Capital: Riyadh
Population: 28,100,000

Political Rights Score: 7 *
Civil Liberties Score: 6 *
Status: Not Free


In January 2009, Saudi Arabia began implementing portions of an ongoing judicial reform agenda, including training programs for judges and the construction of new courts. In February King Abdullah sacked two controversial religious leaders and appointed the first-ever female cabinet member, Deputy Minister for Girls' Education Noura al-Fayez. The government announced in May that the next municipal council elections would be postponed by two years. Sectarian tensions remained a serious concern during the year, particularly after religious police attacked Shiite pilgrims in Medina in February.

Since its unification in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia has been governed by the Saud family in accordance with a conservative school of Sunni Islam. In the early 1990s, Saudi Arabia embarked on a limited program of political reform, introducing an appointed Consultative Council, or Majlis al-Shura. However, this did not lead to any substantial shift in political power. In 1995, King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud suffered a stroke, and Abdullah, then the crown prince, took control of most decision making in 1997.

After the country endured a series of terrorist attacks in 2003 and 2004, the authorities intensified their counterterrorism efforts, killing dozens of suspects and detaining thousands of others over the subsequent years. Officials also attempted to stem financial support for terrorist groups through new checks on money laundering and oversight of charitable organizations. Nevertheless, thousands of Saudis went to Iraq in the years following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to participate in what they saw as an anti-American and anti-Shiite jihad.

The formal transfer of power from King Fahd, who died in August 2005, to King Abdullah led to increased expectations of political reform. However, Abdullah enacted few significant changes. Municipal council elections were held in 2005, giving Saudi men a limited opportunity to select some of their leaders at the local level, but women were completely excluded. The eligible electorate consisted of less than 20 percent of the population: male citizens who were at least 21 years old, not serving in the military, and resident in their district for at least 12 months. Half of the council seats were open for election, and the other half were appointed by the monarchy. Candidates supported by conservative Muslim scholars triumphed in the large cities of Riyadh and Jeddah, and minority Shiite Muslim voters participated in large numbers. The government ultimately determined that the councils would serve only in an advisory capacity.

In 2007, Abdullah announced bylaws for the Allegiance Institution, a new body composed of the sons (or grandsons in the event of their deaths) of the founding king. The committee, chaired by the oldest surviving son, would make decisions on the succession by majority vote using secret ballots, and would require a quorum of two-thirds of the members. The arrangement would not apply until after the current crown prince, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, became king. The committee would also have the authority to deem a king or crown prince medically unfit to rule, based on the advice of an expert panel.

A cabinet shake-up in February 2009 resulted in the appointment of the first-ever female cabinet member, Noura al-Fayez, as the deputy minister for girls' education. The king also fired two controversial religious figures, the head of the judiciary and the leader of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also known as the religious police. The move was interpreted as a sign that the monarchy felt less beholden to hard-line religious leaders and was seeking to promote more moderate clerics. This trend continued in October, when the king removed a senior religious scholar from the Higher Council of Ulama for his criticism of gender-desegregated classrooms in the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which had opened the previous month.

In November and December, Saudi military forces carried out air and ground assaults on the Houthi rebel group, based in northern Yemen. The Shiite guerrillas had been engaged in a bloody conflict with the Yemeni government since 2004, raising Saudi concerns about instability along the border and broader Shiite militancy.

Saudi Arabia's growing youth population has added to pressure on the government to create new jobs. In response, it has deployed its immense oil wealth to strengthen the nonpetroleum sector and sought to encourage private investment. The global economic downturn that began in late 2008 placed new stresses on the kingdom, but careful budgeting allowed it to avoid any significant political fallout.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Saudi Arabia is not an electoral democracy. The 1992 Basic Law declares that the Koran and the Sunna (the guidance set by the deeds and sayings of the prophet Muhammad) are the country's constitution. The cabinet, which is appointed by the king, passes legislation that becomes law once ratified by royal decree. The king also appoints a 150-member Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council)every four years, though it serves only in an advisory capacity. Limited elections for advisory councils at the municipal level were introduced in 2005, but women were excluded. The next round of municipal elections was postponed by two years in May 2009, having initially been scheduled for that year. The government cited the need to establish mechanisms to involve more voters, although it remained unclear whether women would be allowed to participate. In addition to these advisory councils, the monarchy has a tradition of consulting with select members of Saudi society, but the process is not equally open to all citizens.

Political parties are forbidden, and organized political opposition exists only outside the country, with many activists based in London. In early 2004, the authorities splintered a nascent domestic reform movement by arresting several key figures who had attempted to create an independent human rights organization. One such activist, Abdullah al-Hamed, has been jailed repeatedly since then, and in 2008 another political reform advocate, Matrouk al-Faleh, was arrested after criticizing the government's treatment of al-Hamed. Al-Faleh was released in January 2009, but remains unable to travel outside the country.

Corruption is a significant problem, with foreign companies reporting that they often pay bribes to middlemen and government officials to secure business deals. Saudi Arabia was ranked 63 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government tightly controls domestic media content and dominates regional print and satellite-television coverage, with members of the royal family owning major stakes in news outlets in multiple countries. Government officials have banned journalists and editors who publish articles deemed offensive to the religious establishment or the ruling authorities. The regime has also taken steps to limit the influence of new media, blocking access to over 400,000 websites that are considered immoral or politically sensitive. In June 2009, Jamal Khashoggi was fired as editor of the daily Al-Watan for criticizing the country's religious police and engaging in a dispute with the interior minister. In October, television show guest Mazen Abd al-Jawad was sentenced to five years in prison and 1,000 lashes for discussing his sexual exploits during an interview on the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), a Saudi-owned satellite station. Saudi authorities subsequently closed LBC's offices in Jeddah and Riyadh, and other participants in the show received lesser sentences. Rozanna al-Yami, a female producer involved with the program, was sentenced to 60 lashes but received a royal pardon.

