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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Saudi Arabia, 30 January 1995, 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.


Saudi Arabia is a monarchy without elected representative institutions or political parties. It is ruled by King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, a descendent of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, who unified the country in the early 20th century. The King and the Crown Prince are chosen from among the male descendants of King Abdul Aziz. There is no written Constitution. The concept of the separation of religion and state is not accepted by either society or the Government. The legitimacy of the Government depends to a large degree on its perceived adherence to the precepts of a puritanically conservative form of Islam. Most Saudis respect the legal system, which they believe is divinely inspired. They also revere such ancient customs as government by consensus, internal social cohesion, respect for private property, and private economic enterprise. The Government disagrees with internationally accepted definitions of human rights and views Islamic law as the only necessary guide to protect human rights.

In 1992 King Fahd appointed a Consultative Council, the Majlis Ash-Shura, and similar provincial assemblies. The Council began holding sessions in 1994. The Government does not permit the establishment of political parties and suppresses opposition views. The legal system is based on the regime's interpretation of Shari'a, or Islamic law. Since the death of King Abdul Aziz, the King and the Crown Prince have been chosen from among his sons, who themselves have had preponderant influence in the choice. A 1992 Royal decree reserves for the King the exclusive power to name the Crown Prince.

Police and border forces under the Ministry of Interior are responsible for internal security. The Mutawwa'in, or volunteer religious police, are part of the Organization to Prevent Vice and To Promote Virtue, a semi-autonomous agency which encourages adherence to Islamic values by monitoring public behavior. The Mutawwa'in continued to confront and abuse citizens and foreigners of both sexes. They committed many abuses during the year. The Mutawwa'in are government employees; however, other citizens sometimes represent themselves as Mutawwa'in when in fact they are not.

The oil industry has transformed Saudi Arabia from a pastoral, agricultural, and commercial economy to a rapidly urbanizing one characterized by large-scale infrastructure projects, the emergence of a welfare state and a middle class, and millions of foreign workers. Oil revenues account for one-third of the gross domestic product (GDP) and three-fourths of the government budget. Oil has also enriched members of the royal family and their associates. Agriculture accounts for only about 5 percent of GDP. Government spending, including spending on the national airline, and power, water, telephone, education and health services, accounts for 29 percent of GDP. About 36 percent of the economy is in private hands, and the Government is promoting further privatization of the economy.

Human rights abuses in 1994 continued. Principal abuses included: the torture of prisoners; incommunicado detention; prohibitions or restrictions on the freedoms of speech, press, and religion; systematic discrimination against women; and strict limitations, and even suppression, of the rights of workers and ethnic and religious minorities. There is no mechanism for citizens to change their government. The Government's legitimacy is based on its adherence to the Shari'a and upon the consent of the governed, who are obliged to obey the ruler as long as he continues to govern according to Islamic law.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

There were credible reports that the authorities continued to torture and otherwise abuse detainees, including citizens and foreigners. A common method of torture is beating, especially "fallaqa," which is a beating on the soles of the feet to cause intense pain. The authorities also deprive detainees of sleep.

Agents of the Ministry of Interior are allegedly responsible for most incidents of abuse. The Government's failure to announce the punishment of human rights abusers has contributed to a public perception that abuses can be committed with impunity.

The Mutawwa'in were also responsible for abuse. In May they arrested 19 expatriate workers from the United States, Egypt, Canada, Ireland, and Venezuela after they departed a party at a private home. The Mutawwa'in reportedly beat an Egyptian and a Venezuelan man, ripped off the outer clothing of an Egyptian woman, and severely beat an American woman, ramming her head on a car door, resulting in serious injury to her face and one eye. Following diplomatic protests, the Government indicated privately that it had conducted a high-level investigation and that "very strong measures had been taken" against the Mutawwa'in involved. However, government officials did not specify what actions were taken and did not make a public report on the incident.

