Last Updated: Monday, 30 November 2015, 08:01 GMT

Annual Report on Human Rights 2008 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Author United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Publication Date 26 March 2009
Cite as United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Annual Report on Human Rights 2008 - Saudi Arabia, 26 March 2009, available at: [accessed 1 December 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Although there have been some improvements in recent years the overall human rights situation in Saudi Arabia remains poor. The UK has particular concerns over the use of the death penalty, corporal punishment, and the quality of judicial procedure. Efforts to reform the judicial system are under way, but so far there has been limited progress. The level of freedom afforded to the local media has improved, but major limitations remain. It is important to note that many of our concerns regard punishments proscribed by Islamic Shari'a law, a legal system supported by most Saudis.

Recent developments

In 2008, Saudi Arabia was elected to the new UN Human Rights Council (HRC) for three years. Serious concerns remain, despite Saudi membership of the HRC, and it being a signatory to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, International Convention for the Eradication of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, Convention for the Eradication of Discrimination Against Women, Convention against Torture, Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In 2008, Human Rights Watch issued five reports on Saudi Arabia. These reports presented a detailed analysis of specific weaknesses in the Kingdom's criminal justice system, the treatment of domestic workers, the condition of the Ismaili minority, the age of legal responsibility and guardianship regimes.

Improvements in the human rights situation in 2008 include greater discussion of religious freedom as a result of the King's interfaith dialogue initiative and greater access to judicial facilities in the regions of the Kingdom.

In June, following an initiative by EU heads of mission to formalise a human rights dialogue with the Saudi authorities, an EU Human Rights Experts Group was formed. The group met Saudi interlocutors to discuss elections and women's participation, support for and promotion of civil society and human rights defenders, freedom of religion, corruption and the enforcement of new human rights compliant legislation by local authorities, the abolition of the sponsorship system for foreign and migrant workers, and the abolition of the guardianship system for women.

King Abdullah instigated the holding of a conference on dialogue between religious faiths in Madrid in July. This led to a UN meeting in New York in November 2008. The UN meeting brought together prominent religious leaders from a variety of faiths and political leaders including the Prime Minister. The dialogue has led to an increase in internal discussions of respect for other faiths.

Current concerns

Death penalty

It has been estimated that there were 97 executions in 2008, down from 157 in 2007.

Amnesty International's report of October 2008 highlighted the high proportion of nationals from developing countries who are executed in Saudi Arabia. The UK government shares Amnesty International's concerns, including about the execution of juveniles (Saudi Arabia is one of only five countries in the world which continues this practice), and lack of due process.

Corporal punishment

The Saudi legal system continues to use corporal punishment for some crimes. This includes the amputation of hands for those repeatedly convicted of theft, or flogging for other offences. On 25 November, a Saudi national was sentenced to 12 years in prison and 8,000 lashes for drug smuggling.

Religious police

The religious police (muttawah) continue to exercise their powers in enforcing Saudi standards of decency and morality, although they have been subject to greater media scrutiny in recent months and have had to account for more of their excesses.

There were a number of cases in 2008 where the religious police exceeded their powers, including cases of car chases, arrests without civil police authority and accusations of violence.

Access to justice

Following the October 2007 plan to reform the Saudi judicial system, some gradual improvements have occurred. These include plans to construct new courts in the different regions of Saudi Arabia in order to improve access to justice for Saudis living outside the three urban conurbations.

Freedom of religion and treatment of minorities

Islam is the official religion and all citizens are required to be Muslims. The legal system is based on a governmentsanctioned interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.

Renouncing religious belief in Islam is an offence punishable by death. The public practice of any religion other than Islam is banned. Concerns remain about the treatment of religious minorities in the Kingdom. Shi'ites, Ismailis and Suffis are poorly represented in the senior government bureaucracy, municipal councils and public companies. It is hoped that the interfaith dialogue launched by King Abdullah in 2008 will improve the situation for religious minorities in Saudi Arabia.

