Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 May 2016, 12:25 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Saudi Arabia, 30 January 1994, available at: [accessed 31 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.

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy without democratically elected institutions or political parties. It is ruled by descendants of its founder, King Abdulaziz Al Saud, known in the West as Ibn Saud, who unified the country in the early part of the 20th century. The concept of separation of religion and state is foreign to Saudi society and governance. The legitimacy of the royal regime depends to a large degree on its perceived adherence to the precepts of a puritanically conservative form of Islam.

There is no written constitution. The legal system is based on Islamic religious law. Traditional practice calls for consensus in government, internal social cohesion, respect for private property, and private economic enterprise. Since the death of King Abdulaziz, the King and Crown Prince have been chosen from among his sons, who themselves have had preponderant influence in the choice. Legislative changes announced in March 1992, however, granted the King the exclusive power to name the Crown Prince. They also called for establishment of an appointed Consultative Council (Majlis Ash-Shura) and for similar provincial assemblies. A 60-member Council has been formed and was formally inaugurated on secember 29. Political parties are not permitted in Saudi Arabia. Political expression that is unfavorable to the regime is forbidden. There are no elected assemblies.

Police and border forces under the Interior Ministry are responsible for internal security. Security personnel committed human rights abuses during the year.

Massive oil revenues have transformed Saudi Arabia's centuries-old pastoral, agricultural, and commercial economy. Agriculture accounts for only about 5 percent of the gross domestic product. This transformation has been marked by rapid urbanization, large-scale development of economic and social infrastructure, the emergence of a welfare state and technocratic middle class, and the importation of millions of foreign workers for skilled and menial labor. It has also been marked by widespread expenditure of public funds in ways that improved the quality of life for most Saudis but have also enriched members of the royal family and their associates. With some important exceptions, mainly the hydrocarbon sector which accounted for one-third of the gross national product and three-fourths of the government budget, the economy remains largely in private hands.

Human rights continued to be pervasively abused. Principal human rights problems include torture and other abuse of prisoners and incommunicado detention; prohibitions or severe restrictions on the freedoms of speech and press, peaceful assembly and association, and religion; the denial of the right of citizens to change their government; and systematic discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities and suppression of workers' rights. The Mutawwa'in, Saudi Arabia's official proctors of proper moral behavior, and other religious zealots acting as vigilantes continued to harass and abuse Saudis and foreigners of both sexes.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no confirmed reports of political killings. Relatives of a Saudi citizen under investigation in connection with a bank robbery reported that he was tortured to death. According to one human rights group, the suspect, Hussain Ali Al-Shuwaikhat, died while in police custody on January 18. He reportedly died after being transferred to a hospital near the Awamia western prison. The Government did not acknowledge his death.

b. Disappearance

There were no known disappearances.

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

As in 1992, there continued to be reports that Saudi authorities tortured and abused detainees, both Saudi citizens and foreigners. Abuse included the practice of fallaqa, beating the soles of the feet to cause intense pain, and sleep deprivation. A foreign journalist was arrested in a business dispute, subjected to fallaqa, and deported. Allegations appeared in the international Arabic-language media in August that detained members and sympathizers of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, which announced its formation in May, were subjected to torture while in detention. In keeping with their customary practice, Saudi officials made no comment on these allegations.

Following a March 9 riot at the Rafha refugee camp in which eight people were killed, including four Saudis, there were reports that some refugees had been beaten during the investigation into the cause of the riot. Responding to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Saudi authorities promptly relieved the responsible guards from duty at the camp, but there was no indication the guards were otherwise reprimanded. The UNHCR reported that Saudi soldiers responding to the riot did so with minimum force and that documented cases of torture and abuse of refugees by Saudi guards had dropped significantly.

Agents of the Interior Ministry were alleged to be responsible for most incidents of torture. The Government's failure to punish human rights abusers is a salient factor in the climate of impunity that prevails. While it is general government practice not to respond to reports of abuse, the Saudi Government has been responsive to diplomatic inquiries in some specific cases. The Mutawwa'in sometimes physically abused detainees while seeking to elicit confessions for supposed social misconduct. They often used switchlike sticks to harass those they perceived as violating religiously mandated standards of behavior and sometimes hit or slapped persons for alleged infractions of proper behavior. One of the 49 women who were arrested in 1990 for driving cars to protest the ban on women driving reportedly had the car in which she was riding run off the road in June while returning from visiting friends and was detained by Mutawwa'in. She was held for 3 days and beaten while in custody because she had been at a family gathering in which men who were not close relatives were present. In another instance, an American woman and her Saudi female companion were picked up by the Mutawwa'in and held incommunicado; the Saudi woman was struck by the Mutawwa'in and injured herself in trying to run away. In most areas, Mutawwa'in are seldom punished for such acts; so far as is known, none of those involved in the instances cited were punished.

Representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UNHCR both visited Saudi detention facilities where Iraqi refugees were jailed in 1993. Officials from the UNHCR, officially recognized by the Government in June, regularly visit detained refugees in the Kingdom. Recognized international human rights organizations like the UNHCR reported that the Saudi Government improved conditions and treatment for some detainees in specific cases.

The Saudis rigorously observe criminal punishments prescribed in their interpretation of Islamic law, including execution by beheading and stoning, and amputation for reported theft. In the absence of two witnesses (four witnesses in the case of adultery), confessions before a judge are almost always required for conviction – resulting in credible charges that this induces many forced confessions. Defendants are tried in closed chambers, without benefit of defense counsel being present.

All 85 capital sentences in 1993 were carried out by beheading, sometimes followed by gibetting, which was confirmed in two of the cases. An Amnesty International report noted the increased number of executions in Saudi Arabia in 1993, which government officials explain is due to the rise in drug trafficking, a capital offense in the Kingdom. Death by firing squad is imposed for capital sentences for women instead of beheading. Repeated thievery is punishable by amputation of the right hand as prescribed by Shari'a law. For less severe crimes, such as drunkenness or publicly flouting Islamic precepts, the Shari'a punishment of flogging with a cane is often imposed. Egyptian Mikhail Cornelius Michail received 500 of the 1,000 lashes to which he was sentenced for blasphemy before being released from prison and deported.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Saudi law prohibits arbitrary arrest. A person may be arrested and charged with a crime or on the basis of an investigation of a crime. When a person is arrested, the time of his arrest and the charges are to be written in the police log book at the jail. Actual charges or the charges being investigated are listed for every detainee. Investigations often take weeks or months to complete.

Criminal procedure and the grounds for arrest have generally been determined at the discretion of the arresting officer, which has led, despite the law, to arbitrary arrest and detention. In October King Fahd issued a decree providing for a new office of investigation and public prosecution. According to its provisions, the public prosecutor is to receive all evidence and investigate all alleged criminal activity prior to any decision to prosecute, thereby assuming the limited prosecutorial powers currently enjoyed by a number of agencies. Despite regulations issued by the Ministry of Interior in 1985 to eliminate lengthy pretrial detention without charge, prisoners have been held for long periods before they are charged or released. The Mutawwa'in sometimes exceeded their legal mandate by detaining suspects for periods exceeding 24 hours before turning them over to the civil authorities. Most arrestees have been held no longer than 3 days before being formally charged.

In one of many reported cases, a Filipino man was held in prison for 4 years before he was released without charge. The paperwork concerning his arrest had been misplaced by the arresting officer. Forty Shi'a were held since 1988 without charge in prison near Riyadh; several sources have confirmed that all were released in July. Saudi law makes no provision for bail or habeas corpus; prisoners are, however, sometimes released on the recognizance of a patron or employer.

There is no automatic procedure for contacting a detainee's family or employer when an arrest occurs. In cases involving foreigners, however, Saudi authorities, if asked, usually confirm an arrest promptly. Embassies usually hear about arrests of their nationals through informal channels; notification often comes after the arrested person has already been deported. A formal diplomatic note is required before consular officials may visit prisoners.

Human rights groups from outside Saudi Arabia continued in 1993 to report cases of long-term incommunicado detention of political prisoners. Problems may arise particularly when persons are arrested by the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the Ministry of Interior's security service, commonly called the "Mubahith" or investigative police. The GID regularly holds prisoners incommunicado during the initial phase of an investigation, which may last weeks or months. It has held at least four suspects incommunicado in Jeddah since February 1991 while investigating their suspected connection with a terrorist incident against U.S. soldiers during the Gulf war and has denied relatives permission to visit the prisoners.

The Government does not use exile as a form of punishment.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judicial system is based on Islamic jurisprudence (the Shari'a). Regular Shari'a courts exercise jurisdiction over common criminal cases and civil suits regarding marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance of real or personal property. In Saudi courts, the defendant appears before a judge who determines guilt or innocence in accordance with Shari'a standards and, if warranted, imposes sentence. Although Saudi law requires that trials be public, almost all trials are closed and are held without legal counsel present. The advice of lawyers is available before trial, and lawyers may act as court interpreters for those unfamiliar with Arabic. However, trials occur in which the defendant does not understand Arabic and does not have a translator. Sentencing is not uniform and may vary according to the nationality of the defendant. Iraqi refugees and third-country nationals regularly receive longer sentences for the same offense than do Saudi citizens. A sentence may be changed at any stage of review.

