Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Saudi Arabia tightened restrictions on dissent and freedom of speech in 2014, and intensified criminal penalties for religious beliefs that veer too far from official state orthodoxy. A sweeping 2013 “antiterrorism” law took effect in February, enabling authorities to press terrorism charges against anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption, or otherwise engages in dissent. A royal decree in April penalized atheism with up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Making use of these and other laws, authorities continued to crack down on dissidents, human rights defenders, artists, and journalists.
In February and March, in the midst of growing regional tensions and concerns over Saudi citizens participating in wars in Syria and Iraq, the government criminalized “fighting in conflicts abroad” and officially designated the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi branch of the Shiite Islamist movement Hezbollah as terrorist organizations. Authorities also continued to target members of the country’s Shiite Muslim minority, mostly in the Eastern Province. Most notably, in October a Saudi court sentenced the prominent Shiite cleric and rights advocate Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to death on charges of sedition.
In March Muqrin bin Abd al-Aziz, a younger brother of King Abdullah, was named second in line to the throne behind Crown Prince Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, confirming the long-term succession plan.
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 elections were held a second time 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. A 2011 royal decree granted women the right to vote and run for office in the 2015 municipal elections. It remained to be seen whether this would be implemented.
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 kingdom’s record on political inclusion or call for constitutional changes are treated harshly. For example, Waleed Abu al-Khair, a lawyer and human rights activist, was detained without explanation in April 2014 while at a hearing for previous charges related to “disrespecting and offending the authorities.” In July he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In May, during an appeal on charges of “insulting Islam,” Raef Badawi, a rights activist and founder of the website Liberal Saudi Network, saw his previous sentence of six years’ imprisonment and 700 lashes increased to 10 years and 1,000 lashes. In July, a court upheld the five-year prison sentence of human rights activist Mikhlif al-Shammari, and in November he was sentenced to two additional years and 200 lashes. Fawzan al-Harbi, a human rights defender and founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), was sentenced in June to seven years’ imprisonment—six of which were suspended—and a travel ban for his human rights activism; after an appeal, in November he received a harsher sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment followed by a 10-year travel ban.
The March decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations reflected official concerns about the domestic popularity of both organizations, which are considered threats to the regime.
C. Functioning of Government: 1 / 12
Corruption remains a significant problem, despite some earlier moves to hold certain officials accountable. Following two devastating floods in 2009 that killed upwards of 120 people and led to public protests, more than 40 people—including municipal officials and businessmen—were arrested on corruption charges. While the fate of many of those arrested remains unclear, two were given prison sentences in 2014, and six others were acquitted. A trial for 16 municipal officials accused of taking bribes in managing water in Jeddah began in August.
The Saudi state remains notably opaque in its budgets and financial practices. Although the government generates massive revenue from the sale of oil, which it redistributes through social welfare programs and as patronage, little is known about its accounting or the various direct ways in which the state’s wealth becomes a source of private privilege for the royal family and its clients. In 2014, the accounting firm Deloitte reported that annual Saudi military spending had increased by $16 billion over the past five years.
Discretionary Political Rights Question A: 2 / 4
In addition to drawing advice from the Consultative Council, the monarchy has a tradition of consulting with select members of Saudi society. However, 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 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 of media outlets.
The regime has taken steps to limit the influence of new media, blocking access to more than 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. In February 2014 a court sentenced online television host Wajdi al-Ghazzawi to 12 years in prison for criticizing the state, five of which were based on the kingdom’s cybercrimes law. In April the General Commission for Audiovisual Media declared its intent to restrict all non-state-run YouTube programming. In September three lawyers were convicted of criticizing the Ministry of Justice on Twitter, and were sentenced to prison terms of between five and eight years.
In March authorities banned hundreds and confiscated more than 10,000 copies of books at the annual book fair in Riyadh.
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 January, poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh was arrested for allegedly “spreading atheism.” In April, the government issued a royal decree that punishes atheism with up to 20 years in prison, setting off calls from within the religious police to pursue such cases enthusiastically.
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 no large-scale protests have taken place in the kingdom, smaller demonstrations have become more common. The largest of these take place in the mainly Shiite Eastern Province.
Saudi Arabia has no associations law and has historically approved licenses only for charitable organizations. No laws protect 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.
F. Rule of Law: 2 / 16
The judiciary, which must coordinate its decisions with the executive branch, is not independent. A special commission of judicial experts writes law that serves 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 guidelines.
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. A sweeping new “antiterrorism” law, which includes lengthy prison sentences for criticizing the monarchy or the government, went into effect in February 2014. It also expanded the power of police to conduct raids against suspected antigovernment activity without judicial approval.
Substantial prejudice against ethnic, religious, and national minorities prevails. Shiites, who make up 10 to 15 percent of the population, are underrepresented in major government positions and have also faced physical assaults. Since 2011, protests in the largely Shiite-populated Eastern Province have grown in scale. Authorities have responded by issuing a most-wanted list of activists and violently dispersing demonstrations. Security forces continued their crackdown on Shiite activism in 2014. The prominent Shiite cleric and political dissident Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who had been arrested in 2012 for leading protests critical of the regime and calling for an end to sectarian discrimination, was sentenced to death in October 2014. His 18-year-old nephew Ali al-Nimr had been sentenced to death in May for participating in demonstrations against the government.
In November, masked gunmen allegedly connected to the Islamic State militant group opened fire on a crowd of young Shiite men in Al-Hasa during Ashura, an important Shiite religious commemoration; seven people were killed. Authorities subsequently detained six suspects.
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.
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 are 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 same-sex activity, 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.
A 2013 law 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.
Saudi women continued to agitate for the right to drive in 2014. In December Loujain Hathloul and Maysaa Alamoudi were arrested at the border with the United Arab Emirates for driving. Their case was referred to the Specialized Criminal Court, which deals primarily with cases related to state security and terrorism.
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. In a small victory, in February 2014, the Ministry of Labor ruled that expatriate workers who go more than three months without a salary are free to switch their work sponsors without approval. A 2013 campaign to crack down on expatriate workers who had allegedly overstayed their visas or were no longer employed by their original host continued into 2014. More than 400,000 workers were deported throughout the year.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year