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

Human Rights and Democracy: The 2010 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Saudi Arabia

Publisher United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Publication Date 31 March 2011
Cite as United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights and Democracy: The 2010 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Saudi Arabia, 31 March 2011, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Many of our concerns associated with human rights in Saudi Arabia are societal as much as they are governmental. The Saudi government has, however, made some limited improvements. It has praised families who have shown clemency by waiving their private right under Sharia law to have their relative's killer executed, and have encouraged women to work in occupations previously closed to them. The governmental Human Rights Commission promoted human rights in schools and universities in 2010. But these changes have not been institutionalised. The guardianship system, under which women need permission from a male relative to travel, work and study, remained in place. The Saudi legal system, despite increased judicial training, failed to provide basic standards of international justice. And the sponsorship system which governs the employment of foreign nationals failed to provide safeguards against abuse.

We continued our frank dialogue with Saudi Arabia about the human rights situation in 2010. Working both bilaterally and with the EU, we encouraged progress in four priority areas: women's rights, the death penalty, rights of foreign workers and judicial reform. Progress on implementing the 50 recommendations Saudi Arabia accepted during its UN Universal Periodic Review in Geneva in February 2009 was very disappointing, despite encouragement from our Embassy in Riyadh. The Two Kingdoms' Dialogue, the bilateral forum for discussing social and economic issues between the UK and Saudi Arabia, was planned for 2010, but was postponed until 2011. Formal démarche protests were delivered concerning custody rights for women and the case of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan national sentenced to death for killing a baby in her care, when she may have been under 18 years old. Our Embassy provided training to Saudi security forces in forensic analysis and investigative methods, including DNA analysis, which has helped to improve the treatment of suspects. The British Council has trained female entrepreneurs through its Springboard training programme.

The process of very gradual reform is likely to continue in 2011, with further incremental developments on women's employment opportunities and in spreading awareness and acceptance of human rights. An important indicator of progress will be whether the number of executions continues to fall. The municipal council elections scheduled for October 2011 may allow women to vote. We will provide support to the Ministry of Rural and Municipal Affairs as it prepares for the municipal elections and continue to urge for the opportunity for women to participate. But the slow nature of reform will remain frustrating for those Saudis committed to promoting human rights.

We will take forward a range of human rights work in 2011. We will host the Two Kingdoms' Dialogue in London, after it was delayed in 2010. We hope this will be an opportunity to strengthen our dialogue on civil society issues. Our Embassy will work with the National Family Safety Programme to develop literature and resources as it campaigns on children's rights in schools across the country. We are also helping to prepare training from HM Prison Service to the Saudi prison service, which we hope to pilot in February 2011. The British Council will continue to deliver the Springboard training programme which trains young female entrepreneurs in the skills required to start and develop their businesses. We will also support the Shura Council in understanding parliamentary oversight, through a visit to London and meetings with Parliament, government departments, civil society and the media.


Saudi Arabia's second round of municipal elections, planned for October 2009, were delayed for two years after the existing councils had their terms extended. The Embassy in Riyadh continued to offer support to the Ministry for Municipal and Rural Affairs in preparing for these elections and encouraged the ministry to permit women to stand for election and to vote.

Access to justice

Within the Saudi criminal justice system, many legal safeguards, such as presumption of innocence, access to evidence, public trials and juries, do not exist. Judges apply their own interpretation of Sharia law. There is no codified legal system, leading to wide variations in punishment for the same offence.

In October 2008 King Abdullah launched a major judicial reform project, which was given further momentum with the appointment of a new minister of justice in February 2009. In 2010 new courts were built and judicial training extended but there was no progress in developing a system of precedent or codifying the law, and public concern remained about the length of time trials took. In January, the Shura Council, the appointed, all-male council which acts as a fledgling parliament, recommended a system of public defenders to ensure legal advice for accused parties in criminal trials. But this recommendation was still awaiting the required approval from the Council of Ministers by the end of 2010.

Despite some courts trialling alternative punishments such as community service orders, the use of corporal punishment remained widespread in 2010. In August, a court in the northern town of Tabuk considered paralysing a man as a punishment for a fight where another man had been paralysed. Following international outcry and medical advice, the court eventually decided against paralysis as a punishment in this case.