Appeals against judges' decisions are automatically reviewed by the Justice Ministry or, in more serious cases, by the Court of Cassation and the Supreme Judicial Council to ensure that court procedures were correct and that judges applied appropriate legal principles and punishments. Cases involving capital punishment must also be reviewed by the King. The Shi'a community is permitted to adjudicate exclusively noncriminal intra-Shi'a disputes according to their own legal tradition.

Although the independence of the judiciary is prescribed by law, jurists are nevertheless aware of, and reportedly have on occasion acceded to, the power and influence of royal family members and their associates. At the provincial level, governors have reportedly threatened, and even detained, judges with whom they disagreed. In one reported case, for example, a domestic servant from another country was raped repeatedly by her employer, who videotaped and photographed the act. Despite the graphic evidence, the employer, a prominent doctor, was not prosecuted because of his connections with government officials. The servant was charged with prostitution and deported. Members of the royal family and of other powerful families are not subject to the same legal constraints as other Saudis. Judges do not, for example, have the power to issue a warrant summoning any member of the royal family.

The Justice Ministry is responsible for the appointment, transfer, and promotion of judges. Judges may be disciplined or removed only by the Supreme Judicial Council, a body of senior jurists, or by royal decree.

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

Under Shari'a law as applied in Saudi Arabia, crimes directed against Muslims receive harsher penalties than those against non-Muslims. In the case of accidental death, the amount of indemnity or "blood money" paid to relatives varies with the religion and sex of the victim.

The number of political prisoners being held at year's end was unknown owing to the Government's policy of not providing data or responding to inquiries about such persons, conducting closed trials, and detaining persons incommunicado for long periods while under investigation. (See Section 1.d. concerning the release of Shi'a "political" prisoners.)

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, and legislative changes announced in March 1992 included provisions calling for the Government to maintain the sanctity of the home from unlawful incursions. However, Saudi religious police (Mutawwa'in) continued to enter homes to search for evidence of un-Islamic behavior and to harass and abuse perceived transgressors. Saudi police must generally demonstrate reasonable cause and obtain permission from the Provincial Governor before searching a private home, but warrants are not required.

Saudi customs officials routinely open mail coming into the Kingdom to look for forbidden items, including material deemed pornographic and non-Muslim religious material. Materials deemed offensive are seized. Wiretaps and mail surveillance may be carried out on the authority of officials of the Interior Ministry or the GID. To buttress claims that the Government had incriminating evidence against Mohamed Al-Masari of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, one high-ranking government official reportedly made reference to and played tapes made of Al-Masari's telephone conversations with foreign media journalists and human rights organizations. Informants are reliably reported to be regularly used for internal security matters.

Most social and Islamic religious norms and strictures affecting personal life are matters of law and are enforced by the Government. Saudi women may not marry non-Saudis without government permission, which is rarely given. According to Islamic strictures, Saudi women are prohibited from marrying any non-Muslim, while Saudi men may marry Christians and Jews. Saudi men must obtain approval to marry women originally from countries other than the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). During Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and abstinence, the prohibition against public eating, drinking, or smoking during daylight hours is enforced on Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Prohibitions against alcohol, pork products, and material deemed pornographic are strictly enforced and apply as well to foreign residents.

Both Saudis and foreigners were targets of harassment by members of the Mutawwa'in or by religious zealots acting as vigilantes. The Mutawwa'in sought to enforce their increasingly strict standards of social behavior, from observance of prayer time closings of commercial establishments to appropriate dress in public and patronage of videotape rental shops. In August cassette tape stores in Riyadh were closed for 3 weeks due to pressure from the Mutawwa'in. Cassette tape sections in variety stores, however, remained open.

In addition to the Mutawwa'in harassment of non-Muslims attempting to conduct religious services (see Section 2.c.), the number and seriousness of incidents in which Saudi and foreign women were harassed, rose still further in 1993. Women were most often harassed for failure to observe Mutawwa'in-enforced dress codes and for being in the company of males who are not close relatives. Since December 1992, 48 incidents involving the Mutawwa'in were reported by American citizens. Such abuses have become so common that most incidents are not even reported to the authorities.

In some cases, the Mutawwa'in or their sympathizers took unilateral action against individuals without the knowledge of the civil police. The U.S. Government protested to the Saudi Government the instances involving American citizens; the Saudi Government took no action in most areas to prevent recurrences and did not issue specific guidance for dress that would preclude Mutawwa'in harassment. In several of the cases involving Westerners, the authorities justified Mutawwa'in action by claiming there was credible evidence of transgressions of Saudi law involving alcohol or drugs.