In April, after CDLR spokesman Mohamed Al-Mas'ari fled the Kingdom, security forces arrested several members and sympathizers of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) (see Sections 1.d. and 2.a.). Security officials reportedly tortured these detainees after their arrest. In accordance with standard practice, the Government did not comment on the allegations. Al-Mas'ari reported that he was tortured during 6 months of detention in 1993.

While regular access to detention facilities by impartial observers is rare, representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) visited detention camps holding Gulf War refugees. In 1993 during her visit to the Rafha refugee camp at the invitation of the Government, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ogata praised the Government's contributions to the refugees' welfare.

In May Amnesty International (AI) published a report containing allegations that guards tortured and beat refugees at the Rafha camp. However, reliable sources indicate that the allegations were inaccurate and exaggerated. Many of the incidents cited in the AI report allegedly occurred between 1991 and 1993. Sources from UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) confirmed some of those incidents and reported that authorities promptly removed the guards responsible for abuses. The sources also maintain that documented cases of abuse of refugees by guards dropped significantly during that period.

The Government rigorously observes the criminal punishments according to its interpretation of Islamic Law, including amputation for repeated theft and execution by beheading and stoning. In 1994 the authorities beheaded 59 of the 60 persons convicted for drug trafficking, rape, and murder. They impose execution by firing squad for women convicted of capital offenses; there was one such execution in 1994. The number of executions, which had risen in recent years because of drug trafficking, was down from 85 in 1993.

The authorities punish repeated thievery by amputation of the right hand. In 1994 they imposed this punishment on 5 Sudanese and a Pakistani. For less serious crimes, such as drunkenness or publicly flouting Islamic precepts, the authorities often impose flogging with a cane.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest, but there are few police procedures to safeguard against abuse. Arresting officers have broad discretion to determine the grounds for arrest and frequently set their own standards for the rights of detainees. A person may be detained without charge during the investigation of a crime, a period that may last weeks or months. In many cases, the authorities do not inform detainees of the charges against them. The authorities detain most suspects for no longer than 3 days before charging them but have detained others for long periods before charging or releasing them.

The Mutawwa'in have the authority to detain people for no more than 24 hours for violations of behavior standards. However, they sometimes exceed this limit before delivering detainees to the regular police (see Section 1.f.). Current procedures require a police officer to accompany the Mutawwa'in before the latter makes an arrest. Recently, the Mutawwa'in have been less active in harassing individuals.

In 1993 the King established an office of investigation and public prosecution. Accordingly, only the public prosecutor is authorized to conduct criminal investigations, a power previously shared by several government agencies. At year's end, however, the public prosecutor's office was not fully operational.

There is no established procedure providing detainees the right to inform their family of their arrest. The law has no provision for bail or habeas corpus. Detainees are sometimes released on the recognizance of a patron or sponsoring employer. If asked, the authorities usually confirm an arrest of foreign residents. In general, however, embassies learn about such arrests through informal channels. The authorities may take as long as several months to provide official notification of the arrest of foreigners, if at all. Detainees arrested by the General Directorate of Investigation (GDI), the Ministry of Interior's security service, or "Mubahith," are commonly held incommunicado during the initial phase of an investigation, which may last weeks or months. The GDI allows the detainees only limited contact with their families or lawyers.

The authorities often detain without charges people who publicly criticize the Government or they charge them with attempting to destabilize the Government (see Sections 2.a. and 3). In April and May, the Government detained 15 to 20 members or supporters of the CDLR, including relatives of CDLR spokesman Mohamed Al-Mas'ari (see Section 1.a.).

The authorities arrested an American citizen on May 28, reportedly for sympathizing with the CDLR. They held him in isolation for 3 weeks, reportedly beat him during interrogation, and deported him after release. The authorities did not respond to repeated diplomatic requests for access by a consular officer or for information about the charges.

