Freedom in the World
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Saudi Arabia continued to place severe restrictions on its citizens' political rights and civil liberties in 2003, even as hints of possible political reforms emerged in an eventful year for the kingdom. Throughout the year, the country faced threats to its internal stability from terrorist groups and calls for political reform from dissidents and regime opponents. The government of Saudi Arabia responded by offering several signs of possible limited political reforms: the approval of the formation of the first Saudi human rights organization, the first official sanction of a human rights conference in the kingdom, the establishment of a center for dialogue on reform, and announcements of local elections to be held next year.
In the 71 years since its unification in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia has been controlled by the Al-Saud family, with King Fahd, the current king, the fifth in the Al-Saud ruling dynasty. The Saudi monarchy rules in accordance with the conservative school of Sunni Islam. In the early 1990s, Fahd embarked on a limited program of political reform, introducing an appointed consultative council, or Majlis Ash-shura. This step did not lead to any substantial shift in political power. In 1995, King Fahd suffered a stroke, and since 1997, Crown Prince Abdullah has taken control of most power and decision making.
With the largest oil reserves in the world, Saudi Arabia is the world's leading oil producer and exporter. Saudi Arabia's oil wealth and importance to the global economy are key features impacting the country's external relations and shaping Saudi Arabia's internal politics by giving the Al-Saud dynasty unmatched wealth to maintain its control.
Saudi Arabia has been under intense scrutiny since the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States--15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Ladin, is from a wealthy Saudi family. In 2003, the Saudi monarchy took some first steps to stop the flow of financial support to terrorist groups, agreeing for the first time to set up a joint task force with the United States to target suspected terrorist financiers. The government passed the country's first anti-money laundering law, making financing of terrorist organizations a punishable offense. Saudi Arabia banned all charities from sending money abroad without official approval, audited hundreds of domestic organizations, and closed dozens of charities for suspected involvement in terrorist financing. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah traveled to Russia in the first high-level Saudi visit to Moscow in 75 years to discuss measures to cut off Saudi financing of separatists in Chechnya.
The threat of terrorist attacks has also posed a challenge to the stability of the Saudi regime. A triple suicide bombing that killed 35 people in Riyadh on May 12, 2003 was a wake-up call for the Saudi monarchy, leading to a crackdown that included the interrogation of thousands of Saudi citizens. In early November, another suicide attack left 18 more Saudis dead. The government fired numerous clerics for inciting hatred and preaching an intolerant version of Islam. The Saudi Interior Ministry, fearing that children might have been recruited by militants, made a public appeal to families to report any missing children.
The Saudi government's dominance of the economy, endemic corruption, and financial mismanagement has led to mounting economic woes, with the world's largest oil producer seeing a decline in real GDP per person over the last decade. Unemployment is estimated at 30 percent, and this year, the Saudi government recognized the growing problem of poverty by announcing a strategy to create jobs and build housing for the underprivileged.
Amid these growing economic difficulties and increased access to outside sources of information through satellite television and the Internet, pressure for political change has mounted. Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal announced this year a royal decree approving the establishment of Saudi Arabia's first nongovernmental human rights organization. During the summer, Saudi Arabia established the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue, which is aimed at starting internal discussions on political reform. In September, more than 300 prominent professionals, including 51 women, sent a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah demanding an elected legislature to replace the appointed consultative council, an independent judiciary, and the creation of civil society organizations to promote greater tolerance.
In October, Saudi Arabia organized the country's first human rights conference, a three-day event that examined human rights in an Islamic context. The conference, however, focused on double standards in Western countries rather than the massive human rights abuse problems within the kingdom. During this conference, protestors demanding political reform took to the streets, inspired by the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, a London-based group of Saudi dissidents who set up the first opposition broadcasting network in Saudi Arabia.