Government reforms announced in July created a Ministry of Islamic Affairs; the Mutawwa'in have been incorporated into this Ministry and will be under its supervision.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Freedom of speech and press is severely limited by law (Article 39 of the Basic Law) and in practice. Criticism of Islam, the ruling family, or the Government is not allowed. The potential presence of informers renders criticism of the regime rare.

In May a group of six Saudis, including some signers of earlier petitions, announced the formation of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR). Although the organizers described their group as a human rights organization, they also expressed concern that the Government was not adhering closely enough to Islamic precepts. When the CDLR criticized the Government in the international press, several of its members, including the son of one of the founding members, Mohamed Bin Abdullah Al-Masari, were detained. The Government dismissed all six of the CDLR founders from their government jobs. The CDLR was denounced by the Senior Council of Ulema for overstepping the bounds of legitimate Islamic behavior and expression. One of the six signers withdrew from the Committee. In August a group of 38 professors was detained for a period of several weeks because of their public efforts to obtain the release of Al-Masari. He was released from custody in November.

Since 1991 clandestine audio tapes and petitions signed by dozens of religious figures calling for closer government adherence to Islam have been circulated widely through informal channels. King Fahd, in a public speech in December 1992, stressed the right of all Saudis to approach senior officials directly to offer advice but criticized the authors of the petitions for what he called their improper use of the pulpit.

The press is privately owned. It is effectively controlled by a 1982 media policy statement and a 1965 national security law which expressly prohibits the dissemination of public criticism of the Government in any print or broadcast medium. The media policy statement enjoins the press to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve the cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia. Editors in chief are appointed with the explicit approval of the Ministry of Information, and the Government has the power to have them removed. Newspapers receive guidelines issued by the Information Ministry on government positions on sensitive issues, and the government-owned Saudi Press Agency (SPA) expresses the official viewpoint on such issues.

In 1993 a newspaper editor was fired and later reinstated for an editorial lauding the King's position on opposing Islamic extremism. The editorial was said to be too strident in its criticism of Islamic extremism. The editor in chief of another newspaper was transferred to another position, and one of his editors was deported because of a comic strip to which religious authorities objected.

Domestic news concerning sensitive subjects, such as crime or terrorism, is often published only after the perpetrators have been arrested, convicted, and sentenced. Most foreign news that does not directly concern Saudi Arabia is presented objectively. Foreign press access to Saudi Arabia is tightly restricted.

Saudi television and radio are state owned and operated. Foreign programs and songs are heavily censored, with references to politics, religions other than Islam, pork or pigs, alcohol, or sexual innuendo removed. In 1993 a television producer was fired for allowing a scene to be shown on Saudi television in which a man kissed a woman on the cheek. Although foreign news is generally presented on television and radio in an objective manner, news about subjects affecting Saudi Arabia is tightly controlled, and conflicting viewpoints are usually not offered.

There are an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 private satellite dishes operating in the Kingdom which receive foreign broadcasts. Despite widespread installation of satellite dishes, the status of these devices remains ambiguous. Importation and sale of the dishes were resumed after their prohibition in the summer of 1992 at the behest of religious leaders who objected to television programming available on satellite channels. Mutawwa'in were reported to have damaged satellite dishes on private residences with air rifles and sling shots to prevent their use.

Foreign publications circulate but may be censored for materials deemed immoral or critical of Saudi policies and actions. Entire publications are sometimes withheld from distribution. In 1993 the issues of the International Herald Tribune containing articles from U.S. newspapers critical of the Saudi Government's economic policies, as well as issues of another newspaper that discussed the articles, were not distributed in Saudi Arabia.

Academic freedom is also constrained; for example, the study of evolution, Freud, Marx, and Western philosophy is proscribed. Some professors believe that classroom comments that could be taken as antiregime will be reported to the authorities. There continues to be an injunction against the study of music in educational institutions through the university level. There are, however, some private organizations for the study of Western classical music.

