Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Saudi Arabia made little progress on political and judicial reform in 2008, and the government continued to crack down on activists who called for expanded human and political rights. The limited electoral component of that process remained tenuous in 2008, as Saudi authorities made no commitment to hold municipal council elections scheduled for 2009. While the downturn in the price of oil at the end of 2008 undermined the country’s ability to spend lavishly on development plans, it is well positioned to weather a short-term run of lower oil prices due to prudent budgeting.
Since its unification in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia has been controlled by the al-Saud family; the current king, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, is the sixth in the ruling dynasty. The Saudi monarchy governs 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 Abdullah, then the crown prince, took control of most decision making in 1997.
After the country endured 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 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 transfer of power from King Fahd, who died in August 2005, to King Abdullah led to increased expectations of political reform. However, Abdullah enacted few significant changes. While reform was supported in Saudi society, it was not widely embraced within the royal family, which was reluctant 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. 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. Saudi authorities ultimately 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.
In 2007, Abdullah announced bylaws 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.
In 2008, Abdullah launched an initiative that aimed to bring leaders from the world’s major religious groups together to promote dialogue and tolerance and to combat terrorism. The program resulted in a three-day conference held in Madrid in July. Over 300 delegates representing Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths attended.
In June, the Ministry of the Interior announced that it had detained over 700 suspected militants who were planning attacks inside the kingdom, indicating that the threat of terrorism remained serious despite years of strong police measures. Also during the year, the government was reportedly considering a two-year postponement of the municipal elections scheduled for 2009. By the end of the year, the government had yet to make an announcement about whether the elections would be held. It was also unclear whether women would be able to participate in the next round of voting.
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 in 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 some problems, including a decline in real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita over the last decade. Rising oil prices have driven high rates of inflation. Unemployment is estimated at about 25 percent, and a growing youth population is adding to pressure on the government to create new jobs. To cope with these concerns, the government has been spending rather than saving its oil revenues, servicing 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, though the global economic crisis of late 2008 triggered a sharp drop in oil prices. The downturn placed new stresses on the kingdom, most importantly by diminishing the extent to which it was able to spend on development programs. However, as a result of careful budgeting, Saudi Arabia has yet to face any significant related political fallout.
Saudi Arabia is not an electoral democracy. The country’s 1992 Basic Law declares that the Holy 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 serves in an advisory capacity and has limited powers. 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. Criticism of the political system, the royal family, and demands for reform remain off-limits. Activists who speak out too loudly for change are subject to various punishments, including imprisonment and restrictions on travel.
The al-Saud dynasty dominates and controls political life in the kingdom. The royal family forbids the formation of political parties, and organized political opposition exists only 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 2008; al-Hamed served a six-month jail term for encouraging the wives of political detainees to protest. Matrouk al-Faleh, another advocate of political reform, was arrested in May after criticizing the government for its treatment of al-Hamed. Al-Faleh remained in detention 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 80 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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 over 400,000 websites that are considered immoral or politically sensitive. Fouad al-Farhan, a prominent blogger who criticized corruption and persistently called for political reform, was imprisoned without charges from December 2007 to April 2008 for comments made on his blog. In September 2008, the head of the Supreme Judiciary Council issued an edict allowing the killing of the owners of satellite television channels if they air immoral content.
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 the 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 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, and informers monitor classrooms for compliance with limits on curriculums, such as a ban on teaching secular philosophy and religions other than Islam. In 2004,the governmentbegan efforts to reform school curriculums by deleting disparaging references to non-Muslims in textbooks. However, in 2005, Abdullah bin Saleh al-Obaid, a religious conservative, was appointed as 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 2006. In January 2008, authorities began to introduce a human rights curriculum into the education system. 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 minority sects.
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. The NHRA reported in September 2008 that it had received about 10,000 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 before the country joined the World Trade Organization in December of that year. 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 “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.
Sweeping judicial reforms were promised in 2005, and Abdullah in 2007 announced the establishment of a new Supreme Court and an Appeals Court, whose members would be appointed by the king. The new higher courts would replace the old judiciary council, which was widely considered reactionary and inconsistent. However, it remained unclear in 2008 when the new system would go into effect. In July, the Council of Ministers announced that it would form a Special Higher Commission of judicial experts charged with writing laws to serve as the foundation for verdicts in Saudi Arabia’s Sharia (Islamic law) courts. While Saudi courts have historically relied on the Hanbali legal school for their rulings, the commission would incorporate all four Islamic legal schools in drafting the new laws. The government allocated about $1.8 billion for reforms of the judicial system, including the training of judges.
In 2001, the Council of Ministers approved a penal code that bans torture. However, allegations of torture by police and prison officials are common, and access to prisoners by independent human rights and legal organizations is strictly limited. In October 2008, the Ministry of the Interior announced that it would begin trials for hundreds of suspects arrested on charges of terrorism since 2003. Although the ministry originally planned to make the proceedings public, the authorities decided to keep the trials closed.
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 government minister. Shiites reportedly continued to experience prejudice and discrimination in 2008, including a series of physical assaults. The war in Iraq has increased sectarian anxiety in Saudi Arabia.
Freedom of movement is restricted in some cases. The government punishes activists and critics by limiting their ability to travel outside the country. Reform advocates are routinely stripped of their passports. Abdul Rahman al-Lahem, a lawyer who has represented reformers and who has been critical of the judiciary, was prevented from traveling abroad to accept two prestigious human rights awards in 2008.
Saudis have the right to own property and establish private businesses. While a great deal of business activity is connected with members of the government, the ruling family, or other elite families, officials have given assurances that newly created industrial and commercial zones will be free from royal-family interference.
Women are not treated as equal members of society, and many laws discriminate against them. They were not permitted to vote in the 2005 municipal elections, they may not legally drive cars, and their use of public facilities is restricted when men are present. By law and custom, Saudi women cannot travel within or outside of the country without a male relative. A February 2008 regulation requires Saudi men seeking government permission to marry foreign women to sign a binding document allowing their foreign-born spouses and their children to travel freely in and out of Saudi Arabia. However, this regulation is not retroactive. Under Saudi law, women married to Saudi men prior to the date of these new regulations still need their husbands’ permission to leave Saudi Arabia, and their children still require their fathers’ permission to leave the country. 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 seeking access to the courts must work with a male. According to interpretations of Sharia in Saudi Arabia, daughters receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers, and the testimony of one man is equal to that of two women in Sharia courts.
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 harasses women, using physical punishment to ensure that women meet conservative standards of dress in public. In 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 of that year.
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.However, female students must attend women’s only campuses, and classes and facilities for women are second-rate. In 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 2008, the Saudi Human Rights Commission established a women’s branch to investigate cases of human rights violations against women and children.