United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Saudi Arabia, -, 30 January 1996, https://www.refworld.org/reference/annualreport/usdos/1996/en/24905 [accessed 27 February 2024]
SAUDI ARABIA Saudi Arabia is a monarchy without elected representative institutions or political parties. It is ruled by King Fahd bin Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud, a son of King Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud, who unified the country in the early 20th century. The King and the Crown Prince are chosen from among the male descendants of King Abd Al-Aziz. There is no written constitution. There is no concept of the separation of religion and state. The Government enforces adherence to the precepts of a rigorously conservative form of Islam--a position that enjoys near-consensus support among Saudi citizens. In 1992 King Fahd appointed a Consultative Council, the Majlis Ash-Shura, and similar provincial assemblies. The Council began holding sessions in 1994. The Government does not permit the establishment of political parties and suppresses opposition views. The legal system is based on Shari'a, or Islamic law. Most Saudis respect the legal system which they believe is divinely inspired. Police and border forces under the Ministry of Interior are responsible for internal security. Members of the security forces committed abuses. The Mutawwa'in, or Religious Police, compose the Committee to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue, a semiautonomous agency that encourages adherence to Islamic values by monitoring public behavior. The Mutawwa'in are government employees; however, private citizens sometimes represent themselves as Mutawwa'in when in fact they are not. The Mutawwa'in continued to confront, and sometimes abuse, citizens and foreigners of both sexes. The oil industry has transformed Saudi Arabia from a pastoral, agricultural, and commercial society to a rapidly urbanizing one characterized by large-scale infrastructure projects, the emergence of a welfare state, and millions of foreign workers. Oil revenues account for 37 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 72 percent of government income. Agriculture accounts for only about 8 percent of GDP. Government spending, including spending on the national airline, power, water, telephone, education and health services, accounts for 36 percent of GDP. About 37 percent of the economy is in private hands, and the Government is promoting further privatization of the economy. The Government commits or tolerates serious abuses. Aspects of the law prohibit or restrict freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association. There is systematic discrimination against women, and strict limitations, and even suppression, of the rights of workers and ethnic and religious minorities. Ministry of Interior officers allegedly abused prisoners and facilitated incommunicado detention in contradiction of Saudi law, but with the acquiescence of the Government. Arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention are problems, as well as violence against women. There is no mechanism for citizens to change their government. Since the death of King Abd Al-Aziz, the King and Crown Prince have been chosen from among his sons, who themselves have had preponderant influence in the choice. A 1992 royal decree reserves for the King exclusive power to name the Crown Prince. The Government bases its legitimacy on governance according to Islamic law. The Government disagrees with internationally accepted definitions of human rights and views Islamic law as the only necessary guide to protect human rights.
Respect for Human Rights
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings by government officials. However, in August Abdullah Bin Abd Al-Rahman Al-Hidaif, a supporter of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), an opposition group based in London, was sentenced to death by a Saudi court and executed for the 1994 attempted murder by acid of an Interior Ministry official. Al-Hidaif's execution, by beheading, was carried out as a form of "Ta'zeer"--as punishment justifiably disproportionate to the crime so as to deter others who might contemplate similar crimes, or even sympathize with acts of political resistance that bring disunity to the community. Nine others associated with Al-Hidaif were sentenced to prison terms for related crimes (see Sections 1.d. and 1.e.). In November unidentified assailants set off two car bombs near the Saudi National Guard headquarters in Riyadh, killing 6 people, including 5 Americans, and wounding 60. At least two previously unknown groups claimed responsibility, but their statements shed no light on the identity of the perpetrators. Another obscure group warned twice earlier in the year that U.S. and British military personnel would become "legitimate targets" if they did not depart the Kingdom. A government investigation into the bombing was ongoing at year's end.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
There were credible reports that the authorities continued to torture and otherwise abuse detainees, including foreigners. A common method of torture is beating, especially "fallaqa," which is a beating on the soles of the feet. The authorities also deprive detainees of sleep. Ministry of Interior officers are allegedly responsible for most incidents of abuse. The Government's failure to announce the punishment of human rights abusers has contributed to the public perception that abuses may be committed with impunity. An acquaintance of detained religious activist Salman Al-Awdah claimed that the cleric was hospitalized in January with a kidney ailment following beatings at the hands of Interior Ministry officials. It is not possible to verify such claims. The Mutawwa'in and uniformed policemen were also responsible for abuse. On the eve of the new year, Mutaww'in raided a private party and arrested dozens of young Saudis and foreigners, including minors, for associating with unrelated persons of the opposite sex, and for suspicion of possessing alcohol. One detainee was chained to a chair after arrest and struck by several Mutawwa'in. He was later forced to stand with his arms outstretched; whenever his arms lowered from exhaustion, a uniformed policeman would ignite a cigarette lighter under his outstretched arms and fingers. Other persons attending the party were also physically abused during and after their arrest. The Government rigorously observes criminal punishments according to its interpretation of Islamic law, including amputation for repeated theft, execution by beheading, and stoning. In 1995 the authorities beheaded 191 persons, including 5 women. Whereas in 1994 all persons executed had been convicted of one of only three capital offenses--rape, murder, or drug trafficking--persons were executed in 1995 for a wider variety of crimes, including alcohol trafficking, armed robbery, adultery, practicing witchcraft, and attempted murder. The 1995 total was considerably higher than the 59 executed in 1994. There were twice as many non-Saudi executed as Saudis. In accordance with Shari'a, repeated thievery is punished by amputation of the right hand. In 1995 they imposed this punishment on two Saudis and seven foreigners, including one woman. One Sudanese convicted of murder had a hand and a leg amputated. For less serious crimes, such as drunkenness or publicly flouting Islamic precepts, flogging with a cane is frequently the punishment. Conditions in standard jails and prisons vary throughout the kingdom. Prisons, particularly in the Eastern Province, are of generally high quality, with air-conditioned cells, good nutrition, regular exercise, and careful patrolling by prison guards. Some detainees in police station jails, however, have complained of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions under which dozens of inmates share a communal cell and a single toilet cut into the cell floor. Family members are allowed access. Boards of Investigation and Public Prosecution, organized on a regional basis, were established by the King in 1993. The members of these boards have the right to inspect prisons, review prisoners' files, and hear their complaints. The Government, however, does not permit visits to jails or prisons by human rights monitors. Some officials from foreign embassies have been granted regular access to incarcerated foreign citizens. No impartial observer is allowed access to specialized Ministry of Interior prisons, such as Al-Hair Prison south of Riyadh, where the Government detains persons accused of political subversion. Representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are present at the Rafha refugee camp housing former Iraqi prisoners of war and civilians who fled Iraq following the Gulf War. According to UNHCR officials, there is no systematic abuse of refugees by camp guards. When occasional instances of abuse are reported, the Saudi authorities are generally responsive and willing to reprimand abusive guards. The camp itself is comfortable and well-run.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest. However, arresting officers have traditionally exercised broad discretion in determining the grounds for arrest and have frequently set their own standards for the rights of detainees. As a result, there have traditionally been few procedures to safeguard against abuse. Authorities usually detain suspects for no longer than 3 days before charging them, in accordance with a regulation issued by the Ministry of Interior in 1983, although serious exceptions have been reported. The regulation also has provisions for bail in cases involving other than major crimes. Also, detainees are sometimes released on the recognizance of a patron or sponsoring employer without the payment of bail. If not released, the accused are detained on average 1 to 2 months before going to trial, although there are reports of persons having been detained for years awaiting action on their cases. The UNHCR reported that seven Iraqi refugees in Rafha camp were arrested December 1992 following the murder of a fellow refugee. After 2 1/2 years of incarceration, six of the detainees were released in June, having never been tried or officially charged. There is no established procedure providing detainees with the right to inform their family of their arrest. If asked, the authorities usually confirm an arrest of foreign residents. In general, however, embassies learn about such arrests through informal channels. The authorities may take as long as several months to provide official notification of the arrest of foreigners, if at all. In capital cases, foreigners have been tried and executed without notification of their arrest delivered to their embassies. The Mutawwa'in have the authority to detain people for no more than 24 hours for violation of behavior standards. However, they sometimes exceed this limit before delivering detainees to the regular police (see Section 1.f.). Current procedures require a police officer to accompany the Mutawwa'in before the latter makes an arrest, although this requirement is often ignored. A number of long-term foreign residents have attested that the Mutawwa'in are much more active in harassing individuals than a decade ago, and have become increasingly active since the Gulf War. Detainees arrested by the General Directorate of Investigation (GDI), the Ministry of Interior's Security Service, or "Mubahith," are commonly held incommunicado during the initial phase of an investigation, which may last weeks or months. The GDI allows the detainees only limited contact with their families or lawyers. The authorities often detain without charge people who publicly criticize the Government or charge them with attempting to destabilize the Government (see Sections 2.a. and 3). In August the Government sentenced one Saudi