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King Abdullah’s government moved forward with institutional reforms in 2007, formalizing the organization of a royal succession committee and preparing for the creation of national appellate courts. However, the government continued to crack down on activists who called for expanded human rights and comprehensive political reform, while the country’s Shiites experienced increased discrimination and harassment during the year. Meanwhile, women’s rights activists intensified their public efforts to obtain greater personal and political freedoms.
Since its unification in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia has been controlled by the al-Saud family, and the current king, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, is the sixth in the ruling dynasty. The Saudi monarchy rules in accordance with a conservative school of Sunni Islam. In the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia embarked on a limited program of political reform, introducing an appointed Consultative Council, or Majlis al-Shura. However, this step did not lead to any substantial shift in political power. In 1995, King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud suffered a stroke, and in 1997, Abdullah, then the crown prince, took control of most decision making.
After experiencing a series of terrorist attacks in 2003 and 2004, the Saudi government intensified its efforts to crush terrorism at home and abroad. The authorities killed dozens of suspects over the subsequent years and detained thousands of others. While officials also took steps to stem the flow of financial support to terrorist groups, implementing new rules against money laundering and scrutinizing the work of charitable organizations, they were not successful in preventing Saudi citizens from committing acts of terrorism abroad. Thousands of Saudis went to Iraq in the years following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, to participate in what they believed to be an anti-American and anti-Shiite jihad.
The formal transition of power from King Fahd, who died in August 2005, to King Abdullah led to increased expectations of political reform. Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, a former finance minister and a half-brother of Abdullah’s, repeated his earlier calls for political reform and a constitution in Saudi Arabia. Such comments by Prince Talal, who had been an outspoken advocate for political reform since the 1960s, were generally supported in Saudi society but were not widely embraced within the royal family, which was reticent to part with any political power.
Saudi Arabia organized elections for municipal councils in 2005, giving Saudi men a limited opportunity to select some of their leaders at the local level. Women were completely excluded from the process. The eligible electorate consisted of less than 20 percent of the population: male citizens who were at least 21 years old, not serving in the military, and resident in their electoral district for at least 12 months. Half of the council seats were open for election, and the other half were appointed by the monarchy. Officials in the Municipal and Rural Affairs Ministry and the Interior Ministry screened candidates, and all results were subject to final approval by the government. Candidates supported by conservative Muslim scholars triumphed in the large cities of Riyadh and Jeddah, and minority Shiite Muslim voters participated in large numbers, seizing the opportunity to voice their opinion. In December 2005, the final composition of the 178 municipal councils was announced. By 2007, it was clear that the elections had not resulted in greater citizen participation in governance. In August, Saudi authorities determined that the councils would serve only as a source of advice for local governors and would possess no authority to act on the grievances of the electorate. Also during the year, Prince Talal called for the creation and legalization of political parties.
In October 2007 King Abdullah followed up on the previous year’s pledge to create a formal royal succession process. He announced by-laws for the composition and operation of the Allegiance Institution, composed of the sons (or grandsons in the event of their deaths) of the founding king, Abdul Aziz. The committee, chaired by the oldest surviving son, would make decisions on the succession by majority vote using secret ballots and would require a quorum of two-thirds of the members. The arrangement would be added to the Basic Law but would not apply until after the current crown prince, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, became king. The new committee would also have the authority to deem a king or crown prince medically unfit to rule, based on the advice of an expert panel.
The government’s claims to have destroyed the major terrorist networks operating in the kingdom suffered a setback in April 2007, when authorities arrested 172 militants suspected of plotting attacks on major oil facilities. The arrest of another 208 suspected militants was announced in November. Militant Saudi dissidents were also active in the Fatah al-Islam terrorist group, which established a presence in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and battled government forces there from May until September. Fearful that Saudis would continue to foment violence abroad, several of the country’s leading religious figures issued statements declaring terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere to be un-Islamic.