We continued to support the Saudi Ministry of Justice in its reform efforts and also developed links with some of the professors and students at the Higher Judicial Institute at the Imam Mohammed University in Riyadh, where the majority of Saudi judges study.

Death penalty

In 2010 an estimated 26 individuals were executed, down from 67 in 2009, 97 in 2008 and 157 in 2007. The reasons for this decrease in numbers are the cause of some debate. The King and senior princes have encouraged a culture of clemency by meeting and praising victims' families who have waived their right under Islamic law to see the killer executed. But the number of crimes which retain the death penalty is a serious concern. For example, sorcery, drugs smuggling, homosexuality and apostasy technically carry the death penalty, although the vast majority of those executed in 2010 were convicted of murder. In addition the death penalty is applied after a legal process that fails to provide basic legal safeguards.

While the Saudi government has encouraged a culture of forgiveness, it continued to stop short of abolishing the death penalty or fundamentally reforming its application. The Saudi government has always qualified its acceptance of international treaties by saying that it accepts them in so far as they do not contradict Sharia law. And its position on the death penalty remains governed by its adherence to its understanding of Sharia law. There remains overwhelming public support for the death penalty.

In 2010 Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan national sentenced to death in 2007 for the killing of a baby in her care, had her final appeal rejected. The EU and our Embassy raised the issue with the Saudi government. The Saudi government argued that the case rests with the victim's family who have a private right under Sharia law to demand her execution. High level Saudi efforts to encourage the family to show clemency were continuing at the end of 2010. But there remains very little debate in Saudi society about the application of the death penalty. While maintaining our clear and principled opposition to the death penalty in all cases, our efforts were particularly focused on the debate around the age of legal responsibility. Under the Saudi interpretation of Sharia law, children become legally responsible at the age of puberty. Saudi Arabia is one of five states to execute minors. While there is almost no public discussion of the principle of the death penalty, there is debate about protecting children's rights; the Shura Council has debated the issue of setting a minimum age for marriage and there has been discussion about setting an age of adulthood with regard to human trafficking. By engaging in and encouraging this debate, we are working to see the establishment of a specific age of legal responsibility.

Torture and other ill treatment

There were a number of cases of individuals alleging mistreatment at the hands of Saudi authorities. In counter-terrorism cases, we assess that the Saudi policy of rehabilitation actually prevents torture and other ill treatment, because such treatment would further radicalise individuals and would undermine the work to convince the detainees that the government has religious legitimacy. In cases of petty crime and immigration offences, sporadic mistreatment still occurs.

The Saudi Ministry of Interior is committed to preventing torture and mistreatment, and claims to discipline or punish officials responsible. But in 2010 no police officers were prosecuted for mistreatment. UK training to Saudi security forces continued to provide advanced investigative techniques which reduce the tendency to rely on confessions.

Prisons and detention issues

Conditions in Saudi prisons vary considerably. Some of the detention centres for terrorist detainees are amongst the most advanced in the world. But normal prisons and, in particular, immigration detention centres are often old and overcrowded. The governmental Saudi Human Rights Commission undertook an extensive programme of prison inspection in 2010.

We are developing training and mentoring for Saudi prison officers and governors, which we hope will be piloted in 2011, to support them in detaining prisoners in line with international human rights standards.

Many prisoners in Saudi Arabia can be imprisoned for months or even years as they wait for trial. In early 2011, the Ministry of Justice announced that 765 individuals had been convicted of terrorism offences in the Hijri year 1431 (18 December 2009 to 6 December 2010). Many of these detainees had been awaiting trial since the Al-Qaeda terrorist campaign of 2003-5 which targeted government figures and foreign compounds. In addition to lengthy detention while awaiting trial, Saudi Arabia detains individuals whom it considers a security threat for engaging in political activity. Former Judge Suleiman al Reshoudi remained detained throughout 2010 despite legal challenges to his detention, and Professor Mohammed Abdullah Abdulkareem was detained in December after publishing an article which discussed the potential for violence between members of the royal family. Our Embassy monitored these cases throughout 2010 and urged the Saudi government to respect the right to free speech.

