Saudi Arabia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Freedom in the World 2017

Saudi Arabia


Freedom Status: 
Not Free

Freedom in the World Scores

(1=Most Free, 7=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Press Freedom Status: 
Not Free
Net Freedom Status: 
Not Free

Ruled by the Saud family since its founding in 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties through a combination of oppressive laws and the use of force. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime extends some authority to clerics who follow the austere Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam in exchange for affirmation of the monarchy’s religious legitimacy. Ruling elites rely on extensive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power.

Key Developments: 
  • In January, the regime executed one of the kingdom’s most prominent Shiite Muslim clerics as part of its ongoing crackdown against the religious minority.
  • More than 150 people were executed during 2016, the second consecutive year in which the total passed that threshold. Defendants are generally denied due process, and many are executed for crimes other than murder.
  • In April, against a backdrop of low oil prices and a struggling economy, the deputy crown prince announced an economic reform package called Saudi Vision 2030, without promising any significant political reforms.
  • As the Saudi military continued its controversial bombing campaign against rebel forces in neighboring Yemen, cross-border attacks by the rebels occasionally caused deaths and injuries in the kingdom.
Executive Summary: 

Beleaguered by a second full year of low oil prices, Saudi Arabia’s leaders struggled to manage a weak economy in 2016. In January, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, announced that the state was planning to privatize a minority stake in the national oil company; subsequent statements indicated that the sale would be held by 2018. In April, the prince mapped out an ambitious economic strategy called Saudi Vision 2030 that aimed to overhaul the country’s economy, including by “Saudiizing” the labor force to reduce unemployment among citizens, diversifying away from oil, privatizing more of the state-controlled economy, and cutting state spending and subsidies. The plan did not address political reform or offer to expand heavily restricted political rights and civil liberties. Meanwhile, Saudi officials in November agreed to an oil production cut by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the first in eight years, as part of a bid to shore up prices.

With significant logistical and political support from the United States and Britain, Saudi Arabia continued its destructive military campaign in neighboring Yemen, where groups loyal to Saudi-backed president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi were locked in a civil war against Houthi rebels and allied forces linked to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi leaders maintained that the Houthis, who sometimes launched raids or missile attacks across Saudi Arabia’s southern border, were proxies for Shiite-ruled Iran, the kingdom’s regional rival.

Saudi internal security forces continued their oppression of the Shiite religious minority. In January, the authorities executed a prominent Shiite cleric and outspoken critic of the regime, Nimr al-Nimr. Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, the cleric’s nephew, remained on death row for his participation as a teenager in 2011 protests that led to clashes with security forces. In June, a Saudi court sentenced 14 Shiites to death for alleged attacks on security personnel during the same wave of protests, which the regime characterized as terrorism.

As in previous years, Saudi human rights and political activists were systematically persecuted and imprisoned in 2016. Despite its poor record, Saudi Arabia was reelected to its seat on the UN Human Rights Council in October. In a modest reform in April, the government announced that the religious police no longer had the authority to pursue or detain civilians, and that they could operate only during business hours, reporting violations to the civil police. The religious police had faced public criticism for abusive behavior in recent years.

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