Capital: Riyadh
Population: 28,687,000

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


After several months of violent clashes, Saudi Arabia and Yemeni rebels agreed to a cease-fire in January. Saudi authorities in March seized several books written by the prominent Saudi reformer, Abdullah al-Hamed, at the Riyadh International Book Fair. In May, King Abdullah ordered the prosecution of over 40 officials on corruption charges for their mismanagement of widespread flooding in Jeddah in November 2009, which resulted in the deaths of 122 people. That same month, Jamal Khashoggi resigned as editor of Al-Watan newspaper after coming under pressure for publishing an opinion piece criticizing conservative Islamic beliefs. Human rights activist Mikhlif bin Dahham al-Shammari was arrested in June for complaining about anti-Shiite discrimination in the kingdom. In August, King Abdullah issued a decree restricting clerics' power to issue religious edicts.

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 his half brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, took control of most decision making in 1997.

Following a series of terrorist attacks in 2003 and 2004, Saudi 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 2005, to King Abdullah led to increased expectations of political reform. However, Abdullah enacted few significant changes. The 2005 municipal council elections gave 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 2009 resulted in the appointment of the first-ever female cabinet member, Noura al-Fayez. The king also fired two controversial religious figures, one of whom headed the religious police force. 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 2010, with King Abdullah decreeing in August that the issuing of religious edicts (fatwas) would be restricted to the Official Council of Senior Clergy. The decree was intended to outlaw the declaration of controversial fatwas and rein in radicalism. In September, the Communications and Information Technology Commission shut down several websites for violating the decree.

In January 2010, Saudi military forces and the Yemeni-based Houthi rebel group agreed to a ceasefire after several months of bloody fighting along the Saudi-Yemeni border. 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 placed additional 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, though the results of these efforts remain unclear. 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. The kingdom enjoyed moderate economic growth in 2009 and 2010.

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. Initially scheduled for 2009, authorities announced that year that the next round of municipal elections would be postponed until at least 2011. 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 the 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 London-based activists.

Corruption remains a significant problem. In May 2010, King Abdullah ordered the prosecution of over 40 officials in the city of Jeddah on charges of corruption and mismanagement after widespread floods killed over 120 people in November 2009.

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 May 2010, Jamal Khashoggi resigned as editor of the daily Al-Watan after coming under pressure for publishing an opinion piece critical of conservative Islam. Khashoggi had previously been fired from the same position at Al-Watan in 2003 after criticizing the country's religious police and engaging in a dispute with the interior minister; he returned as editor in 2007.

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 2009, authorities instituted a ban on 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. In March 2010, authorities seized books published by the prominent Saudi political reform activist and critic of the government, Abdullah al-Hamed, at the Riyadh International Book Fair. 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 an effort to eliminate extremist religious instruction, the Interior Ministry had fired or transferred approximately 2,000 teachers accused of disseminating dangerous views to students as of July 2010. The education ministry announced plans in October to establish several new research institutes at Saudi universities, pursue stronger relationships with other Arab educational institutions, and provide funding for Saudi university students traveling within Saudi Arabia for research purposes.

Freedoms of association and assembly are not upheld. The government frequently detains political activists who stage demonstrations or engage in other civic advocacy. Despite the ban, 200 unemployed Saudi university graduates held a demonstration in August 2010 demanding jobs.

A 2005 labor law extended various protections and benefits to previously unregulated categories of workers. The legislation also banned child labor, set provisions for resolving labor disputes, and established a 75 percent quota for Saudi citizens in each company's workforce. However, 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. In August 2010, over 150 employees at Jadawel International, a Saudi company that builds and manages housing compounds in the kingdom, reported having gone more than six months without pay. Female migrants employed in Saudi homes as domestic workers report regular physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

In 2007, Abdullah established a new Supreme Court and an Appeals Court, whose members are appointed by the king. The new higher courts replaced the old judiciary council, which was widely considered reactionary and inconsistent. A Special Higher Commission of judicial experts was formed in 2008 to write laws that would 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 2009, the kingdom began a judicial training program and initiated the construction of new courts.

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 June 2010, authorities arrested the human rights activist Mikhlif bin Dahham al-Shammari for publishing articles complaining about anti-Shiite discrimination in the kingdom; he remained in prison in December.

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 industrial and commercial zones currently being built 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 in some cases 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. 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. Moreover, Saudi women seeking access to the courts must be represented by a male. In January 2010, Sawsan al-Salim was sentenced to 18 months in prison and sentenced to 300 lashes for appearing in court without a male guardian. 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.

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. Women gained the right to hold commercial licenses in 2004, and Saudi state television began using women as newscasters in 2005. That same year, two women became the first females elected to Jeddah's chamber of commerce. In 2008, the Saudi Human Rights Commission established a women's branch to investigate cases of human rights violations against women and children; it has not yet conducted any serious investigations or brought cases against violators. A 2009 law imposes fines of up to $266,000 for those found guilty of human trafficking.

* 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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