Artistic activities in schools and universities and in society in general continue to be limited and subjected to arbitrary closure. There are a few private art galleries, principally in Jeddah and Dhahran. Abstract and representational artists as well as photographers in general are allowed to work. However, in 1993 an exhibit of photographs prepared by a Saudi woman and sponsored by the French Embassy was closed hours before the opening, allegedly because the invitation card depicted the image of a woman, although she was completely veiled. Cinemas and public musical or theatrical performances, other than those that are strictly folkloric, are prohibited.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

These rights are strictly limited. The Government prohibits public demonstrations as a means of political expression or presenting grievances. Tribal, familial, and economic interest groups informally aggregate public opinion, which their leaders express to high officials. Political parties are prohibited (see Section 3), but nonpolitical clubs and professional groups may be organized with the permission of the authorities. The few existing professional groups are permitted to maintain contacts with their recognized international counterparts. Public meetings are segregated by sex. Foreign members of groups seeking to hold unsegregated meetings risk arrest, incarceration, and deportation unless these meetings are sponsored by diplomatic missions.

A children's winter concert at the Yanbu International School attended by 200 people was raided by four Mutawwa'in and two policemen. The intruders grabbed children performing in the concert and pulled them from the stage. The Mutawwa'in tried to confiscate cameras and video equipment from members of the audience. U.S. and British officials formally protested the matter with senior Saudi officials, who reported that the incident was being given high-level attention and that an official investigation was being conducted. The officials gave assurances that the matter was taken very seriously by the Government and that such an incident would not recur. On December 30, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a diplomatic note stated that the Government neither approves nor agrees with this behavior by members of the (Mutawwa'in) organization and that the necessary measures have been taken to ensure that what they have done will not be repeated in the future.

c. Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion does not exist. Islam is the official religion, and all Saudi citizens must be Muslims. An injunction against the practice of other religions in Arabia, attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, is enforced in the Kingdom. Public apostasy is a crime under Shari'a law, punishable by death. There were no executions in 1993 for the crime of apostasy.

Islamic practice in Saudi Arabia is generally limited to that sanctioned by the Wahhabi sect's interpretation of the Hanbali jurisprudential school of Islam. Practices contrary to this interpretation, such as the visiting of graves of famous Muslims by pilgrims to Mecca or Medina or public Shi'a prayer practices, are discouraged.

The Shi'a Muslims, mostly in the Eastern Province, usually estimated at up to 500,000 persons, constitute a religious minority subject to officially sanctioned forms of social and economic discrimination (see Section 5). Historically, the Government has prohibited Shi'a public processions during the Islamic month of Muharram and restricted public processions and congregations to specially designated areas within major Shi'a cities. However, since 1990, authorities have permitted marches on the Shi'a holiday of Ashura, provided they take place without banners or public self- flagellation. King Fahd has quietly invited dissident Shi'a residents abroad to return to the Kingdom without regard for their past political activities. A number of Shi'a dissidents, including some who had spent many years abroad, have returned.

The Government occasionally offers to provide financial support for the Shi'a religious establishment, which is generally refused. The Government seldom permits private construction of Shi'a mosques, and the Shi'a have refused government offers to build state-supported mosques, in which Shi'a motifs would be prohibited.

Public or private non-Muslim religious activities are not permitted. Persons wearing non-Islamic religious symbols in public may be arrested or publicly harassed by the Mutawwa'in. There are no public non-Muslim places of worship, and non-Muslim foreign nationals must practice their religions in secret.

Proselytizing, large gatherings, or elaborate organizational structures are likely to attract official attention and lead to the imprisonment or expulsion of those involved. Following the destruction of the Babri mosque in India in December 1992, many Hindus working for the Government were fired from their jobs and deported. In May the home of an American woman and her Filipino husband was raided by the Mutawwa'in, who acted without a search warrant, after they were reported to be hosting a clandestine prayer group in their home. The man was arrested and held in jail without being formally charged until his deportation in November.

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

Travel for women, Saudi and non-Saudi, is restricted; they must obtain written permission from their closest male relative before being allowed to travel on public transportation between different parts of the country or to leave the country. Male Saudis may travel freely within the country. A regulation promulgated in 1990 requires most single Saudi men under the age of 18 to obtain permission before traveling abroad; such permission may be easily obtained. In the case of government officials, the permission of the royal court is required but appears to be routinely granted.

All foreigners living in Saudi Arabia are required to carry identification cards. Officially, foreigners are not permitted to travel outside the city of their employment or change their workplace without their sponsor's permission. Officials at internal checkpoints within the Kingdom enforce travel restrictions on foreigners, checking for letters of permission from employers.

