Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 July 2014, 14:56 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 6 July 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Saudi Arabia, 6 July 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e16d3625f.html [accessed 23 July 2014]
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.

Saudi Arabia is a majority Sunni Muslim country. The state'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, a strict interpretation of Islam. The country is a hereditary monarchy, and the kingdom controls more than a fifth of the world's crude oil reserves. King Abdullah wields considerable diplomatic muscle in the Middle East and has been instrumental in peace-building efforts in various countries. But the health of the 86-year-old king remained precarious in 2010, and questions over the succession, which are of international and regional importance, remained rife at the time of writing.

Saudi Arabia's Shi'a minority, who make up about 15 per cent of the country's population, remain subject to systematic discrimination in education, employment and political representation. This includes Shi'a children being taught by Sunni teachers that they are unbelievers. Shi'a are banned from teaching religion and serving as general judges, or taking senior military or security positions, according to a 2010 HRW report, while female Shi'a teachers are prohibited from holding senior positions in schools.

Human rights activists advocating religious equality in Saudi Arabia are subject to ongoing arbitrary arrests and detention without charge. They also experience difficulties expressing views against the establishment. In June 2010, police arrested Mikhlif al-Shammari, a Sunni journalist and campaigner, who wrote articles criticizing anti-Shi'a statements by clerics. As of the end of the year, he was still in detention.

Shi'as are permitted to mark the religious festival Ashura, which commemorates the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussein. But attacks by militants mean that, for the past few years, the day has been marked by bloodshed. In December 2010, Associated Press reported that extremists attacked the Ashura procession in Medina.

According to the IRFR 2010, the country's Human Rights Commission launched a four-year human rights awareness campaign in January 2010. The Commission worked with the Ministry of Education and provided materials and training to police, security forces, and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), Saudi Arabia's 'religious police,' on protecting human rights. The Human Rights Commission, whose mandate is to promote tolerance and awareness, includes no Shi'a or women among its 24 members.

About 10 million people (which is around half the country's population) are expatriates. As well as Muslims, they include Christians, Hindus, Sikhs. These communities are only allowed to practise their religions in private.

Saudia Arabia's prohibitive laws restricting women's rights, including a father's legal right to keep adult daughters captive for 'disobedience', also impact on women from these communities. In May 2010, HRW reported on the plight of a Canadian woman of Indian origin who travelled to Saudi Arabia to visit her father, an Indian citizen who works there. For the last three years her father has refused to let her leave. This is a position supported by Saudi Arabia's 'guardianship' system, which allows a male relative or guardian all rights over women's major decisions, such as leaving the country, attending university, marriage and having certain surgical procedures. Foreign Muslim women are also subject to harassment from the CPVPV for not observing strict Wahhabi dress codes, particularly the wearing of headscarves.

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