Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 November 2015, 08:02 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 16 July 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Saudi Arabia, 16 July 2009, available at: [accessed 25 November 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.

In 2008, state and societal intolerance of minorities in general has continued to be the norm, with few signs of progress being made in the limited reforms that were instituted in previous years. Saudi Arabia has a population of about 28 million people; 5.5 million are non-nationals, while 2-2.5 million are Shia Muslims and 700,000 are Ismailis, with small numbers of resident Christians and other faith groups, according to the USCIRF.

Issues of concern in the kingdom include state and social intolerance of minorities in general, the lack of guarantees of religious freedom, and the situation of Shia (see Box: p. 211). Women in Saudi Arabia do not enjoy full human rights and are subject to strict Sunni interpretations of Sharia law, a situation that is exacerbated for minority women.

Muslims who do not share in the official, highly conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam still face problems with the mutawwa'in (religious police), and there continued to be numerous accusations of 'harassment, abuse and killings' levelled against the organization, according to USCIRF. However, the report stated, 'the government allowed unprecedented media coverage of the trials of mutawwa'in involved in these incidents, and public protests were not met with further harassment.'

USCIRF also maintains that non-Muslims, or Muslims who do not adhere to Sunni Wahhabism, continue to face significant legal, political, economic and social discrimination while at the same time being unable to conduct religious practice publicly – or in some cases, privately. In May 2008, 15 Indian Christians were arrested for private worship. The UN Human Rights Council advanced similar concerns in its 2008 report.

All Saudi public school students receive mandatory religious instruction, and the textbooks used promote the killing of apostates and polytheists, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit organization. Following international protests that the textbooks were in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 'the Saudi Government claimed it had revised the texts and released new versions, but the USCIRF found evidence that large sections of the sample "revised" textbooks were not edited, but simply torn out or covered by correction fluid'. According to the USCIRF report, a more moderate curriculum was piloted in 40 schools.

The year 2008 also appears to have brought little progress towards the screening out of extremist teachers, which the Saudi government promised in 2007. The USCIRF report said some screenings had taken place, but also mentioned 'multiple incidents' in which teachers 'promoted intolerant views in the classroom without being disciplined'. This general intolerance intersects with issues specifically facing minorities. In 2008, there were incidents of Shia students being called unbelievers, infidels or polytheists. Ismailis also continued to be defamed in textbooks as polytheists or infidels.

USCIRF highlights widespread government discrimination against Shia working in education. Shia academics comprised only 2 per cent of professors at one university in Al Ahsa, and only 1 per cent of primary and secondary school teachers in an area that is nearly 50 per cent Shia. Shia teachers were also barred from teaching certain subjects, including religious studies.

While most Shia 'co-exist with their Sunni neighbors in relative peace', they still face discrimination in many areas, according to USCIRF. In 2008, the government arrested at least one prominent Shia religious leader, detained others, and closed Shia mosques.

There is limited evidence of official attempts to improve relationships with the Shia communities in the Eastern Province, where the newly established Human Rights Council conducted public outreach.

Ismailis have faced similar issues. Early in 2008, there were also reports that Saudi authorities were attempting to settle Sunni Yemeni tribesmen in the Ismaili-majority Najran Province, in an attempt to dilute and further marginalize the Ismaili community. When Ismaili leader Shaikh Ahmad bin Turki Al Sa'b complained to King Abdullah in April 2008 about the official treatment of Ismailis, he was arrested. However, King Abdullah removed the governor of the province, Prince Mishaal, after local residents petitioned him to stop the resettlement.

Routine discrimination is experienced by Ismaili students, who complain of unfair rejection, particularly in the field of aviation. Students have instead gone to study in Jordan, but have few prospects of employment upon their return.

Saudi Arabia's recently established Human Rights Council has made limited progress. The Council's vice-president, Zeid Al-Hussein, attributed all acknowledged human rights violations to 'individual practices', rejecting any indictment of government policies or social norms. On the other hand, Saudi dissident Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb said that the Council has begun to have some effect by making people aware of human rights as a concept. The Council has also launched a website, which will allow it to take complaints online and raise awareness.

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