Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Saudi Arabia’s civil liberties rating declined from 6 to 7 due to new restrictions on the media and public speech as well as the severe treatment of religious minorities, including crackdowns on Shiite Muslim protests.
In an effort to prevent popular uprisings similar to those that took place elsewhere in the Middle East in 2011, Saudi authorities announced over $130 billion in new social spending. Nevertheless, small protests occurred during the year, including in predominantly Shiite villages in the country’s Eastern Province. Saudi women launched a highly visible campaign in May calling for greater freedoms, including the right to drive, and King Abdullah announced that women would be allowed to vote in municipal elections in 2015 and hold seats in the country’s Consultative Council, the Majlis al-Shura. Meanwhile, the King issued a royal decree in April amending the country’s press law to criminalize criticism of religious scholars.
Since its unification in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia has been governed by the Saud family 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 did not lead to any substantial shift in political power. In 1995, King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud suffered a stroke, and his half brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, took control of most decision making in 1997.
Following a series of terrorist attacks in 2003 and 2004, Saudi authorities intensified their counterterrorism efforts, killing dozens of suspects and detaining thousands of others over subsequent years. Officials also attempted to stem financial support for terrorist groups through new checks on money laundering and oversight of charitable organizations.
The formal transfer of power from King Fahd, who died in 2005, to King Abdullah led to increased expectations of political reform. However, Abdullah enacted few significant changes. The 2005 municipal council elections gave Saudi men a limited opportunity to select some of their leaders at the local level, but women were completely excluded. 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 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. The government ultimately determined that the councils would serve only in an advisory capacity.
In 2006, Abdullah issued the bylaws for the Allegiance Commission, a new body to be composed of the sons (or grandsons, if sons are deceased, incapacitated, or unwilling) of the founding king. The commission, to be chaired by the oldest surviving son, would make decisions on appointing successors to the throne, using secret ballots and a quorum of two-thirds of the members. The commission was also granted the authority to deem a king or crown prince medically unfit to rule. With the death of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz in October 2011, the commission helped select former minister of the interior Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as heir apparent. A cabinet reshuffle in 2009 resulted in the appointment of the first-ever female cabinet member, Noura al-Fayez. The king also fired two controversial religious figures, one of whom headed the religious police force. The move was interpreted as a sign that the monarchy felt less beholden to hard-line religious leaders and was seeking to promote more moderate clerics. This trend continued in 2010, with King Abdullah decreeing in August that the issuing of religious edicts (fatwas) would be restricted to the Official Council of Senior Clergy. The decree was intended to outlaw the declaration of controversial fatwas and rein in radicalism.
In March 2011, over 1,000 members of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard (SANG) were sent into Bahrain as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield Force that helped to crack down on tens of thousands of Bahraini pro-democracy demonstrators.
Saudi Arabia did not experience the kind of popular protests that either toppled or threatened regimes elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. Saudi activists used social media to call for a “Day of Rage” to be held on March 11; however, authorities dispatched over 10,000 police and security personnel across the country as pre-emptive measures, and large protests failed to materialize. Nevertheless, smaller demonstrations occurred during the year, including in predominantly Shiite villages in the country’s Eastern Province.
In an effort to prevent social unrest, King Abdullah committed over $130 billion to address some of the social and economic complaints of the country’s citizens. Improvements included plans to construct affordable housing, provide unemployment benefits, and increase the salaries of government employees.
In September, the government held elections for half of the municipal council seats. While women were once again excluded from participating in these elections, and turnout was low, King Abdullah announced that women would be eligible to run and vote in the next round of municipal elections, scheduled for 2015, and would be allowed to hold seats in the country’s Consultative Council, the Majlis al-Shura.
Saudi Arabia’s growing youth population—which suffers from an unemployment rate estimated as high as 43 percent for those between the ages of 20 and 24—has placed additional pressure on the authorities to create new jobs. In response, the government has deployed its immense oil wealth to strengthen the nonpetroleum sector and sought to encourage private investment, though the results of these efforts remain unclear.
Saudi Arabia is not an electoral democracy. The 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 cabinet, which is appointed by the king, passes legislation that becomes law once ratified by royal decree. The king also appoints a 150-member Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) every four years, though it serves only in an advisory capacity. Limited elections for advisory councils at the municipal level were introduced in 2005, and the second round of elections was held in September 2011. In addition to the advisory councils, the monarchy has a tradition of consulting with select members of Saudi society, but the process is not equally open to all citizens. Political parties are forbidden, and organized political opposition exists only outside the country, with many London-based activists.
Corruption remains a significant problem. After widespread floods killed over 120 people in November 2009, King Abdullah in May 2010 ordered the prosecution of over 40 officials in the city of Jeddah on charges of corruption and mismanagement related to improper construction and engineering practices. A second round of floods in January 2011 killed over 10 people and displaced several thousands, sparking outrage and even small protests that alleged ongoing corruption. In March 2011, King Abdullah issued a royal decree establishing an anticorruption commission to monitor and observe government departments, though administrative obstacles hindered the commission’s success in 2011.
The government tightly controls domestic media content and dominates regional print and satellite-television coverage, with members of the royal family owning major stakes in news outlets in multiple countries. Government officials have banned journalists and editors who publish articles deemed offensive to the religious establishment or the ruling authorities. In April 2011, the King issued a royal decree amending the country’s press law, placing further restrictions on freedom of expression. The amendments criminalize any criticism of the country’s Grand Mufti, the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or government officials. Violations could result in fines and forced closure.