Human rights defenders

Saudi Arabia has no law governing the formation of NGOs. There are two legally recognised human rights bodies: the governmental Human Rights Commission and the government-funded, but independent, National Society of Human Rights. The National Society in particular was more outspoken in 2010 on a range of issues. Other human rights organisations, most notably Human Rights First and the Association for Civil and Political Rights, remain illegal. During its Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in February 2009, we recommended that Saudi Arabia enact a law allowing the formation of civil society organisations. We repeated this recommendation to the governmental Human Rights Commission in 2010.

Freedom of expression

The limits on freedom of expression have widened significantly since King Abdullah came to the throne. The media now reports on issues previously considered unacceptable, such as social problems and the performance of ministries. But limits remain, particularly around criticism of individual members of the government and around religion. In May, the editor of Saudi Arabia's most liberal newspaper Al Watan was removed after allowing an article critical of religious practice in Saudi Arabia to be printed. In October, a journalist for the Al Jazeera newspaper in Qubba was sentenced to 50 lashes for allegedly inciting unrest by reporting protests about electricity prices. He appealed and the case was still outstanding at the end of 2010.

Our Embassy continued to promote greater freedom of expression through contacts with journalists and bloggers.

Freedom of religion and belief

Saudi Arabia forbids the public practice of religions other than Islam. Private religious observance is tolerated, but non-Muslim religious communities live under fear of persecution if they seek to come together to worship. Conversion from Islam technically carries the death penalty, although no cases were reported in 2010.

The treatment of Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia remains of concern. The Shia of the Eastern Province and the Ismailis of Najran face restrictions on the building of mosques and other civic restrictions. The King's initiative to promote interfaith dialogue internationally has had a limited impact inside the Kingdom.

The National Dialogue, which was launched in 2005 with the intention of encouraging a culture of tolerance and diversity, runs meetings across the country bringing together those interested in specific issues. It visited Najran in April and focused on health care. The situation in Najran continued to improve after the appointment of a new governor in March 2009. But mosque closures in the Eastern Province continued in 2010, particularly in Al Khobar. In December, violence was reported between Shia and Sunni youths in Madina.

We continue to support King Abdullah's interfaith dialogue initiative and have engaged with Saudi authorities on the issue of freedom of worship.

Women's rights

The treatment of women in Saudi Arabia remained a very serious concern in 2010. At the root of the problem is the guardianship system, which grants a male relative authority over every woman in his family. The male family member can refuse permission for the woman to study, travel or work. There is also an extensive system of segregation which limits women's ability to play a full part in public life. Women, with limited exceptions, may not work in a workplace with men. They may not drive a car. While the number and quality of female universities continues to rise, many subjects are deemed inappropriate, and therefore unavailable, for women.

The Saudi government, under the leadership of King Abdullah, has undertaken a gradual process of reform to extend opportunities to women. This is most notable in the education sector, where the number of female university graduates now exceeds the number of male graduates. The year 2010 saw work start on a very large new campus for Princess Noura University in Riyadh, which will cater exclusively for women. Women make up an increasing proportion of the scholarship students sent overseas to study under the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme, with many going to UK universities.

More limited progress has been made at opening employment opportunities for women. In August a group of supermarkets in Jeddah started to employ a small number of women as cashiers in its supermarkets. Despite the small number and the position of the women in curtained-off family-only areas, the decision provoked fierce debate in Saudi society. A religious scholar called for a boycott of the supermarket chain involved. The new minister of labour, who had previously been the chair of the supermarket chain's board, was criticised. Saudi women both supported and condemned the change. Initially the supermarket removed the female cashiers, but by the end of 2010 they were back at work.

In November, the Khadijah bint Khuwaylid centre in Jeddah organised a conference entitled "The Reality of Women's Participation in National Development". Speakers included Dr Nora al Fayez, the first woman to hold ministerial rank as deputy minister of education, and the head of the Mecca branch of the religious police, who challenged the standard position of the religious police regarding women working in mixed workplaces. The conference, which was attended by the Consul General in Jeddah, was another example of government-supported attempts to broaden the discussion of women's participation in Saudi society. It discussed the formation of a Women's Ministry and allowing female sporting activity in schools. The conference sparked another fierce debate in Saudi society with a group of 700 conservative women condemning it for what they claimed was its Western agenda.

