Saudi Arabia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Faced with severe economic difficulties and under greater outside scrutiny following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the Saudi government in 2002 introduced some changes to its oppressive criminal code, introduced minor labor reforms, and ended the clerical establishment's control of female education. However, there does not appear to be a consensus within the royal family in favor of further-reaching reforms.

The origins of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia date back to a 1744 pact between the ruler of the small central Arabian town of Diriyah, Muhammad ibn Saud, and a puritanical Islamic revolutionary, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Ibn Saud pledged to purge the land of impurities in return for the latter's endorsement, and together they conquered Riyadh and the central Arabian region of Najd. The Saud family's control of the Najd was later broken by the Ottoman Empire and the rival Rashid family, but was reestablished after Abdelaziz al-Saud recaptured Riyadh in 1902. Over the next three decades, Abdelaziz expanded his domain to encompass most of the Arabian Peninsula, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, through a combination of conquest, diplomacy, and strategic polygamous marriages. In 1932, he officially declared the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Since the death of Abdelaziz in 1953, Saudi kings have been chosen from among his 44 sons on the basis of seniority and consensus within the royal family. King Fahd has held the throne since 1982, though he ceded political authority to Crown Prince Abdullah in 1996 after suffering a stroke.

Throughout the 60-year history of Saudi Arabia, the royal family has ruled without any institutional checks on its authority. Oil revenue facilitated an informal social contract; in return for material prosperity and the provision of free health care, education, and other social services, the population accepted the denial of basic political and civil liberties. The infusion of petrodollars into the country also helped perpetuate enforcement of the fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law). The government could afford to maintain an educational system centered around religious indoctrination because the country's material prosperity did not require cultivating an indigenous skilled labor force. Women could be denied the right to drive because most families could afford to import chauffeurs.

Over the last two decades, however, declining oil prices, rampant corruption within the royal family, and gross economic mismanagement have caused a steep decline in the living standards of most Saudis. Per capita income, more than $28,000 in the early 1980s, has today dropped to below $12,000. Unemployment is now estimated at up to 35 percent and is expected to rise in coming years. Growing opposition to the monarchy by religious and liberal dissidents was brutally crushed in the 1990s.

Crown Prince Abdullah has reportedly lobbied within the royal family for relatively sweeping economic and social reforms in recent years (such as permitting employed women over the age of 40 to drive), but few senior princes have been willing to sanction major changes. While other oil-rich states making the transition to market-oriented economies have typically introduced limited political reforms in order to avoid sparking unrest, powerful members of the royal family remain firmly opposed to establishing even powerless representative institutions. Reforms of the legal system and banking sectors--the two most important steps needed to attract international investment and gain membership in the World Trade Organization--have been stalled because greater transparency would undermine royal patronage networks. Most other economic reforms have been insufficient in meeting investors' concerns. Changes in the educational system needed to prepare Saudi students for the job market have been blocked by princes aligned with the religious establishment.

The biggest obstacle to attracting international investment in the years ahead is likely to be uncertainty about political transition in Saudi Arabia. Both Abdullah and Sultan, who is second in line for the throne, are in their seventies, while even the youngest remaining sons of Abdelaziz are in their sixties. As a result, Saudi Arabia is set to experience a rapid series of royal successions in the coming years unless a mechanism for passing power to the next generation of princes can be agreed upon. Speculation that Abdullah will break with tradition after Fahd's death and designate one of his own sons as heir has fueled fears that Sultan may try to seize the throne by force.

Unable to attack decisively the underlying causes of the country's economic malaise, Abdullah has sought to remedy its most politically dangerous symptom--unemployment. In 2002, the government enacted a set of "Saudization" laws that require companies with 20 or more employees to ensure that Saudi citizens constitute at least 30 percent of their workforce (a quota that will gradually increase in future years). In addition to reducing unemployment, the measures should alleviate the government's perennial budget deficits by reducing the estimated $16 billion sent abroad each year by foreign workers in the kingdom. In conjunction with the Saudization initiatives, some reforms were made in the area of workers' rights.

In March 2002, eleven Saudi girls died when a fire broke out at their school and the mutawwa'in--baton-wielding religious police--blocked the escape of those who had discarded their veils amid the commotion. The tragedy sparked widespread media criticism of the cleric-controlled General Presidency for Girls Education (GPGE), prompting the government to end the religious establishment's direct control over the education of girls.

Under pressure from the United States to crack down on al-Qaeda activities in the kingdom, the government detained scores of suspects during the year. As of November, around 100 people remained in custody for what the Interior Ministry called "holy-war activities." Although a new criminal procedure code went into effect in May, there was little evidence that it has been observed in practice.