In March 2011, Khaled al-Johani, a teacher, was arrested after criticizing the government and calling for greater rights and democracy during an interview recorded in public in Riyadh, and broadcast by the television station BBC Arabic. He was imprisoned shortly afterwards and remained in jail at year’s end. Also in March, authorities withdrew the press credentials of Ulf Laessing, a Reuters correspondent based in Riyadh, for attempting to cover the recent public protests. Saudi filmmaker Feras Bugnah was arrested in October and detained without charge for over two weeks after he posted a film documenting widespread poverty in Riyadh.
The regime has taken steps to limit the influence of new media, blocking access to over 400,000 websites that are considered immoral or politically sensitive. In January 2011, the kingdom issued a law requiring all blogs and websites, or anyone posting news or commentary online, to have a license from the Ministry of Information or face fines and/or the closure of the website.
Islam is the official religion, and all Saudis are required by law to be Muslims. The government prohibits the public practice of any religion 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. In 2009, authorities instituted a ban on the building of Shiite mosques, marking a significant reversal of policies that had offered Shiites some religious freedom in recent years.
Academic freedom is restricted, and informers monitor classrooms for compliance with curriculum rules, such as a ban on teaching secular philosophy and religions other than Islam. Despite changes to textbooks in recent years, 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.
Freedoms of association and assembly are not upheld. The government frequently detains political activists who stage demonstrations or engage in other civic advocacy. While there were no large-scale protests in 2011, a number of smaller protests took place throughout the year. In spite of routine arrests, family members of political prisoners protested regularly outside the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) building in Riyadh, demanding information and the release of their loved ones. In July, over 20 people were arrested, including women and children, for protesting in front of the MOI, though they were later released. Protests also took place in predominantly Shiite villages in the country’s Eastern Province throughout the year. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of Shiite demonstrators took to the streets demanding the release of political prisoners, political reform, and in support of the uprising in Bahrain. Authorities increased their security presence in Shiite villages in order to prevent larger protests. At least 14 people, including security personnel, were injured in clashes between police and protesters in al-Awamiyya village in October. Saudi security forces imposed a heavy security cordon in Shiite villages in the Eastern Province in the fall and early winter 2011, targeting activists and preventing media from reporting on events in the region.
A 2005 labor law extended various protections and benefits to previously unregulated categories of workers. The legislation also banned child labor, set provisions for resolving labor disputes, and established a 75 percent quota for Saudi citizens in each company’s workforce. However, the more than six million foreign workers in the country have virtually no legal protections. Many are lured to the kingdom under false pretenses and forced to endure dangerous working and living conditions. Female migrants employed in Saudi homes as domestic workers report regular physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
In 2007, Abdullah established a new Supreme Court and an Appeals Court, whose members are appointed by the king. The new higher courts replaced the old judiciary council, which was widely considered reactionary and inconsistent. A Special Higher Commission of judicial experts was formed in 2008 to write laws that would serve as the foundation for verdicts in the court system, which is grounded in Sharia (Islamic law). While Saudi courts have historically relied on the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, the commission incorporates all four Sunni Muslim legal schools in drafting the new laws. In 2009, the kingdom began a judicial training program and initiated the construction of new courts.
The penal code bans torture, but 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 July 2011, Saudi Arabia issued a draft of a sweeping new antiterrorism law, which Amnesty International criticized as an attempt to silence calls for reform; the draft law includes significant prison sentences for criticizing the government or questioning the integrity of the king or crown prince.
Substantial prejudice against ethnic, religious, and national minorities prevails. Shiites represent 10 to 15 percent of the population and are underrepresented in major government positions; no Shiite has ever served as a government minister. Shiites have also faced physical assaults.
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.
Saudis have the right to own property and establish private businesses. While a great deal of business activity is connected to members of the government, the ruling family, or other elite families, officials have given assurances that industrial and commercial zones currently being built 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 or 2011 municipal elections, they may not legally drive cars, and their use of public facilities is restricted in some cases when men are present. By law and custom, Saudi women cannot travel within or outside of the country without a male relative. Unlike Saudi men, Saudi women cannot pass their citizenship to their children or foreign-born husbands. According to interpretations of Sharia in Saudi Arabia, daughters generally receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers, and the testimony of one man is equal to that of two women. Moreover, Saudi women seeking access to the courts must be represented by a male. The religious police enforce a strict policy of gender segregation and often harass women, using physical punishment to ensure that they meet conservative standards of dress in public. In May 2011, Saudi women launched a highly visible campaign demanding the expansion of their rights, including the right to drive. A 32-year-old Saudi woman, Manal al-Sharif, was arrested on May 21 after posting a video of herself driving on YouTube; she was released 10 days later.
Education and economic rights for Saudi women have improved somewhat in recent years. More than half of the country’s university students are now female, though they do not have equal access to classes and facilities. Women gained the right to hold commercial licenses in 2004, and Saudi state television began using women as newscasters in 2005. That same year, two women became the first females elected to Jeddah’s chamber of commerce. In 2008, the Saudi Human Rights Commission established a women’s branch to investigate cases of human rights violations against women and children; it has not consistently carried out any serious investigations or brought cases against violators. A 2009 law imposes fines of up to $266,000 for those found guilty of human trafficking.