Despite the Saudi government's support for such private initiatives and for female education, it has so far failed to remove the main institutional barriers to women, most notably the guardianship system. We continued to take every opportunity to urge the Saudi government to remove the guardianship system of women, as the UK recommended at Saudi Arabia's UN Universal Periodic Review in February 2009. The British Council trained emerging female entrepreneurs as part of its Springboard programme in 2010 and our Embassy maintained strong links with institutions supporting female empowerment in the Kingdom.

Children's rights

In Saudi Arabia the age of legal responsibility is puberty. This has implications for the trials of children as adults, including for crimes which carry the death penalty. The legal age of responsibility also provides the legal underpinning for child marriage. Cases of child marriage are the subject of limited and often contradictory press reporting.

In April, a court in Buraidah was reported to have annulled the marriage of a 12-year old girl to an 80-year-old relative. In June, the government announced a new marriage contract which required the bride's age to be included, but this has not resulted in a legal age for marriage being established. The government's Human Rights Commission has provided legal advice for children and families placed in such situations, which it argues are rare.

We repeatedly raised the issue of children's rights in 2010. Our Embassy encouraged the governmental Human Rights Commission to enact our recommendation from the 2010 UN Universal Periodic Review to set an age of legal responsibility. Our Embassy also lobbied the Human Rights Committee in the Shura Council to expedite its proposals to outlaw the practice of child marriage and we worked closely with the National Family Safety Programme in setting up programmes to build awareness of children's rights in schools.

Minorities and other discriminated groups

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights are entirely denied in Saudi Arabia. Homosexual acts are illegal and potentially carry the death penalty, although no executions on these grounds were reported in 2010. Beyond the legal restrictions, extensive social stigma exists. Our Embassy continued to offer discreet support to individuals.


Unacceptable statements about Jews were made in the media and by Saudi religious figures. Our Embassy continued to confront antisemitic statements and encouraged Saudi governmental leadership to oppose antisemitic prejudice.

Other issues: Rights of foreign workers

The treatment of expatriate labour remains a very serious concern in Saudi Arabia. The national census held in April, the first since 2004, put the number of foreign nationals in Saudi Arabia at almost 8.5 million, approximately 31% of the total population. The majority of these are low-paid workers carrying out manual and domestic work from countries in South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

At the root of the problems faced by foreign workers in Saudi Arabia is the sponsorship system. This makes all foreign workers the responsibility of a Saudi company or individual. The sponsor guarantees the immigration status and behaviour of the employee. As international human rights organisations have demonstrated, the system is open to extensive abuse without sufficient safeguards to protect the rights of the workers. The legal system in particular fails to protect basic labour rights for foreign workers.

The year 2010 saw a number of high-profile cases where domestic workers alleged violent abuse at the hands of their employers. In August, a Sri Lankan woman alleged to a court in Sri Lanka that her Saudi employer had hammered 24 nails into her body, in a case which was refuted by the employer and the Saudi government. In November, an Indonesian woman died in Abha, allegedly after extensive abuse from her employer. As the year ended, a Saudi woman went on trial for the abuse of her Indonesian maid in Madina.

The Saudi media covered these issues more extensively than in the past, although negative perceptions of foreign workers in the media continue. The trial of the alleged abuser in Madina was an important step in bringing claims of abuse to court but the Saudi government failed to make the necessary steps to reform the sponsorship system which gives undue power to sponsors over their employees. Despite the example of Bahrain, which has reformed its sponsorship system, proposals from the National Society of Human Rights and discussion in the Shura Council, the system remains in place.

The UK has raised the issues faced by foreign labour throughout 2010 with the Saudi government, the Shura Council and the media. In December, our Embassy in Riyadh attended a conference on the issue organised by the governmental Human Rights Commission, which brought together government agencies and the embassies of some of the countries who send most workers to Saudi Arabia. Our Embassy encouraged further work to be taken forward as a result of the conference.

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