Attacks against Westerners residing in the kingdom continued in 2002. In June, a British bank employee was killed by a bomb placed under his car and an American couple found a similar device beneath their car. In September, a German national was killed by a car bomb. As with most previous cases of attacks on Westerners in recent years, the government blamed the killings on turf wars between Western expatriates engaged in the illegal alcohol trade.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Saudis cannot change their government democratically. The king rules by decree in accordance with the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) and with the consensus of senior princes and religious officials. There are no elections at any level and political parties are illegal.

Saudi citizens enjoy little effective protection from arbitrary arrest, prolonged pretrial detention, or torture at the hands of security forces. Although the new criminal code prohibits torture, protects the right of suspects to obtain legal council, and limits administrative detention to five days, there is little evidence that these statutes have been observed in practice. In July 2002, the son of jailed dissident Said bin Zubeir was taken into custody as he tried to board a plane to Qatar for an interview on Al-Jazeera satellite television, and remains incarcerated, apparently without charge. The younger brother of Virginia-based activist Ali al-Ahmed has been held since September 2001. A Saudi prisoner released in 2002 told Human Rights Watch that he was forced to sign a statement promising not to speak about his experience in police custody.

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 generally selected on the basis of their strict adherence to religious principles. Trials are routinely held in secret, and convictions are commonly founded upon little more than signed or videotaped confessions extracted under torture. The legal system, based on Sharia, allows for corporal punishment and death by beheading, both of which are widely practiced. In recent years, about 100 people have been executed annually. In mid-2002, seven foreigners accused of carrying out a series of car bombings were tried and convicted by a secret court on the basis of allegedly coerced confessions.

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, closely monitors privately owned (but publicly subsidized) print media, has the authority to remove all editors in chief, routinely censors domestic and foreign publications, and restricts the entry of foreign journalists into the kingdom. Private ownership of satellite dishes is illegal, but is widespread. Internet access is filtered to block Web sites deemed offensive to Islam or a threat to state security.

In March 2002, the Interior Ministry dismissed the editor of the daily Al-Medina after the newspaper published a poem about corrupt judges. The author of the poem, Abdel Mohsen Mosallam, was detained without charge for 18 days, banned from publishing in Saudi newspapers, and prohibited from leaving the country. Public demonstrations pertaining to political issues are completely prohibited. Governmental permission is required to form professional groups and associations, which must be nonpolitical. In April 2002, the authorities dispersed an anti-Israeli demonstration in Skaka and arrested dozens of demonstrators.

Trade unions, collective bargaining, and strikes are prohibited. Foreign workers, who constitute about 60 percent of the kingdom's workforce, are not protected under labor law, and courts generally do not enforce the few legal protections provided to them. Foreign nationals working as domestic servants are frequently abused and often denied legitimate wages, benefits, or compensation. Some steps were taken in 2002 to advance workers' rights. In April, the government issued a new law permitting Saudi workers to establish "labor committees" in companies with 100 or more employees, though the committees are empowered only to issue recommendations. The first such committee was established by Saudi employees of British Aerospace in July. In August, the government announced a multi-stage plan that would require Saudi employers to provide foreign nationals with health insurance by September 2004.

Freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia is virtually nonexistent for those who do not adhere to the Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Public expression of non-Islamic religious beliefs is illegal, though private worship is permitted. Shiite Muslims, who constitute 7 to 10 percent of the population, face numerous restrictions on the public practice of their religion and encounter discrimination in all areas of public sector employment. The testimony of Shiite citizens is frequently discounted in the courts. Shiite religious seminaries are not permitted and numerous Shiite clerics have been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. In January 2002, an Ismaili Shiite tribal leader was arrested six days after he was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying that "the government is making a mistake against us," and subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison. Two other Ismaili tribal leaders were detained in February.

Women in Saudi Arabia are second-class citizens. In most legal respects, an unmarried adult woman is the ward of her father, a married woman is the ward of her husband, and a widowed woman is the ward of her sons. Women cannot get an identity card, obtain an exit visa, or be admitted to a hospital without the permission of this guardian. Women are segregated from men in public--barred from most work-places, taught in separate schools, restricted to "family sections" of restaurants and female-only stores, prohibited from driving, unable to travel without a male relative, and required outside the home to wear the abaya, a black garment covering the body and most of the face. The religious police (mutawwa'in) harass women who violate these social codes. The penalty for female adultery is death by stoning. The testimony of a woman is treated as inferior to that of a man in Saudi courts. Laws governing marriage, divorce, and inheritance discriminate against females. Although women make up half the student population, they may not study engineering, law, or journalism. They account for only about 5 percent of the workforce.