Freedom in the World

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The kingdom’s rulers worked to suppress reform activism throughout 2013. Saudi courts in March sentenced two founding members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) to lengthy prison terms for calling for political reform and championing human rights, and disbanded their organization. Another member of the ACPRA was sentenced in June to eight years in prison for “slandering the king,” among other charges. Those sentences were part of a much broader campaign against political dissidents and activists in various fields. In one case, two women’s rights activists were each sentenced to 10 months in jail in June for “supporting a wife without her husband’s knowledge, thereby undermining the marriage” after aiding an apparently abused woman.

Authorities also continued to target members of the country’s minority Shiite Muslim community, mostly in the country’s Eastern Province. Shiites began protesting against discrimination and calling for greater political rights in 2011, and during 2013 security forces killed at least one person and arrested dozens of others for related activity, including several who were accused of spying for Iran in March. In June, seven Shiites were sentenced to between five and ten years in prison for supporting protests on Facebook. A Shiite woman was sentenced in April to eight lashes for sending a text message that included information on Shiite religious services.

Despite formidable obstacles, women continued to press for greater social and political rights during the year, including through an ongoing campaign to lift the ban on women driving. While the movement has broad societal support, members of the country’s consultative assembly, the Majlis al-Shura, have refused to back the effort.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Political Rights: 3 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 0 / 12

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 2011. Half of the seats on the 285 councils were open to nonpartisan voting by adult male citizens, while the remainder was filled through appointment by the king. The next municipal council elections are scheduled for 2015.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 0 / 16

Political parties are forbidden, and organized political opposition exists only outside the country. Political dissent is criminalized.

Activists who challenge the country’s record on political inclusion or call for constitutional changes are treated harshly. Several high-profile activists were convicted in 2013 for advocating reform, including ACPRA cofounders Muhammad Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed, who were sentenced in March to 10- and 11-year prison terms, respectively, for their work. As part of the sentencing, the court disbanded the ACPRA and seized its assets. In June, another ACPRA founding member, Abd al-Kareem al-Khoder, was sentenced to eight years in prison for calling for the creation of a constitutional monarchy. In August, authorities released a fourth founding member of the group, Muhammad al-Bajadi, who had been arrested in 2011 and sentenced in 2012 to four years in prison. However, he was quickly rearrested and apparently remained behind bars at year’s end.

Women are generally excluded from political affairs. However, in January 2013 a royal decree established that women would receive at least 20 percent of the seats on the Consultative Council. Thirty women were duly appointed the following month. A 2011 decree gave women the right to vote and seek seats in the 2015 municipal council elections.


C. Functioning of Government: 1 / 12

Corruption remains a significant problem. After widespread floods killed more than 120 people in November 2009, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud 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 other cases remained pending in 2013. A 2011 royal decree established an anticorruption commission to monitor government departments, though administrative obstacles have hindered the commission’s success. Individuals who accuse officials of corruption can face defamation charges and other repercussions.

Although the Saudi government generates massive revenue from the sale of oil, which it redistributes to social welfare programs and as patronage, little is known about the government’s accounting or the various direct ways that the state’s  wealth becomes a source of private privilege for the royal family and its clients.


Discretionary Political Rights Question A: 2 / 4

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. From the king to local governors, royal family officials periodically host meetings for citizens to air grievances and seek access to money or power. These meetings are irregular, and while they afford some citizens rare opportunities to meet with the powerful, the outcomes reinforce the personalized nature of authority.


Civil Liberties: 7 / 40

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 3 / 16

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. A 2011 royal decree amended the country’s press law to criminalize any criticism of the country’s grand mufti, the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or government officials; violations can result in fines and forced closure.

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 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 possible closure of the website.

Many writers and activists have been incarcerated for using the internet to express their views. Prominent author and intellectual Turki al-Hamad was released in June 2013 after six months of detention without charge, having been arrested after criticizing Islamists on the social-media site Twitter. Human rights activist Mikhlif al-Shammari was sentenced to five years in prison in June, based in part on the authorities’ claim that he had uploaded a video to YouTube that appeared to document abuse against women. Raef Badawi, who was arrested in 2012 for comments about religion that he made on his website and on television, was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in July. In October, officials released writer Hamza Kashgari, who had been was arrested in Malaysia in 2012 and extradited back to Saudi Arabia to face charges of apostasy, which carries a mandatory death sentence. He had used Twitter to express views on Islam and the prophet Muhammad that are criminalized in the kingdom. In October Waleed al-Bukhair was sentenced to three months in prison for criticizing abuses in the judicial and criminal systems.

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.

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.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 0 / 12

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. Regular protests by relatives of political prisoners took place outside the Ministry of the Interior in Riyadh and in the town of Burayda throughout 2013. Authorities arrested hundreds of protesters, mostly women, typically releasing them after several hours or days of detention. Small demonstrations also occurred in predominantly Shiite villages in Eastern Province, where protesters periodically took to the streets to demand political reform and express support for antigovernment protests in neighboring Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia has no associations law and has historically approved licenses only for charitable organizations. In May 2013, the authorities rejected an application for the registration of the Adala Center, an independent human rights society based in Eastern Province. There are no laws protecting the rights to form independent labor unions, bargain collectively, or engage in strikes. Workers who engage in union activity are subject to dismissal or imprisonment. The Ministry of Labor reported in 2013 that it is in the process of enacting regulations that will allow for some form of workers’ organization for business that have more than 100 employees.


F. Rule of Law: 2 / 16

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 2011, the authorities issued a draft of a sweeping new antiterrorism law that would include 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 2013, though elements of the measure, including the penalization of 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 of activists and violently dispersing protests. Security forces continued their crackdown in 2013, arresting 16 people in March for allegedly participating in an Iranian spy ring. In June, a 19-year-old Shiite man was killed by stray gunfire from police who were pursuing another suspect. Also that month, seven Shiites were sentenced to between five and ten years in prison for posting their support for protests on Facebook.


G. Personal Autonomy an Individual Rights: 2 / 16

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. Journalist and activist Iman al-Qahtani was banned from traveling abroad in July 2013 as a result of her writing on human rights issues.

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 special 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 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. All sexual activity outside marriage, including homosexual acts, is criminalized, and the death penalty can be applied in certain circumstances.

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, but it has not consistently carried out serious investigations or brought cases against violators.

In August 2013, the government enacted a law that defines and criminalizes domestic abuse, prescribing fines and up to a year in prison for perpetrators. However, according to an analysis by Human Rights Watch, the law lacks clarity on enforcement mechanisms. In July, prominent women’s rights activists Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni were sentenced to 10 months in prison and banned from traveling abroad for two years for a 2011 attempt to assist a woman who was apparently being domestically abused.

Saudi women continued to agitate and press for the right to drive in 2013. About 60 women reported driving on October 26 as part of a coordinated protest; several participants uploaded videos of themselves driving onto YouTube.

A 2005 labor law that extended various protections and benefits to previously unregulated categories of workers also banned child labor 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 report regular physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. In 2013, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign to deport expatriate workers who had allegedly overstayed their visas or were no longer employed by their original hosts. The roughly one million people affected included some 300,000 Yemenis and over 100,000 Ethiopians. Efforts to crackdown on workers who had overstayed their visas led to labor unrest and rare riots between foreign laborers and authorities in November. Over 100 people were injured. Tens of thousands of expatriates, including those assaulted by authorities, were deported in the fall.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology