Saudi Arabia | Freedom House

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Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Freedom in the World 2013

2013 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Saudi authorities continued to crack down on Shiite activists and protestors in the Eastern Province throughout 2012. Smaller protests occurred in other parts of the country during the year, including in Riyadh and the southwestern city of Abha. The kingdom systematically arrested, tried, and imprisoned some of the country’s most visible human rights activists, including the cofounders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. In June, Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz died and was succeeded by his brother Salman bin Abdul Aziz.

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 bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, took control of most decision making in 1997.

The formal transfer of power from King Fahd, who died in 2005, to Crown Prince Abdullah led to increased expectations of political reform. However, now King 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.

After being named Crown Prince in 2011, Nayef bin Abdul Aziz died in June 2012. He was succeeded by his brother Salman bin Abdul Aziz. 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 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.

Saudi Arabia has not experienced the kind of popular protests that have occurred elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years. Saudi activists used social media to call for a “Day of Rage” to be held in March 2011. However, authorities dispatched security personnel across the country as pre-emptive measures, and large protests failed to materialize. In an effort to prevent wide-scale social unrest, Abdullah committed over $130 billion to address some of the social and economic complaints of the country’s citizens; between 2 and 4 million Saudis live below the poverty line. Improvements included plans to construct affordable housing, provide unemployment benefits, and increase the salaries of government employees. Nevertheless, smaller demonstrations were common, including in predominantly Shiite villages in the country’s Eastern Province, where protestors demanded an end to discrimination and improvements in their economic conditions. Similar demands were made by others, including Sunnis, across the kingdom in 2012.

Saudi Arabia’s growing youth population—which suffers from an unemployment rate estimated as high as 30 percent for those between the ages of 15 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.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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.

Corruption remains a significant problem. After widespread floods killed more than 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 thousand, sparking small protests that alleged ongoing corruption. In May 2012, a government official and a local businessman were fined and sentenced to five years in prison on charges of corruption related to the 2009 floods. Several cases remained pending at the end of 2012 A 2011 royal decree established an anticorruption commission to monitor government departments, though administrative obstacles continued to hinder the commission’s success in 2012. Saudi Arabia was ranked 66 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

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, Abdullah issued a royal decree amending the country’s press law, criminalizing 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 calling for greater rights and democracy during an interview recorded in Riyadh and broadcast by the television station BBC Arabic. He was imprisoned shortly afterwards and remained in jail in 2012. In December, prominent Saudi author and intellectual Turki al-Hamad was arrested for criticizing Islamists on the social media site, Twitter; he remained in prison at year’s end.

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. A January 2011 law requires 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. In February 2012, Saudi writer Hamza Kashgari was arrested in Malaysia and deported back to Saudi Arabia while trying to flee prosecution for apostasy, which carries a mandatory death sentence, after using Twitter to express views of Islam and the prophet Muhammad that are criminalized in the kingdom; he remained in jail at year’s end.

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. The building of Shiite mosques is banned. In April 2012, religious scholar Yusuf Ahmed was sentenced to five years in prison for calling for the destruction of the Mecca mosque and for other criticisms of the regime. In June, authorities arrested Raef Badawi, creator of a website for the discussion of religion called Free Saudi Liberals, and charged him with apostasy; he remained in prison at year’s end.

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 assembly and association are not upheld. The government frequently detains political activists who stage demonstrations or engage in other civic advocacy. While there have been no large-scale protests in the kingdom, smaller demonstrations have become more common. Several protests by relatives of political prisoners took place outside the Ministry of the Interior in Riyadh in 2012. The most visible demonstrations occurred in predominantly Shiite villages in the country’s Eastern Province, where hundreds of Shiite protestors regularly took to the streets demanding political reform, as well as in support of the uprising in neighboring Bahrain. In March, over 50 women students at the University of Abha in southwestern Saudi Arabia protested poor facilities and material conditions on campus; several were wounded by police. In April, Muhammad al-Bajadi, cofounder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), was sentenced to four years in prison for “tarnishing the image of the state.” In September, Muhammad al-Qahtani, and Abdullah al-Hamad, also cofounders of ACPRA, were put on trial for similar charges and forbidden from travelling outside the country Their trials were pending at the end of 2012.

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.

The judiciary, which must coordinate its decisions with the executive branch, is not independent. 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 new laws. 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 includes significant prison sentences for criticizing the government or questioning the integrity of the king or crown prince; it had not been adopted by the end of 2012, though elements of the law, including outlawing criticism of the royal family, appeared to have been implemented.

Substantial prejudice against ethnic, religious, and national minorities prevails. Shiites, who represent 10 to 15 percent of the population, are underrepresented in major government positions and have also faced physical assaults. As a result, Shiite activists and demonstration organizers became more confrontational in 2012. Authorities responded harshly, issuing a most-wanted list targeting activists and violently cracking down on protests. Several were killed, including Akbar al-Shakuri and Mohammed al-Filfil in July and Ali al-Marar in December, and many more werearrested over the course of the year. In July, police arrested popular Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on charges of sedition.

Freedom of movement is restricted in some cases. The government punishes activists and critics by limiting their ability to travel outside the country, and reform advocates are routinely stripped of their passports. In March 2012, human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, creator of the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, was barred from leaving the country as he faced charges of “insulting the judiciary” and “harming the reputation of the kingdom” after providing information about one of his cases to an international human rights organization.

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 will be free from royal family interference.

Women are not treated as equal members of society, and many laws discriminate against them. They are not permitted to vote in municipal elections, drive cars, or travel within or outside of the country without a male relative. 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 the same month, after posting a video of herself driving on YouTube; she was released after being detained for 10 days. Education and economic rights for Saudi women have improved somewhat in recent years, with more than half of the country’s university students now female, though they do not enjoy equal access to classes and facilities. Women gained the right to hold commercial licenses in 2004. In 2008, the Saudi Human Rights Commission established a women’s branch to investigate cases of human rights violations against women and children, though 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.