Saudi Arabia has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. The country’s oil resources and importance to the global economy are key factors affecting its external relations, and the al-Saud dynasty uses its unmatched wealth to shape and control internal politics. However, the government’s dominance of the economy, endemic corruption, and financial mismanagement have led to mounting economic problems, including a decline in real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita over the last decade. Unemployment is estimated at about 25 percent, and a growing youth population is adding to pressure on the government to create new jobs. Recent estimates suggest that over half of the Saudi population is between the ages of 15 and 64, and 38.2 percent is under the age of 15. Saudi Arabia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 2005.
Saudi Arabia is not an electoral democracy. The country’s 1992 Basic Law declares that the Koran and the Sunna (the guidance set by the deeds and sayings of the prophet Muhammad) are the country’s constitution. The king appoints a 150-member Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) every four years. This council has limited powers, serving only in an advisory capacity. The Council of Ministers, an executive body appointed by the king, passes legislation that becomes law once ratified by royal decree. The monarchy has a tradition of consulting with select members of Saudi society, but this process is not equally open to all citizens.
The al-Saud dynasty dominates and controls political life in the kingdom. The royal family forbids the formation of political parties, and the only semblance of organized political opposition exists outside of the country, with many activists based in London. The government has consistently cracked down on Saudi citizens who press for greater political freedoms. Then crown prince Abdullah appeared to support domestic calls for political reform in 2003 by holding several high-profile meetings with leading activists, but tolerance of the nascent reform lobby proved short-lived. In early 2004, the authorities splintered the movement by arresting several key figures who had attempted to create an independent human rights organization, including Abdullah al-Hamed. The government continued to imprison reformers in 2007; al-Hamed was arrested again in July. In November he and his brother Issa al-Hamed were sentenced to six months and four months in jail, respectively, on charges of inciting women’s protests, although both remained free on appeal at year’s end. State authorities have attempted to undermine the credibility of the reform movement and justify their crackdown by falsely linking activists to religious militants.
Corruption is a significant problem, with foreign companies reporting that they often pay bribes to middlemen and government officials to secure business deals. Saudi Arabia was ranked 79 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government tightly controls content in domestic media and dominates regional print and satellite television coverage. Members of the royal family own major shares in news outlets across the region. Government officials have banned journalists and editors who publish articles deemed offensive to the country’s powerful religious establishment or the ruling authorities. The regime has also taken steps to limit the influence of new media, blocking access to some websites that are deemed immoral or politically sensitive. In December 2007, police arrested Fouad al-Farhan, a prominent blogger who criticized corruption and persistently called for political reform. He remained in detention without charges at the end of the year.
Religious freedom does not exist in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and home to the faith’s two holiest cities—Mecca and Medina. Islam is Saudi Arabia’s official religion, and all Saudis are required by law to be Muslims. The government prohibits the public practice of any religions other than Islam and restricts the religious practices of both the Shiite and Sufi Muslim minority sects. 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. In 2004, the government began efforts to reform school curriculums by deleting disparaging references to non-Muslims in textbooks. However, in February 2005, Abdullah bin Saleh al-Obaid, a religious conservative, was appointed to the prestigious post of education minister, replacing a reformer who had been accused of secularism. Al-Obaid announced the formation of a committee of experts to make fresh curriculum revisions in January 2006. Despite the changes to textbooks, intolerance in the classroom remains an important problem, as some teachers continue to espouse discriminatory and hateful views of non-Muslims and Muslim minorities such as Shiites.
Saudis do not enjoy freedoms of association and assembly. The government frequently arrests and detains political activists who stage demonstrations or engage in other civic advocacy. In 2003, the government approved the establishment of the National Human Rights Association (NHRA), a semiofficial organization charged with reviewing allegations of human rights violations and monitoring the country’s compliance with international human rights agreements. Although the NHRA reported in June 2005 that it had received about 2,000 human rights complaints, it has reportedly taken little action.