The authorities also arrested Salman Al-Awdah and Safar Al-Hawali, Muslim clerics who had publicly criticized the Government. Their detention sparked protest demonstrations by hundreds of individuals demanding their release. In September and October, the authorities arrested 157 people for engaging in demonstrations or other antigovernment activities. The Government released 130 of the detainees on October 16, after they pledged not to repeat their actions. At year's end, the remaining 27 persons remained in detention pending investigations.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judicial system is based on Islamic law, or Shari'a. Regular Shari'a courts exercise jurisdiction over common criminal cases and civil suits regarding marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Other civil proceedings, including those involving claims against the Government and enforcement of foreign judgments, are held before specialized administrative tribunals, such as the Commission for the Settlement of Labor Disputes and the Board of Grievances. Aside from the Koran and Sunna, which are the authenticated sayings of the Prophet Mohamed, there are no written laws or precedents by which the Shari'a courts make judgments. The Government permits Shi'a Muslims to use their own legal tradition to adjudicate only noncriminal cases within their community.

The Ministry of Justice is responsible for the appointment, transfer, and promotion of Shari'a court judges. Only the Supreme Judicial Council, a body of senior jurists, may discipline or remove judges. The independence of the judiciary is prescribed by law and is usually respected in practice, although judges occasionally accede to the influence of members of the royal family and their associates. At the provincial level, governors have reportedly threatened, and even detained, judges over disagreements on their decisions. In general, the public perceives members of the royal family, and other powerful families, as not subject to the same rule of law as ordinary citizens. For example, judges do not have the power to issue a warrant summoning any member of the royal family. The luggage of princes and other influential persons is not subject to customs inspection on entering the country.

Defendants usually appear without an attorney before a judge, who determines guilt or innocence in accordance with Shari'a standards. Defense lawyers may offer their client advice before trial or may attend the trial as interpreters for those unfamiliar with Arabic. The courts do not provide foreign defendants with translators. There is no licensing procedure for lawyers. Individuals may choose any person to represent them by a "power of attorney" filed with the court and Ministry of Justice. Most trials are closed.

In the absence of two witnesses, or four witnesses in the case of adultery, confessions before a judge are almost always required for criminal conviction--a situation which opens the possibility that prosecuting authorities may seek to obtain forced confessions. Sentencing is not uniform and may vary according to the nationality of the defendant. Under Shari'a law, as interpreted and applied in Saudi Arabia, crimes against Muslims receive harsher penalties than those against non-Muslims. In the case of wrongful death, the amount of indemnity or "blood money" awarded to relatives varies with the nationality, religion, and sex of the victim. A sentence may be changed at any stage of review, except for punishments stipulated by the Koran. Provincial governors have the authority to exercise leniency and reduce a judge's sentence.

Appeals are automatically reviewed by a three-judge panel at the Ministry of Justice or, in more serious cases, by the Court of Cassation and the Supreme Judicial Council. The reviews are conducted to ensure that the trial judge applied appropriate legal principles and punishments.

The King and his advisors review cases involving capital punishment to ensure that the court applied the proper legal and Islamic principles. The King has the authority to grant pardons and commute death sentences, but he does not have the authority to pardon capital crimes committed against individuals. In such cases, he may request the victim's next of kin to pardon the murderer--usually in return for compensation from the family or the King.

The military justice system has jurisdiction over uniformed personnel and civil servants charged with violations of military regulations. Court-martial decisions are reviewed by the Minister of Defense and Aviation and by the King.

There is insufficient information to determine the number of political prisoners because the Government does not provide information on such persons or respond to inquiries about them. Moreover, the Government conducts closed trials for persons who may be political prisoners and in other cases has detained persons incommunicado for long periods while under investigation. At year's end, the Government detained an estimated 15 to 20 people for their alleged connections with the CDRL, and 27 others for their alleged participation in demonstrations protesting the detention of two fundamentalist Shaykhs.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The sanctity of family life and the inviolability of the home are among the most fundamental of Islamic precepts. Royal decrees announced in 1992 include provisions calling for the Government to defend the home from unlawful incursions.

The police must generally demonstrate reasonable cause and obtain permission from the provincial governor before searching a private home, but warrants are not required. However, some Mutawwa'in continued to enter homes forcibly, searching for evidence of un-Islamic behavior, and to harass and abuse perceived transgressors.

