The Saudi Arabian authorities were deeply disturbed by the Arab uprisings of 2011, particularly the eruption of popular protests in neighbouring Bahrain and Yemen. The ongoing protests and activism by the majority Shi'a in Bahrain, who are calling for full political rights and integration, have created fear among the Saudi royal family that the Shi'a minority in the country will increase their demands for equality. This deep sense of threat was reflected in new anti-terrorism legislation passed in July 2011 that criminalized political dissent and allowed the government to jail anyone who questioned the integrity of the King for a minimum of 10 years.

Saudi Arabia's 2 million Shi'a are mostly concentrated in the kingdom's eastern province, where most of the oil fields are located. Since Sunni Islam is the dominant religion of Saudi Arabia, and the strict Wahhabi interpretation is the official Islamic school of the state, practice of any other faith is not permitted, even in private.

The 2011 Arab uprisings encouraged a growing civil rights movement among Saudi Shi'a, and there were several protests in Shi'a towns. In February, there were peaceful marches in the Shi'a towns of Safwa and Qatif in the Eastern Province. In early March, around 24 Shi'a were detained following protests in the city of al-Qatif, denouncing the prolonged detention without trial of Shi'a prisoners. They were released shortly after without charge, reportedly only after they signed a pledge not to protest again. Clashes broke out in 'Awwamiyya, a Shi'a town, in October; 11 security personnel were injured and three citizens, two of them women. On 25 November, four Shi'a men were killed in protests in the most serious outbreak of violence in the Kingdom in 2011 in the Qatif region.

Shi'a cleric Shaikh Tawfiq al-'Amir has been a frequent target of the Saudi authorities. In February, he was arrested for apparently calling for a constitutional monarchy and equal rights for Shi'a in his Friday sermon, but was subsequently released. In August, he was arrested again for statements made in sermons during Friday prayers, although Amnesty International said no formal charges were made.

As with all Arab Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia has for years mistreated domestic migrant workers from countries such as Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Migrant Care and HRW have both documented how domestic migrant workers are often deceived during the recruitment process and made to pay large fees, leaving them heavily in debt. They often work up to 18 hours a day, and some are beaten or raped by their employers. They are excluded from labour laws, and there is poor government oversight on both recruiters and employers. The consent of employers is needed before any worker can leave the country.

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