Foreign employees are prevented from traveling abroad without their sponsor's permission, since sponsors generally hold their passports and are responsible for obtaining exit visas for them. Foreign diplomats are ordered by the Government not to travel outside the major cities without notifying the Government, but this order is rarely enforced. Foreigners involved in commercial disputes are sometimes not allowed to leave the country until the dispute has been resolved. Some sponsors have taken advantage of this arrangement to exert pressure to resolve commercial disputes in their favor. Occasionally, Saudi sponsors or business partners have been able to prevent foreign nationals from departing Saudi Arabia for years or to have them arrested or deported. In criminal cases, Saudi regulations require that the passports of all potential suspects and witnesses be seized, which sometimes forces foreign nationals to remain in Saudi Arabia for lengthy periods against their will. Denial of exit visas is a fairly common form of punishment, and passports of suspected subversives have occasionally been seized. Shi'a believed to have pro-Iranian sympathies may be prevented from traveling abroad.

Saudis are permitted to emigrate, but those who assume foreign nationalities come into conflict with Saudi law, which prohibits dual citizenship. Citizens do not have the right to relinquish their Saudi citizenship. Saudis born in the United States who have U.S. passports may have their U.S. passports confiscated by Saudi immigration authorities.

There is no explicit formal policy regarding refugees or the granting of asylum. Refugees and displaced persons are often dealt with like other foreign workers who must meet strictly enforced requirements of sponsorship and employment or risk being turned back at the border. Saudi authorities are responsive, however, in some cases where deportation of refugees to their home country would jeopardize their safety.

In the aftermath of the Gulf war, 22,000 Iraqi citizens, primarily Shi'a, fled Iraq and were granted refuge in camps in Saudi Arabia near the city of Rafha. Similarly, 13,000 Iraqi deserters declined repatriation to Iraq and were housed in the Kingdom under government custody near the city of Artawiyah. In December 1992, the refugee camp at Artawiyah was consolidated with the camp at Rafha. The decision to close the Artawiyah camp, scene of earlier human rights problems, was in part a response to advice from the UNHCR. The approximately 25,000 Iraqi refugees remaining in Saudi Arabia are, with a few exceptions, restricted to the refugee camp. (See Section 1.c. on the March riot.) Saudi officials have worked with international humanitarian organizations to provide care for these Iraqis but have stressed that Islamic principles rather than international humanitarian law are the basis for this policy. In January the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, paid an official visit to Saudi Arabia, and the UNHCR office in the Kingdom received official status in June. UNHCR officials have been informed that a few Somali refugees are on one of the Farasan Islands but have not been asked to provide assistance and have not been able to visit these refugees.

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

Citizens cannot change their government peacefully. There are no formal democratic institutions, and only a few Saudi citizens have a voice in the choice of leaders or in changing the political system. The King rules the country in matters civil and religious, within limits established by religious law, tradition, and the need to maintain consensus among the ruling family and religious leaders. The King's legitimacy is based upon his adherence to the tenets of Islam, his descent, his selection by consensus of the royal family, his ability to govern, and his perceived concern for the welfare of the nation. The King is also the Prime Minister, and the Crown Prince serves as deputy Prime Minister. The King appoints all other ministers, who in turn appoint subordinate officials with Cabinet concurrence. Ministers may retire only with the King's permission. In August the King announced that Cabinet ministers would have 4-year terms, with the possibility of reappointment.

In 1992 King Fahd announced the formation of a Consultative Council, or Majlis Ash-Shura, which is to be an advisory body to the King and the Council of Ministers. In August the King announced a constitution for the Majlis Ash-Shura and the names of the 60 Majlis Ash-Shura members. The Majlis was formally inaugurated on December 29. In September the King announced rules and regulations for the provincial assemblies and their memberships.

There are no popularly elected officials in Saudi Arabia. Political parties are not permitted, and there are no publicly organized opposition groups.

Traditionally, public opinion has been expressed through client-patron relationships and affinity groups such as tribes, families, and professional hierarchies. The open-door audience (majlis) remains the primary forum for expression of opinion or grievance. Any male citizen or male foreign national may attend these sessions held by the King, princes, or important national and local officials. Occasionally, women without male relatives present petitions in some majlis sessions. Since the assassination of King Faisal in 1975, Saudi kings have reduced the frequency of their personal contacts with the public. Access to King Fahd, to whom decisions even on some apparently minor matters are referred, is considered by ordinary Saudis to be quite 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. As governmental functions have become increasingly complex, time consuming, and centralized in Riyadh, direct public access to senior officials has become more difficult. Either the King or the Crown Prince meets with Sunni religious officials at least once a week. This institutionalized but indirect means of ascertaining public opinion through consultation falls short of internationally accepted democratic practice.

Participation by women in the process is severely restricted, although there are reports that women may seek redress through female members of the royal family.