In 2005, the government approved new labor legislation aimed at bringing Saudi law into line with international standards as the country prepared to join the WTO. The law extended protections to previously unregulated categories of workers, set end-of-service benefits, established clear terms for terminating employment, and required large companies to provide nurseries to help working mothers. It also banned child labor and set provisions for resolving labor disputes. In addition, the new law sought to advance the goal of the “Saudization” of the country’s workforce by stipulating that Saudis must make up at least 75 percent of a company’s employees. Finally, the law stated that women are permitted to work in “all sectors compatible with their nature.” There continues to be virtually no protection for the more than six million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. Many of these laborers, falsely lured to the kingdom with promises of great wealth, are forced to endure dangerous working and living conditions. There continue to be public reports of female domestic workers suffering regular physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
The Saudi judiciary is set to undergo a significant overhaul. Two years after indicating that judicial reform was imminent, King Abdullah in October 2007 formally announced the establishment of a new Supreme Court and an Appeals Court, whose members will be appointed by the king. The new higher courts will replace the old judiciary council, which was widely considered reactionary and inconsistent. The government has allocated $2 billion for new training programs and facilities for the reformed judiciary. It is unclear when the new system will go into effect. Although the reforms are intended to modernize and standardize the judicial system, there are no plans to codify the country’s laws, which leaves judges considerable room for abuse. In 2001, the Council of Ministers approved a penal code that bans torture. However, allegations of torture by police and prison officials are frequent, and access to prisoners by independent human rights and legal organizations is strictly limited.
Substantial prejudice against ethnic, religious, and national minorities prevails. Roughly two million Shiites live in Saudi Arabia, representing 10 to 15 percent of the population. Shiites are underrepresented in major government positions; no Shiite has served as a minister or member of the royal cabinet. Shiites reported a rise in incidents of prejudice and discrimination in 2007, including a series of physical assaults throughout the kingdom. The war in Iraq has increased sectarian anxiety in Saudi Arabia.
Saudis have the right to own property and establish private businesses. While much business activity is connected with members of the government, the ruling family, or other elite families, officials took important steps to promote private business in 2007, including the creation of new industrial and commercial zones that are free from royal-family interference. Unlike in previous years, the government is also spending rather than saving its oil revenues, servicing the debt, and encouraging private investment. The result has been several years of sustained growth and increasing confidence in the long-term viability of the nonpetroleum sector. The kingdom’s new economic initiatives are partly the result of its gaining membership in the WTO in 2005.
Women are not treated as equal members of society, and many laws discriminate against them. They may not legally 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. In November 2007, a court sentenced a Shiite woman from Qatif, who had been gang raped by seven men, to 200 lashes and six months in jail for being alone with a man who was not her relative at the time of the attack; the man was also raped by the attackers and punished by the court. The rapists were sentenced to flogging and jail terms ranging from two to nine years. After an international outcry, the king pardoned the two victims in December. According to interpretations of Sharia (Islamic law) in Saudi Arabia, daughters receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers. The testimony of one man is equal to that of two women in Sharia courts. Unlike Saudi men, Saudi women who marry non-Saudis are not permitted to pass their nationality on to their children, and their spouses cannot receive Saudi nationality. Saudi women are not permitted to serve as lawyers, and women seeking access to the courts must work with a male. The Committee to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue, a semiautonomous religious police force commonly known as the mutawa’een, enforces a strict policy of segregation between men and women and often uses physical punishment to ensure that women meet conservative standards of dress in public.
The government did not allow women to participate in the municipal elections that took place in early 2005. State authorities have not determined whether they will grant women the right to vote in the next such elections, scheduled for 2009.
Education and economic rights for Saudi women have improved. Girls were not permitted to attend school until 1964, but now more than half of the country’s university students are female. In May 2004, women won the right to hold commercial licenses, which opened the door for greater economic participation. In addition, women have generally become more visible in society. In 2005, Saudi state television began using women as newscasters, and two women became the first females elected to Jeddah’s chamber of commerce, a small step forward for women’s leadership in business. In September 2007, women activists presented King Abdullah with a petition containing over 1,100 signatures from women demanding the right to drive.