Customs officials routinely open mail for contraband, including material deemed pornographic as well as non-Muslim religious material. They regularly confiscate materials deemed offensive. The authorities use informants, wiretaps, and open mail in internal security matters. Government officials reportedly wiretapped the telephone conversations of CDLR spokesman Al-Mas'ari with foreign journalists and human rights organizations.

The Government enforces most social and Islamic religious norms, which are matters of law (see Section 5). Women may not marry non-Saudis without government permission. Although women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims, men have the right to marry Christians and Jews. Men must obtain approval from the Ministry of Interior to marry women from countries outside the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Both citizens and foreigners were targets of harassment by members of the Mutawwa'in--and even by religious vigilantes acting independently of the Mutawwa'in. The Government has not condemned the actions of religious vigilantes or sought to disband such groups.

The Mutawwa'in continued to press for enforcement of their strict standards of social behavior, including the closure of commercial establishments during the daily prayer observances, appropriate dress in public, and avoidance of video tape rental shops. They harassed Saudi and foreign women for failure to observe strict dress codes, and for being in the company of males who are not their close relatives. They also harassed non-Muslims attempting to conduct religious services (see Section 2.c.).

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law severely limits the freedom of speech and press. The authorities do not countenance criticism of Islam, the ruling family, or the Government.

In 1994 CDLR spokesman Al-Mas'ari secretly fled to the United Kingdom (UK), where he sought political asylum and established an overseas branch of the CDLR (see Sections 1.c. and 1.d.). Established in 1993 by six citizens, the CDLR criticizes the Government's human rights record from the perspective of Islamic principles and advocates stricter adherence to Islamic principles by the Royal family and the Government. After the CDLR criticized the Government in the international press in 1993, security forces detained 38 of its members, including Al-Mas'ari, confiscated their passports, and forbade them to travel or speak publicly. The authorities dismissed several founding members from their government jobs. They subsequently released the detainees after they signed statements promising not to discuss the Government's policies or communicate with anyone outside the country by telephone or facsimile machine. Al-Mas'ari was released in November 1993 after spending 6 months in detention.

In the UK, Al-Mas'ari continued to disseminate tracts critical of the Government, particularly of King Fahd, Interior Minister Prince Naif, and Riyadh Governor Prince Salman. His publicized views have expressed opposition to peace with Israel and to Saudi support for the peace process. After Al-Mas'ari fled, security forces arrested 15 to 20 of his relatives and supporters. In late 1994, the Government released several of these detainees, including Dr. Fouad Dehlawi; Mas'ari's brother, Lu'ay al-Mas'ari; and Mas'ari's brothers-in law, Rashad and Nabil al-Mudarris. Others remain in custody. The Government has not publicly acknowledged any of these detentions.

In mid-September, Interior Ministry authorities arrested two Muslim clerics and critics of the Government, Salman Al-Awdah and Safar Al-Hawali, for violating a government order prohibiting them from delivering lectures or sermons critical of the Government. In 1993 Al-Awdah and Al-Hawali reportedly had refused to sign a statement acknowledging the order. Ministry of Interior officials claimed that they detained Al-Awdah and Al-Hawali to safeguard the security and stability of the nation. At year's end, the clerics were still in detention (see Section 1.d.).

In August the United States granted asylum to Mohamed Al-Khilewi, a Saudi diplomat assigned to the United Nations in New York City. Al-Khilewi claimed that he feared for his life if he returned to Saudi Arabia because he had written a letter to the royal family and to a Saudi religious leader alleging human rights abuses, official corruption, and official support for terrorist groups. The Government has said that Al-Khilewi would not face retribution if he returned.

The press is privately owned, but a 1982 media policy statement and a 1965 national security law prohibit the dissemination of criticism of the Government. The media policy statement urges journalists to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve the cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Information appoints, and may remove, the editors in chief. It also provides guidelines to newspapers on controversial issues. The Government owns the Saudi Press Agency, which expresses official government views.

