforce. They may not study engineering, law, or journalism. A female member of the royal family was appointed assistant secretary in the ministry of education--the highest position ever held by a Saudi woman. Some private businesses have secretly hired women to work alongside men, and more women are making use of the Internet to do business without having to meet male customers in person. In January, the Saudi interior minister issued a statement ruling out any public debate on the status of women in the kingdom, saying it would be "useless and a hollow exchange of ideas." The statement followed criticism by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which expressed concern over Saudi treatment of women and the possibility of Sharia punishments being applied to children. In November, authorities began granting women their own identification cards. Previously, women were named, but not depicted, as dependents on their fathers' or husbands' cards. Officials explained that the move would help reduce fraud, but it appeared unlikely that womens' rights would be affected in any way.

Government permission is required to form professional groups and associations, which must be nonpolitical. Trade unions, collective bargaining, and strikes are prohibited. Foreign workers, who comprise about 60 percent of the kingdom's workforce, are especially vulnerable to abuse, including beating and rape, and are often denied legitimate claims to wages, benefits, or compensation. They are not protected under labor law, and courts generally do not enforce the few legal protections provided to them. A Saudi official reported in April that more than 19,000 foreign maids, mostly from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, ran away from their employers during 2000 for various reasons, including nonpayment of wages and maltreatment. The maids were reportedly being housed in shelters run by the labor ministry until the disputes were settled.