Women's rights

Women in Saudi Arabia continue to face severe restrictions, which have the support of the majority of Saudi men and women. Women have guardians who have legal power over them. These can be fathers, husbands, brothers, even sons. Women require the permission of their guardian to work, travel, study, marry, receive health care or access public services. Human Rights Watch published a report that highlighted the extent that this system infringes human rights. Women are also not allowed to drive and their employment opportunities are limited despite the fact that over half of Saudi graduates are female.

There is evidence that there has been some expansion in women's roles. The number of Saudi women travelling abroad for education is rising, and there are some prominent women in business. In 2008, women were nominated for membership of the Jeddah chamber of commerce.

Last year the Saudi government started to issue individual identification cards to female citizens who hold valid passports. The uptake so far has been slow

Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is limited; there are few facilities or outlets for those who wish to express their views. The internet is heavily censored. Those who call for change face possible detention, torture and imprisonment without trial. The Saudi government continues to deny requests to form human rights groups, which leaves human rights activists vulnerable to intimidation.

The government appoints newspaper editors and has the power to remove them. However, although the level of freedom afforded to local media is increasing, journalists continue to practise extensive self-censorship. Reporting now covers a number of previously taboo social issues such as child abuse and domestic violence, but there is little if any investigative reporting.

Several prominent human rights activists have been arrested and detained without trial in 2008, including a subject previously held between 2004 and 2007 who was re arrested in May 2008 for making a public complaint about prison conditions. On 5 June, 137 Saudis issued a petition calling on the King to release him or at least allow his lawyers access. A Saudi 'blogger' was released on 26 April after 137 days in custody without charge. The Ministry of the Interior maintained that he was given ample warning to desist from publishing a named critique of prominent officials.

UK action

The promotion of human rights, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion, is at the heart of British foreign policy. We take every opportunity to urge Saudi Arabia to pursue laws and practices that foster tolerance and mutual respect.

The Foreign Secretary raised our human rights concerns with the Saudis during his visit to Riyadh in April and during Prince Saud al Faisal's visit to London in November. The UK makes its positions known at working, ambassadorial and ministerial level reminding the Saudis of their obligations as signatories of human rights conventions and treaties.

Our projects are designed to make effective and significant contributions where we can. During the course of this year we have run projects that have supported shelters for victims of domestic violence, delivered training which supports the participation of women in the charity sector, and worked to train Saudi law enforcers in the use of modern methods of DNA analysis and evidence collection in order to give them alternative ways of securing convictions.

We continue to work closely with the Human Rights Commission and the National Society for Human Rights. Established by Royal Decree, their remit includes investigating human rights abuses.

We also work with EU colleagues to coordinate our dialogue on human rights with Saudi Arabia. This includes our active membership of the EU Human Rights Experts Group formed in June 2008.

Forward look

In 2009, the UK will support programmes aimed at promoting the rights of women, including in business; strengthening links between charities; and strengthening the capacity of Saudi NGOs, including those engaged in promoting human rights and democracy. We are exploring ways in which we can support judicial reform.

Through the Two Kingdoms Dialogue we engage with and encourage the development of civil society in Saudi Arabia. The next meeting will be held in Riyadh in April 2009. We expect the agenda to include education, civil society and women's participation. The overarching aim is to promote civic structures which will underpin increased support for human rights.

In February 2009, Saudi Arabia will undergo its Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Right Council. In preparation for this the UK will work closely with the authorities to ensure that Saudi Arabia receives a full and honest appraisal of the human rights situation in the Kingdom, the improvements which are taking place, and areas of continued concern.

The UK will continue to raise human rights concerns at every level. Our strategy remains to work with those in Saudi society who are advocating reform, in order to build indigenous and governmental support for full application of human rights standards. Progress will be slower than we would want. But detached criticism of the situation would hold less prospect of bringing about real change. We expect improvements in the human rights situation to come from discrete support for groups and individuals, both inside government and in fledgling civil society organisations, who are promoting human rights as well as continued advocacy with the relevant government institutions.

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