Newspapers publish domestic news on sensitive subjects, such as crime or terrorism, only after the authorities arrest and sentence the perpetrators. The Government suppresses any news regarded as a threat to national security. The press reports foreign news objectively, but the authorities censor stories about the Kingdom in the foreign press. Censors may remove or blacken the offending articles, or prevent certain issues of foreign publications from entering the market. The Government tightly restricts the entry of foreign journalists into the Kingdom.

The Government owns and operates the television and radio companies. Government censors review foreign programs and songs, often removing any reference to politics, religions other than Islam, pork or pigs, alcohol, or sexual innuendo.

There are 100,000 to 200,000 satellite receiving dishes in the Kingdom which provide citizens with foreign broadcasts. The legal status of these devices is ambiguous. The Government ordered a halt to the import of satellite dishes in 1992--at the request of religious leaders who objected to foreign programming available on satellite channels. In March the Government banned the installation of dishes and supporting devices. However, consumers continued to buy and install the dishes.

Academic freedom is restricted. The authorities prohibit the study of evolution, Freud, Marx, music, and Western philosophy. Some professors believe that Government and conservative religious informers monitor their classroom comments.

The Government censors all forms of public artistic expression. The authorities prohibit cinemas and public musical or theater performances, except those that are strictly folkloric.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Government strictly limits these freedoms. It prohibits public demonstrations as a means of political expression and the establishment of political parties or any type of opposition group (see Section 3). By its power to license associations, the Government ensures that groups conform to public policy.

Public meetings are segregated by sex. Unless meetings are sponsored by diplomatic missions, foreign residents seeking to hold unsegregated meetings risk arrest and deportation.

The authorities monitor any large gathering of people, especially of women. In January the Government closed all health clubs, but several months later the clubs reopened for male patrons only. Health clubs for women remain closed. The Government has not explained why the clubs have been closed to women.

In February the Mutawwa'in closed a proposed cultural program for Saudi and expatriate women. The Mutawwa'in indicated that a public gathering featuring a fashion show and dancing was not an appropriate activity for women.

c. Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion does not exist. Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. The Government prohibits the practice of other religions according to an injunction attributed to the Prophet Mohammed. Conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy. Public apostasy is a crime under Shari'a law and punishable by death. There were no executions in 1994 for apostasy. Islamic practice is generally limited to that of the Wahabi sect's interpretation of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Practices contrary to this interpretation, such as visits to the graves of renowned Muslims or public prayers according to Shi'a Islam, are discouraged.

The Shi'a Muslim minority of 500,000 persons lives mostly in the Eastern Province. They are the objects of officially sanctioned social and economic discrimination (see Section 5). Prior to 1990, the Government prohibited Shi'ite public processions during the Islamic month of Muharram and restricted other processions and congregations to designated areas in the major Shi'ite cities. Since 1990, the authorities have permitted marches on the Shi'a holiday of Ashura, provided the marchers do not display banners or engage in self-flagellation. Only 1 of the 60 members of the Majlis Ash-Shura is a Shi'a.

The Government seldom permits private construction of Shi'ite mosques, and the Shi'a have refused government offers to build state-supported mosques, because Shi'ite motifs would be prohibited in them.

The Government does not permit public or private non-Muslim religious activities. Persons wearing religious symbols of any kind in public risk confrontation with the Mutawwa'in. The general prohibition against religious symbols applies also to Muslims. A Muslim wearing a Koranic necklace in public would be admonished. Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest and deportation for engaging in any religious activity that attracts official attention.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Government restricts the travel of Saudi and non-Saudi women. Women must obtain written permission from their closest male relative before the authorities will allow them to board public transportation between different parts of the country or travel abroad (see Section 5). Males may travel anywhere within the country.

The Government requires foreign residents to carry identification cards. It does not permit foreigners to travel outside the city of their employment or change their workplace without their sponsor's permission. Foreign residents who travel in the Kingdom are often asked by the authorities to show they possess letters of permission from their employers.