Islam is the official religion, and all Saudis are required by law to be Muslims. The government prohibits the public practice of any religion other than Islam and restricts the religious practices of the Shiite and Sufi Muslim minority sects. Although the government recognizes the right of non-Muslims to worship in private, it does not always respect this right in practice. In October 2009, authorities banned the building of Shiite mosques, marking a significant reversal of policies that had offered Shiites some religious freedom in recent years.

Academic freedom is restricted, and informers monitor classrooms for compliance with curriculum rules, such as a ban on teaching secular philosophy and religions other than Islam. Despite changes to textbooks in recent years, intolerance in the classroom remains an important problem, as some teachers continue to espouse discriminatory and hateful views of non-Muslims and Muslim minority sects. In September 2009, the kingdom celebrated the opening of the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, which features gender-desegregated classrooms and a rule forbidding the religious police from entering the campus.

Freedoms of association and assembly are not upheld. The government frequently detains political activists who stage demonstrations or engage in other civic advocacy. In January 2009, police arrested two activists in Riyadh who attempted to protest Israeli military strikes in the Gaza Strip.

A labor law enacted in 2005, as the country prepared to join the World Trade Organization, extended protections to previously unregulated categories of workers, set end-of-service benefits, established clear terms for terminating employment, and required large companies to provide nurseries for working mothers. It also banned child labor, set provisions for resolving labor disputes, and stated that women are permitted to work in "all sectors compatible with their nature." One provision of the legislation set a 75 percent quota for Saudi citizens in each company's workforce. The more than six million foreign workers in the country have virtually no legal protections. Many are lured to the kingdom under false pretenses and forced to endure dangerous working and living conditions. Female migrants employed in Saudi homes as domestic workers have reportedly suffered regular physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. In January 2009, over 200 Chinese workers went on strike to protest low pay. Twenty-three were arrested and subsequently deported. The government passed a law in July imposing fines of up to $266,000 for those found guilty of human trafficking.

The government promised sweeping judicial reforms in 2005, and Abdullah in 2007 announced the establishment of a new Supreme Court and an Appeals Court, whose members would be appointed by the king. The new higher courts replaced the old judiciary council, which was widely considered reactionary and inconsistent. The cabinet announced in 2008 that it would form a Special Higher Commission of judicial experts tasked with writing laws to serve as the foundation for verdicts in the court system, which is grounded in Sharia (Islamic law). While Saudi courts have historically relied on the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, the commission would incorporate all four Sunni Muslim legal schools in drafting the new laws. In January 2009, the kingdom began a judicial training program and initiated the construction of new courts. Officials in November announced the creation of new commercial courts for each province as well as plans to publish verdicts online, which would open a new era of transparency in the judicial system.

The penal code bans torture, but allegations of torture by police and prison officials are common, and access to prisoners by independent human rights and legal organizations is strictly limited.

Substantial prejudice against ethnic, religious, and national minorities prevails. Shiites represent 10 to 15 percent of the population and are underrepresented in major government positions; no Shiite has ever served as a government minister. Shiites have also faced physical assaults. In February 2009, religious police attacked hundreds of Shiite pilgrims in Medina, triggering unrest in the Shiite-majority Eastern Province, where political activists threatened violence if the government did not better protect the Shiite community.

Freedom of movement is restricted in some cases. The government punishes activists and critics by limiting their ability to travel outside the country. Reform advocates are routinely stripped of their passports.

Saudis have the right to own property and establish private businesses. While a great deal of business activity is connected to members of the government, the ruling family, or other elite families, officials have given assurances that newly created industrial and commercial zones will be free from royal-family interference.

Women are not treated as equal members of society, and many laws discriminate against them. They were not permitted to vote in the 2005 municipal elections, they may not legally drive cars, and their use of public facilities is restricted when men are present. By law and custom, Saudi women cannot travel within or outside of the country without a male relative. Unlike Saudi men, Saudi women cannot pass their citizenship to their children or foreign-born husbands. Moreover, Saudi women seeking access to the courts must be represented by a male. According to interpretations of Sharia in Saudi Arabia, daughters generally receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers, and the testimony of one man is equal to that of two women.

The religious police enforce a strict policy of gender segregation and often harass women, using physical punishment to ensure that they meet conservative standards of dress in public. In 2007, a court sentenced a Shiite woman from Qatif, who had been raped by seven men, to 200 lashes and six months in jail for being alone with a man who was not her relative at the time of the attack; the man was also raped by the attackers and punished by the court. The rapists were sentenced to flogging and jail terms ranging from two to nine years. After an international outcry, the king pardoned the two victims in December of that year.

Education and economic rights for Saudi women have improved somewhat in recent years. More than half of the country's university students are now female, though they do not have equal access to classes and facilities. In 2004, women won the right to hold commercial licenses, which opened the door for greater economic participation. In addition, women have generally become more visible in society. Saudi state television began using women as newscasters in 2005, and two women became the first females elected to Jeddah's chamber of commerce that year, a small step forward for women's leadership in business. In 2008, the Saudi Human Rights Commission established a women's branch to investigate cases of human rights violations against women and children.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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