In the face of these demands to make its government more open and accessible, Saudi Arabia announced plans to hold local elections in 2004. In November, the Saudi regime said it would start televising 30-minute excerpts of weekly sessions of the Shura Council. Time will tell if these limited reform measures are the start of something broader and more consequential.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, and its citizens have no power to change the government democratically. The country's 1992 Basic Law declares that the Quran is the country's constitution. Saudi Arabia has a 120-member consultative Shura Council appointed by the monarch, but this council has limited powers and does not impact decision making or power structures in a meaningful way.
The country has never held elections for public office at any level. On October 13, 2003, the Saudi government announced it would hold its first elections to select half of the members of municipal councils in parts of the country in 2004. However, the government released few details about these planned elections, and several questions remained, such as whether or not women would be allowed to participate.
Saudi Arabia does not have political parties, and the only semblance of organized political opposition exists outside of the country. Many Saudi opposition activists are based in London. The Al-Saud dynasty dominates and controls political life in the kingdom.
The Council of Ministers, an executive body appointed by the king, passes legislation that becomes law once ratified by royal decree. The Saudi monarchy has a tradition of consulting with select members of Saudi society, but this process is not equally open to all citizens. Corruption is one consequence of the closed nature of Saudi Arabia's government and society, with foreign companies reporting that they often pay bribes to middle men and government officials to secure business deals.
Government authorities frequently ban or fire journalists and editors who publish articles deemed offensive to the country's powerful religious establishment or the ruling authorities. This year, Hussein Shabakshi, a journalist who advocated for elections, human rights, and women's equality in one of his weekly columns in the Saudi daily Okaz, was banned by the Saudi Ministry of Interior. Jamal Khasshogi, editor of the reformist newspaper Al-Watan, was fired for writing articles critical of the religious establishment.
Religious freedom does not exist in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the location of the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina. Islam is Saudi Arabia's official religion, and all citizens are required by law to be Muslims. The government prohibits the public practice of any religions other than Islam. Although the government recognizes the right of non-Muslims to worship in private, it does not always respect this right in practice. Academic freedom is restricted in Saudi Arabia, and informers monitor classrooms for compliance with limits on curriculums, such as a ban on teaching Western philosophy and religions other than Islam.
Saudi citizens do not have any associational or organizational rights, and there is no freedom to form political organizations or to hold protests. In October, Saudi security officials detained hundreds of protestors calling for political reform. Trade unions, collective bargaining, and strikes are prohibited.
The judiciary lacks independence from the monarchy. The king appoints all judges on the recommendation of the Supreme Judicial Council, and the monarchy serves as the highest court of appeal. The rule of law is regularly flouted by the Saudi regime, with frequent trials falling short of international standards. Secret trials are common, and political opponents of the Saudi regime are often detained without charge and held for indefinite periods of time. Allegations of torture by police and prison officials are frequent, though access to prisoners by independent human rights and legal organizations is strictly limited.
Although racial discrimination is illegal according to Saudi law, substantial prejudice against ethnic, religious, and national minorities exists. Foreign workers from Asia and Africa are subject to formal and informal discrimination and have difficulty obtaining justice.
Citizens have the right to own property and establish private businesses, but much private enterprise activity is connected with members of the ruling family and the government. Although Saudi Arabia first joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1993, its slow process of privatization and economic reform has prevented it from becoming a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). In the past year, Saudi Arabia has taken steps to diversify its economic structures and establish government regulatory organizations to strengthen its market economy. The Saudi government passed a new foreign investment law that would ease restrictions on investment and announced plans to cut tax rates and custom duties. As a result, WTO head Supachai Panitchpakdi announced in 2003 that Saudi Arabia would likely be invited to join the WTO in early 2004.
Women are not treated as equal members of Saudi Arabian society. Women legally may not drive cars, and their use of public facilities is restricted when men are present. By law and custom, women cannot travel within or outside of the country without a male relative. Saudi laws discriminate against women in a range of matters including family law, and a woman's testimony is treated as inferior to a man's in court. The Committee to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue, a semiautonomous religious police force commonly known as the mutawa'een, enforce a strict policy of segregation between men and women and oftentimes use physical punishment to ensure that women meet conservative standards of dress in public.