Foreign workers must also obtain permission from their sponsors to travel abroad. Sponsors generally retain possession of the workers' passports. If sponsors are involved in a commercial or labor dispute with foreign employees, they may ask the authorities to prohibit the employees from departing the country until the dispute is resolved. Some sponsors use this pressure tactic to resolve disputes in their favor--or to have foreign employees deported.

The Government seizes the passports of all potential suspects and witnesses in criminal cases, and suspends the issuance of exit visas to them, until the case is tried. As a result, some foreign nationals are forced to remain in the Kingdom for lengthy periods against their will. The authorities sometimes confiscate the passports of suspected subversives. The Government prevents Shi'a Muslims believed to have pro-Iranian sympathies from traveling abroad. Citizens may emigrate, but the law prohibits dual citizenship. There are no provisions for long-term foreign residents to acquire citizenship. However, foreigners are granted citizenship in rare cases, generally through the advocacy of an influential patron.

In April the Government revoked the citizenship of Osama Bin Laden, a wealthy citizen known to support Islamic terrorist groups, for refusing to return from abroad to answer charges concerning his activities. The Interior Ministry issued a statement that Bin Laden "contradicted the Kingdom's interest and harmed its relations with sisterly countries." After his citizenship was revoked, Bin Laden was banned from reentering the Kingdom.

Article 42 of the 1992 Basic Law provides that "the State will grant political asylum if the public interest mitigates" in favor of it. The language does not specify clear rules for adjudicating asylum cases. In general, the authorities regard refugees and displaced persons like other foreign workers: they must have sponsors for employment or risk expulsion at the border.

After the Gulf War, the Government granted refuge to 35,000 Iraqi civilians and former prisoners of war. At year's end, 16,000 have been resettled in third countries or were voluntarily repatriated to Iraq. Most of the remaining 18,400 refugees are restricted to the Rafha Refugee Camp. In 1993 Human Rights Watch reported that refugees were forcibly repatriated to Iraq after staging a riot at the Rafha camp. However, the UNHCR has monitored over 2,450 refugees voluntarily returning to Iraq since 1991 and found no evidence of forcible repatriations in 1993 or 1994.

The Government has temporarily allowed some foreigners to remain in Saudi Arabia in cases where their safety would be jeopardized if they were deported to their home countries. The authorities also worked with the UNHCR to repatriate several hundred southern Yemeni refugees after the end of the Yemen civil war.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens do not have the right to change their government. There are no formal democratic institutions, and only a few citizens have a voice in the choice of leaders or in changing the political system. The King rules in matters civil and religious, within certain limitations established by religious law, tradition, and the need to maintain consensus among the ruling family and religious leaders.

The King is also the Prime Minister, and the Crown Prince serves as first deputy Prime Minister. The King appoints all other ministers, who in turn appoint subordinate officials with Cabinet concurrence.

In 1993 the King appointed 60 members to a Consultative Council, or Majlis Ash-Shura. It is an advisory body only. It began to hold sessions in 1994, but it has not publicized its work in detail.

The Council of Senior Islamic Scholars is another advisory body to the King and the Cabinet. It issues decisions based on Shari'a law supporting the Government's public policies. The Government uses the Council as an important source of religious legitimacy.

Communication between citizens and the Government is usually expressed through client-patron relationships and by affinity groups such as tribes, families, and professional hierarchies. The open-door audience, or majlis, is the primary forum for expressing an opinion or grievance. Any male citizen or foreign national may attend these sessions held by the King, princes, or important national and local officials. Participation by women is restricted, although some women seek redress through female members of the royal family.

As governmental functions have become more complex, time-consuming, and centralized, public access to senior officials has become more difficult. After the assassination of King Faisal in 1975, Saudi kings have reduced the frequency of their personal contacts with the public. Access to King Fahd by ordinary citizens is difficult, in part due to strict security measures.

Typical topics raised in a majlis are complaints about bureaucratic delay or insensitivity, requests for redress or assistance, and criticism of particular acts of government affecting personal or family welfare. Broader "political" concerns--Saudi social, economic, or foreign policy--are raised only occasionally.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There are no publicly active human rights groups, and none critical of government policies would be permitted. The Government acted quickly to repress the CDLR following the announcement of its formation in 1993 (see Section 2.a.).