man to 5 years in prison in part for possessing leaflets and posters mentioning the CDLR, and another to 3 years in prison for attending meetings in support of the group and its exiled spokesman, Mohammad Al-Mas'ari. Both were associates of Abdullah Bin Abd Al-Rahman Al-Hidaif, who was executed for assaulting a security official with acid (see Sections 1.a. and 1.e.). The vociferously antigovernment CDLR has made repeated claims that more than 300 clerics are currently detained for political reasons, although this number is impossible to corroborate. The authorities continued to detain Salman Al-Awdah and Safar Al-Hawali, Muslim clerics who were arrested in September 1994 for publicly criticizing the Government. Their detention sparked protest demonstrations resulting in the arrest of 157 persons for antigovernment activities in October 1994. At the end of 1994, 27 remained in detention pending investigations; the Government did not announced the release of any of those detainees during the year. The thousands of prisoners and detainees released in February under the annual Ramadan amnesty included no political dissidents.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The independence of the judiciary is prescribed by law and is usually respected in practice, although judges occasionally accede to the influence of members of the royal family and their associates. Judicial, financial, and administrative control of the courts rests with the Ministry of Justice. Jurisprudence is based on Shari'a, or Islamic law. Regular Shari'a courts exercise jurisdiction over common criminal cases and civil suits regarding marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. These courts base judgments largely on the Koran and on the Sunna, the authenticated actions and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. Cases involving relatively small penalties are tried in summary courts; more serious crimes are adjudicated in general courts. Appeals from both courts are heard by the appeals courts in Mecca and Riyadh. Other civil proceedings, including those involving claims against the Government and enforcement of foreign judgments, are held before specialized administrative tribunals, such as the Commission for the Settlement of Labor Disputes and the Board of Grievances. The military justice system has jurisdiction over uniformed personnel and civil servants charged with violations of military regulations. Court-martial decisions are reviewed by the Minister of Defense and Aviation and by the King. The Government permits Shi'a Muslims to use their own legal tradition to adjudicate only noncriminal cases within their community. There is a Supreme Judicial Council, which is not a court and may not reverse decisions made by an appeals court. However, the Council may refer decisions back to the lower courts for reconsideration. Its members are appointed by the King, as are most senior jurists, called muftis. Only the Council may discipline or remove a judge. There is also a Council of Senior Religious Scholars, which is an autonomous body of 15 senior religious jurists, including the Minister of Justice. It establishes the legal principles to guide lower court judges in deciding individual cases. Defendants usually appear without an attorney before a judge, who determines guilt or innocence in accordance with Shari'a standards. Defense lawyers may offer their client advice before trial or may attend the trial as interpreters for those unfamiliar with Arabic. The courts do not provide foreign defendants with translators. There is no licensing procedure for lawyers. Individuals may choose any person to represent them by a "power of attorney" filed with the court and the Ministry of Justice. Most trials are closed. In the absence of two witnesses, or four witnesses in the case of adultery, confessions before a judge are almost always required for criminal conviction--a situation which repeatedly has led prosecuting authorities to seek forced confessions. Sentencing is not uniform and may vary according to the nationality of the defendant. Under Shari'a law, as interpreted and applied in Saudi Arabia, crimes against Muslims receive harsher penalties than those against non-Muslims. In the case of wrongful death, the amount of indemnity or "blood money" awarded to relatives varies with the nationality, religion, and sex of the victim. A sentence may be changed at any stage of review, except for punishments stipulated by the Koran. Provincial governors have the authority to exercise leniency and reduce a judge's sentence. In some instances, governors have reportedly threatened and even detained judges over disagreements on their decisions. In general, the public perceives members of the royal family, and other powerful families, as not subject to the same rule of law as ordinary citizens. For example, judges do not have the power to issue a warrant summoning any member of the royal family. The King and his advisors review cases involving capital punishment to ensure that the court applied the proper legal and Islamic principles. The King has the authority to grant pardons and commute death sentences but does not have the authority to pardon capital crimes committed against individuals. In such cases, he may request the victim's next of kin to pardon the murderer--usually in return for compensation from the family or the King. There is insufficient information to determine the number of political prisoners because the Government does not provide information on such persons or respond to inquiries about them. Moreover, the Government conducts closed trials for persons who may be political prisoners and in other cases has detained persons incommunicado for long periods while under investigation. At year's end, at least nine persons were serving prison terms for their connections to CDLR and alleged involvement in the 1994 assault on an Interior Ministry official (see Sections 1.c. and 1.d.).
