Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 1 July 2010
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - Saudi Arabia, 1 July 2010, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
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.

As with most countries in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia is home to a large expatriate community. About 10 million foreigners, nearly half the country's population, reside in various parts of the Kingdom. There are no official statistics of the religious denominations of foreigners. They include Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Muslims. As for Saudi's citizens, 85-90 per cent of them are Sunni Muslim, while the remaining 10-15 per cent are Shia.

According to the Kingdom's Basic Law, the Qur'an and the Sunnah (the Prophet's sayings and traditions) are the country's Constitution. Arabic is its sole official language. The government's official interpretation of Islam is derived from the teachings of an eighteenth-century Sunni religious scholar, Ibn Abd'Al-Wahhab, and is otherwise known as Wahhabism. Freedom of religion is not explicitly protected under the law and is severely restricted in practice. Non-Muslims and many Muslims who have not espoused Wahhabism are only allowed to practise their religion in private. Their right to worship is not, however, defined in law and it is not always respected. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), Saudi Arabia's 'religious police', charged with monitoring social behaviour and enforcing Wahhabi principles of morality, continues to conduct raids on private non-Muslim religious gatherings, USCIRF 2009 recorded. It documented cases where the CPVPV also harasses women, especially foreign Muslim women, for failure to observe strict dress codes, particularly failure to wear headscarves.

Further, USCIRF 2009 noted that Muslims who do not adhere to the government's interpretation of Sharia also faced 'significant political, economic, legal, social, and religious discrimination, including limited employment and educational opportunities, under-representation in official institutions, and restrictions on the practice of their faith and on the building of places of worship and community centers.' The largest group affected is Saudi's Shia minority. Shias face systematic discrimination in education, employment, political representation, religious practice and the media. The government was reported to discriminate against Shias in the selection process for students, professors and administrators at public universities. Shia students also experienced intolerance within the primary and secondary school systems. There are few Shias in high-level positions in government-owned companies or in government agencies. Shias are also under-represented in senior government positions.

Many Shias are also subjected to systematic religious discrimination. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs Endowments Da'wa and Guidance (MOIA) does not supervise or finance the construction and maintenance of Shia mosques, unlike Sunni mosques. Shias are thus forced to rely entirely on private contributions to construct their mosques. They are also required to obtain the permission of the MOIA, the local municipality and the provincial government in order to build a new mosque. Sunnis do not need the government's approval to construct new mosques. The government was reported to have denied Shias permission to construct or register community centres.

Hostility towards Saudi Arabia's Shia community led to clashes between Shias and the CPVPV in Medina in February 2009. The clashes triggered a wave of unrest, resulting in the arrest of dozens of people. To restore calm, King Abdullah released all the detainees but the situation remains volatile.

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