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

There are no human rights groups in the usual sense publicly active in Saudi Arabia, and none critical of Saudi policies would be permitted. In May a group of six Saudis, including some signers of earlier petitions, announced the formation of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR). When the CDLR criticized the Government in the international press, the Government took a number of punitive actions, closing the group's office and detaining several of its members, including the son of one of the founding members, Mohamed Bin Abdullah Al-Masari, who was released in November.

Some U.N. agencies concerned with humanitarian issues, including the UNHCR, maintain offices in Saudi Arabia and have regular contact with Saudi authorities. The Saudis have generally facilitated the work of the ICRC and UNHCR with Iraqi deserters, refugees, and displaced persons from the Gulf war. Cooperation between the UNHCR and the Saudi Government has expanded, with a corresponding improvement in the living conditions for Iraqi refugees living in Saudi camps. This cooperation is based on a June 22 memorandum of understanding between the UNHCR and the Saudi Government.

Saudi Arabia has not signed major human rights treaties and conventions.

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


The lives of women in Saudi Arabia are rigidly circumscribed. They have few political and social rights and are not equal members of society.

Violence against women is known to occur in Saudi Arabia. Although the Government does not keep statistics on such abuse, hospital workers report that it is not uncommon that women are admitted for treatment of injuries that appear to be the result of domestic violence. "Islamic advice" columns in the Saudi press sometimes recommend the "strict disciplining" of women, which is understood to encompass some degree of physical force, as part of a proper marriage.

Foreign embassies receive frequent reports of the physical and sexual abuse of female domestics by Saudi employers. The Government, in general, considers cases involving domestic servants to be private family matters and will not intervene unless clear-cut charges of severe abuse are brought to its attention. It is almost impossible for abused 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 abused women could turn for assistance.

In 1993 women experienced an increased number of restrictions on their public activities. Many restaurants closed their family sections or refused to serve women unaccompanied by a male relative. Some restaurant managers who attempted to ignore this restriction were arrested and detained by the Mutawwa'in. In public, Muslim women are required to wear the abaya, headscarf, and face veil (lightweight, black garments covering the entire body, head, and face). Saudi authorities have repeatedly said that non-Muslim women need not wear the abaya and headscarf, but should maintain decorum and modesty in appearance. However, the Mutawwa'in have increasingly tried to force all foreign women to wear the abaya and cover their hair.

Women, including foreign women, may not legally drive motor vehicles or ride bicycles. Women are restricted to specially designated sections in the rear of urban buses with separate entrances. Of the 49 women who were arrested in 1990 for driving cars to protest the ban on female drivers, all have had their passports returned and received compensation for some of the wages lost while in disfavor. Most have returned to work, although some continue to be harassed by the Mutawwa'in (see Section 1.c.).

In addition to customary and legal restrictions, Saudi women are subject to discrimination inherent in the Islamic legal system. Under Islamic law, a daughter's share of an inheritance is half that of her brother's, under the presumption that the brother has financial obligations to his mother and sisters. Women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce, but men may divorce without grounds. If divorced or widowed, a woman normally may keep her children until they attain the age of 7, but then they revert to the husband's family, to which they belong under Islamic law. Foreign women married to Saudis have frequently been barred from visiting their children after divorce.

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, especially in cities and among younger Saudis. Islamic legal precepts limit the number of wives to four and require a husband who has more than one wife to treat each of his wives equally. In practice, this norm is not always achieved.

Employment opportunities for Saudi women are extremely limited. This fact, along with the ease of divorce for males, creates a situation of great economic vulnerability and a sense of insecurity for many women. Insecurity is reported to be greatest among married women who fear their lack of legal protection if their husbands decide to divorce them. Some women join together to form clandestine savings clubs as insurance against the possibility of divorce. The younger generation of educated Saudis, men and women, tend to express a greater interest in having women work, and the number of employed women in Riyadh has increased in the last few years. However, there is evidence that the influence of religious extremists has increased in various government institutions and that female employees are increasingly segregated and subjected to various forms of harassment. Women remain excluded from the vast majority of occupations.

Free, but segregated, education through the university level is available to Saudi women. Women constitute 55 percent of all university graduates but are excluded from studying certain subjects such as engineering, journalism, and architecture. Saudi men are able to study overseas; Saudi women generally can do so only if accompanied by a spouse or an immediate male relative. Despite the high percentage of university graduates, women make up only 5 percent of the work force. In practice, most employment opportunities are in the field of education, with some available in health care and a relative few in business, philanthropy, banking, retail sales, and the media. Women wishing to enter nontraditional fields are subject to arbitrary discrimination. In August the Ministry of Commerce announced that it had stopped issuing licenses to women and students who wished to undertake maintenance, contracting, or janitorial services. When asked for clarification, a Ministry official said the ban would be temporary.