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. Royal decrees announced in 1992 include provisions calling for the Government to defend the home from unlawful incursions. The police must generally demonstrate reasonable cause and obtain permission from the provincial governor before searching a private home, but warrants are not required. However, some Mutawwa'in continued to enter homes forcibly, searching for evidence of non-Islamic behavior, and harassing and abusing perceived transgressors. Customs officials routinely open mail for contraband including material deemed pornographic as well as non-Muslim religious material. They regularly confiscate materials deemed offensive. The authorities use informants, wiretaps, and open mail in internal security matters. The Government enforces most social and Islamic religious norms, which are matters of law (see Section 5). Women may not marry non-Saudis without government permission; men must obtain approval from the Ministry of Interior to marry women from countries outside the 6 states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Although women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims, men have the right to marry Christians and Jews, in accordance with Islamic law. Both citizens and foreigners were targets of harassment by members of the Mutawwa'in and by religious vigilantes acting independently of the Mutawwa'in. The Government enjoins the Mutawwa'in to follow established procedures and to offer instruction in a polite manner; following especially egregious altercations, the authorities have temporarily exerted tighter control over the Mutawwa'in. The Government, however, has not condemned the actions of religious vigilantes or sought to disband such groups. Mutawwa'in enforcement of strict standards of social behavior included the closure of commercial establishments during the daily prayer observances, modest dress in public, and avoidance of video tape rental shops. They harassed Saudi and foreign women for failure to observe strict dress codes, and for being in the company of males who are not their close relatives. They also harassed and arrested non-Muslims attempting to conduct religious services (see Section 2.c.).
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The law severely limits freedom of speech and press. The authorities do not countenance criticism of Islam, the ruling family, or the Government. Persons whose criticisms align them with an organized political opposition are subject to arrest and detention until they confess their crime or sign a statement promising not to resume such criticisms, which is tantamount to a confession. In 1994 CDRL spokesman Al-Mas'ari secretly fled to the United Kingdom, where he sought political asylum and established an overseas branch of the CDLR (see sections 1.c., 1.d. and 4). After the CDLR criticized the Government in the international press in 1993, security forces detained 38 of its members, including Al-Mas'ari, confiscated their passports, and forbade them to travel or speak publicly. The authorities dismissed several founding members from their government jobs. They subsequently released the detainees after they signed statements promising not to discuss the Government's policies or communicate with anyone outside the country by telephone or facsimile machine. Al-Mas'ari was released in November 1993 after spending 6 months in detention. In the United Kingdom, Al-Mas'ari continued to disseminate tracts critical of the Government, particularly of King Fahd, Interior Minister Prince Naif, and Riyadh governor Prince Salman. His publicized views have expressed opposition to peace with Israel and to Saudi support for the peace process. After Al-Mas'ari fled, security forces arrested 15 to 20 of his relatives and supporters. In late 1994, the Government released several of these detainees, including Dr. Fouad Dahlawi; Al-Mas'ari's brother, Lu'ay Al-Mas'ari; and Al-Mas'ari's brothers-in-law, Rashad and Nabil Al-Mudarris. The Government did not publicly acknowledge the detention of any CDLR supporter until August when it sentenced nine remaining detainees to prison terms and executed another (see Sections 1.a. and 1.d.). The press is privately owned but publicly subsidized. A 1982 media policy statement and a 1965 national security law prohibit the dissemination of criticism of the Government. The Media Policy Statement urges journalists to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve the cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Information appoints, and may remove, the editors in chief. It also provides guidelines to newspapers on controversial issues. The Government owns the Saudi Press Agency, which expresses official government views. Newspapers typically publish domestic news on sensitive subjects, such as crime or terrorism, only after the authorities arrest and sentence the perpetrators. The Government suppresses any news regarded as a threat to national security. However, the Saudi media coverage of the November bombing of the National Guard headquarters was complete and timely. The press reports most foreign news objectively unless it has adverse implications for Saudi Arabia. The authorities censor stories about the Kingdom in the foreign press. Censors may remove or blacken the offending articles, glue pages together, or prevent certain issues of foreign publications from entering the market. The Government tightly restricts the entry of foreign journalists into the Kingdom. The Government owns and operates the television and radio companies. Government censors review foreign programs and songs, often removing any reference to politics, religions other than Islam, pork or pigs, alcohol, or sexual innuendo. There are as many as 300,000 satellite receiving dishes which provide citizens with foreign broadcasts. The legal status of these devices is ambiguous. The Government ordered a halt to their import in 1992--at the request of religious leaders who objected to foreign programming available on satellite channels. In March 1994, the Government banned the sale, installation, and maintenance of dishes and supporting devices, but the number of dishes continues to increase and residents may legally subscribe to satellite decoding services that require a dish. The Government censors all forms of public artistic expression. The authorities prohibit cinemas and public musical or theatrical performances, except those that are strictly folkloric. Academic freedom is restricted. The authorities prohibit the study of evolution, Freud, Marx, Western music, and Western philosophy. Some professors believe that government and conservative religious informers monitor their classroom comments.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Government strictly limits these freedoms. It prohibits public demonstrations as a means of political expression and the establishment of political parties or any type of opposition group (see Section 3). By its power to license associations, the Government ensures that groups conform to public policy. Rare exceptions occur. Public meetings are segregated by sex. Unless meetings are sponsored by diplomatic missions or approved by the appropriate governor, foreign residents seeking to hold unsegregated meetings risk arrest and deportation. The authorities monitor any large gathering of people, especially of women.