The Government does not permit visits by international human rights groups, any visits to prisoners by independent monitors, nor has it signed major international human rights treaties and conventions. The Government disagrees with internationally accepted definitions of human rights and views Islamic law as the only necessary guide to protect human rights.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status


By religious law and social custom, women have few political and social rights, and are not treated as equal members of society. Women, including foreigners, may not legally drive motor vehicles or ride bicycles and are restricted in their use of public facilities when men are present. Women must enter city buses by separate rear entrances and sit in specially designated sections. Women risk arrest by the Mutawwa'in for riding alone in a vehicle driven by a male who is not an employee or a close male relative. By law and custom, women may not undertake domestic or foreign travel alone (see Section 2.d.).

In public women are required to wear the abaya, a black garment covering the entire body, including the head and face. The Mutawwa'in generally expect women from Arab countries, Asia, and Africa to comply more fully with Saudi customs of dress than Western women; nonetheless, in recent years they have increased pressure on Western women to wear the abaya and cover their hair.

Women are also subject to discrimination in Islamic law which stipulates that daughters receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers--reflecting the fact that men have financial obligations to their mothers and sisters. In a Shari'a court, the testimony of one man equals that of two women.

Although Islamic law permits polygyny, it is becoming less common. Islamic law limits a husband to four wives, provided that he treats each wife equally. In practice, such equality is left to the discretion of the husband.

Women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce, but men may divorce without giving cause. If divorced or widowed, a woman normally may keep her children until they attain the age of 7. Children over 7 are awarded to the divorced husband. Divorced women who are foreigners are often prevented by their former husbands from visiting their children after divorce.

Women have access to free, but segregated, education through the university level. They constitute 55 percent of all university graduates--but are excluded from studying such subjects as engineering, journalism, and architecture. Men are able to study overseas; women may do so if accompanied by a spouse or an immediate male relative.

Women make up only 5 percent of the work force. Most employment opportunities for women are in education and health care, with lesser opportunity in business, philanthropy, banking, retail sales, and the media. Women wishing to enter nontraditional fields are subject to arbitrary discrimination. Women may not accept jobs in rural areas if they are required to live apart from their families. All workplaces where women are present are segregated by sex. Contact with male supervisors or clients is allowed only by telephone or facsimile machine.

Hospital workers report that many women are admitted for treatment of injuries that apparently result from spousal violence. "Islamic advice" columns in the press sometimes recommend the "strict disciplining" of women, an expression understood to encompass some degree of physical force as part of a proper marriage.

There were credible reports that some Western women married to Saudis, and their children, have suffered physical abuse from the spouse or father. Appropriate embassy officials must seek the assistance of government officials to intervene in such cases. The Government does not keep statistics on spousal or other forms of violence against women.

Embassies receive many reports that employers abuse foreign women working as domestic servants. In general, the Government considers such cases as family matters and does not intervene unless charges of abuse are brought to its attention. It is almost impossible for foreign women to obtain redress in the courts due to the court's strict evidentiary rules and the women's own fears of reprisals. Few employers have been punished for such abuses. There are no private support groups or religious associations to which these women could turn for assistance.


The Government provides all children with free education and medical care. Children are highly valued in society, and large families are common. Reports of abuse of children are rare. Children are not subject to the strict social segregation faced by women. Children are segregated by sex in schools starting at age 7. Boys are segregated in social situations at age 12, and girls at the onset of puberty.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Although racial discrimination is illegal, there is substantial societal prejudice based on ethnic or national origin. Foreign workers from Africa and Asia are subject to various forms of formal and informal discrimination and have the most difficulty in obtain justice for their grievances.

Religious Minorities

The Government is intolerant of the practice of any non-Islamic religion. It also subjects the Shi'a Muslim minority to stringent religious repression (see Section 2.c.). Shi'a citizens are discriminated against in government and employment, especially in national security jobs. Several years ago the Government subjected Shi'a to employment restrictions in the oil industry and has not relaxed them. Some Sunni clerics, including Al-Awdah and one CDLR founder, have made strong anti-Shi'a statements (see Section 2.a.).