The Government provides all Saudi children with free education and medical care. Reports of societal abuse directed against children are rare, except for the practice of female circumcision which is thought to persist among African nationals, especially in the southwestern Tihama region.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Although racial discrimination is illegal in Saudi Arabia, substantial societal prejudice based on ethnic or national origin exists. Foreign workers from Africa and Asia are subject to various forms of informal discrimination and have difficulty in attempting to enforce their rights under Saudi law. In 1993 there continued to be credible reports of informal discrimination, including wage discrimination, against Jordanians, Palestinians, and Yemenis, primarily because of positions their governments or the Palestine Liberation Organization took in the Gulf crisis.

Religious Minorities

Saudi Shi'a, in addition to being subject to stringent religious repression (see Section 2.c.), also face discrimination in government and industrial employment, especially in jobs with national security implications, broadly defined. Employment restrictions at Aramco, traditionally an important employer for the Shi'a, were imposed on them several years ago and have not been relaxed. Shi'a also face limitations on their 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. Among 60 members appointed to the Consultative Council in August, only 1 was a Shi'a.

People with Disabilities

The Saudi Government and charitable organizations cooperate to provide education, employment opportunities, and other needed services for the disabled. While there is no legislation or otherwise mandated provision of accessibility for the disabled, new construction for public and business uses often includes access for them.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Government decrees prohibit the formation of labor unions and strike activity, and there have been no attempts to defy these restrictions.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

Collective bargaining is forbidden, and there are no special economic zones in the country. Foreign workers comprise approximately half of the work force. Wages are set by the employers on the basis of market factors.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced labor has been prohibited since 1962 by a royal decree that abolished slavery, and Saudi ratification of International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions 29 and 105 have the force of law. Nonetheless, vestiges of the master-slave relationship remain; a great number of former slaves chose to remain in the princely households where many now enjoy a quasi-familial status as household supernumeraries. Additionally, since employers generally exercise control over the movements of foreign employees, situations that could be described as forced labor can occur, especially in remote areas where workers are unable to leave their place of employment. Diplomats desiring to visit work sites to check on the welfare and conditions of citizens of their countries were sometimes denied access. There also have been reports that female domestic workers sometimes have been prevented from leaving the homes of their employers and forced to work 12 to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. Maids who run away from their employers are often returned to the employers by Saudi authorities against the maids' wishes. In addition, there have been reports of workers whose employers refused to pay several months or even years of accumulated salary or other promised benefits. Domestic workers, i.e., maids and family drivers, are not covered under Saudi labor law. However, nondomestic workers have recourse to the labor courts. Foreign workers have reported, however, considerable difficulty in attempting to enforce their rights under Saudi law.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

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, since they are not covered by Saudi Arabia's labor regulations. In other cases, the labor regulations provide for a minimum age of 13, which may be waived by the Labor Ministry with the consent of the juvenile's guardian. Children aged 13 to 18 are prohibited from working more than 6 hours per day. 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 Justice Ministry 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. A provision providing for the Council of Ministers to set a minimum wage has not been implemented. Saudi labor regulations establish a standard 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 on Fridays, although the employer may grant it on another day.

There continue to be numerous reports of foreign nationals coming to Saudi Arabia on promises by private contractors of a certain level of pay and benefits, only to find that the contract they sign upon arrival specifies lower levels of both. Other reports suggest that some workers sign contracts in their home countries and are then asked to sign ones less favorable to them upon arrival. Reliable reports indicate that the length of service called for in the original contract is sometimes increased upon arrival by as much as 3 years and that employees reaching the end of their term of service in a contract have been refused permission to return home by their employer, effectively extending the workers' term of employment involuntarily. There are reports as well of workers who are indentured to Saudi sponsors for a set amount each month and who must then find their own employment upon arrival in the Kingdom. To solve these problems, some foreign governments have begun utilizing employment organizations that negotiate salary and benefits in advance for their nationals. These organizations periodically check on the results of their efforts through their embassies and the Saudi labor courts.

Occupational health and safety standards are outlined in the Kingdom's Labor Law. In general, the law requires employers to protect "workmen from hazards and diseases" in the workplace. The Labor Ministry enforces these standards more effectively against large enterprises due to their higher profile and to limited Ministry resources. The law does not apply to enterprises with fewer than five employees, family businesses, and domestic employees. The Labor Law allows employees to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their continued employment, provided the employer has been notified of the dangerous conditions and has not taken corrective action. Labor law protects workers reporting health and safety violations from reprisal by their employers, but there have been instances of sanctions against foreign workers making such complaints.

Search Refworld