Shi'a also face restrictions on access to social services, despite efforts by the Government to improve the social service infrastructure in predominantly Shi'a areas of the country. Since the Iranian revolution, some Shi'a have been subjected periodically to surveillance and limitations on travel abroad. Some Sunni clerics advocate stronger government discriminatory measures against Shi'a citizens.

People with Disabilities

Traditionally, disabled individuals were secluded within the family, but the provision of government social services has brought the disabled into the public. Public awareness and acceptance of the disabled are growing. The Government and private charitable organizations cooperate in education, employment, and other services for the disabled. The law provides hiring quotas for the disabled. While there is no legislation for public accessibility, newer commercial buildings often include such access.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Government decrees prohibit the establishment of labor unions and any strike activity.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Collective bargaining is forbidden. Foreign workers comprise about half of the work force. Wages are set by employers on the basis of market forces, but vary according to the nationality of the worker. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced labor has been prohibited since 1962 by the royal decree that abolished slavery. Ratification of the International Labor Organization's (ILO) Conventions 29 and 105, which prohibit forced labor, has the force of law. However, employers have significant control over the movements of foreign employees, giving rise to situations that might involve forced labor--especially in remote areas where workers are unable to leave their place of work. Sometimes sponsors prevent foreign workers from obtaining exit visas to pressure them to sign a new work contract. In another pressure tactic, sponsors may refuse to provide foreign workers with a "letter of no objection" which would allow them to be employed by another sponsor.

The labor laws do not protect domestic servants. There were credible reports that female domestic servants were sometimes forced to work 12 to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. There were numerous confirmed reports of runaway maids. The authorities often returned runaway maids to their employers against the maids' wishes.

There have been many reports of workers whose employers have refused to pay several months, or even years, of accumulated salary or other promised benefits. Nondomestic workers with such grievances have the right to complain before the labor courts, but few do so because of fear of deportation. The Government abets the exploitation of foreign workers because the system for enforcing work contracts is weak and generally favors Saudi employers.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age for employment is 13 years, which may be waived by the Ministry of Labor with the consent of the juvenile's guardian. There is no minimum age for workers employed in family-operated businesses or in other situations that are construed as extensions of the household, e.g., farmers, herdsmen, and domestic servants. Workers in such fields are not protected by labor regulations. There were reports that children aged 5 to 12 years are used as jockeys in camel racing.

Children under age 18 and women may not be employed in hazardous or harmful industries, such as mines or industries employing power-operated machinery. While there is no formal government entity charged with enforcing the minimum age for employment of children, the Ministry of Justice has jurisdiction and has acted as plaintiff in the few cases that have arisen against alleged violators.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no legal minimum wage. Labor regulations establish a 48-hour workweek at regular pay and allow employers to require up to 12 additional hours of overtime at time-and-a-half pay. Saudi labor law provides for a 24-hour rest period, normally Fridays, although the employer may grant it on another day.

Many foreign nationals who have been recruited abroad have complained that, after arrival in Saudi Arabia, they were presented with work contracts specifying lower wages and fewer benefits than originally promised. Other foreign workers have reportedly signed contracts in their home countries and were later pressured to sign less favorable contracts after arrival. Reliable reports indicate that the length of service called for in the original contract is sometimes increased after arrival by as much as 3 years. Some employees report that at the end of their contract service, their employers refuse to grant permission to allow them to return home.

The ILO has stated that the Government has not formulated legislation implementing the ILO Convention on equal pay and that regulations which segregate work places by sex, and limit vocational programs for women, violate ILO Convention 111.

Saudi labor regulations require employers to protect most workers from job-related hazards and disease. Workers in family operated businesses, farmers, herdsmen, and domestic servants are not covered by these regulations. Ministry of Labor inspectors and the labor courts are seeking, with some success, to enforce the Labor Code, but foreign nationals report frequent failures to enforce health and safety standards.


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