c. Freedom of Religion
Freedom of religion does not exist. Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. The Government prohibits the practice of other religions. In December seven Indian nationals were reportedly arrested in the city of Jubayl for conducting Christmas services. They were soon released after their embassy's intervention. An undetermined number of Filipinos were arrested in Damman on the same charge. Conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy. Public apostasy is a crime under Shari'a law and punishable by death. There were no executions in 1995 for apostasy, although one Saudi man--by law a Muslim--was executed for practicing witchcraft. Islamic practice is generally limited to that of the Wahhabi sect's interpretation of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Practices contrary to this interpretation, such as visits to the graves of renowned Muslims, are discouraged. The Shi'a Muslim minority (500,000 of over 12 million citizens) lives mostly in the Eastern Province. They are the objects of officially sanctioned social and economic discrimination (see Section 5). Prior to 1990, the Government prohibited Shi'ite public processions during the Islamic month of Muharram and restricted other processions and congregations to designated areas in the major Shi'ite cities. Since 1990, the authorities have permitted marches on the Shi'a holiday of Ashura, provided that the marchers do not display banners or engage in self-flagellation. In June the Ashura commemorations in the Eastern Province passed without incident. The Government seldom permits private construction of Shi'ite mosques. The Shi'a have declined government offers to build state-supported mosques because Shi'ite motifs would be prohibited in them. One of the 60 members of the Majlis Ash-Shura is a Shi'a. The Government does not permit public or private non-Muslim religious activities. Persons wearing religious symbols of any kind in public risk confrontation with the Mutawwa'in. The general prohibition against religious symbols applies also to Muslims. A Muslim wearing a Koranic necklace in public would be admonished. Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, lashing, and deportation for engaging in any religious activity that attracts official attention.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
The Government restricts the travel of Saudi women, who must obtain written permission from their closest male relative before the authorities will allow them to board public transportation between different parts of the country or travel abroad (see Section 5). Saudi males may travel anywhere within the country. The Government requires foreign residents to carry identification cards. It does not permit foreigners to travel outside the city of their employment or change their workplace without their sponsor's permission. Foreign residents who travel in the Kingdom are often asked by the authorities to show they that possess letters of permission from their employers. Sponsors generally retain possession of the workers' passports. Foreign workers must obtain permission from their sponsors to travel abroad. If sponsors are involved in a commercial or labor dispute with foreign employees, they may ask the authorities to prohibit the employees from departing the country until the dispute is resolved. Some sponsors use this pressure tactic to resolve disputes in their favor--or to have foreign employees deported. The Government seizes the passports of all potential suspects and witnesses in criminal cases and suspends the issuance of exit visas to them, until the case is tried. As a result, some foreign nationals are forced to remain in the Kingdom for lengthy periods against their will. The authorities sometimes confiscate the passports of suspected subversives. The Government prevents Shi'a Muslims believed to have pro-Iranian sympathies from traveling abroad. Citizens may emigrate, but the law prohibits dual citizenship. There are no provisions for long-term foreign residents to acquire citizenship. However, foreigners are granted citizenship in rare cases, generally through the advocacy of an influential patron. The 1992 Basic Law provides that "the State will grant political asylum if the public interest mitigates" in favor of it. The language does not specify clear rules for adjudicating asylum cases. In general, the authorities regard refugees and displaced persons like other foreign workers: they must have sponsors for employment or risk expulsion. Of the 35,000 Iraqi civilians and former prisoners of war allowed refuge in Saudi Arabia at the end of the Gulf War, none has been granted permanent asylum by the Saudis. At year's end, 21,000 of the original 35,000 had been resettled in third countries or voluntarily repatriated to Iraq. Most of the remaining 14,000 refugees are restricted to the Rafha refugee camp. In 1993 Human Rights Watch reported that refugees were forcibly repatriated to Iraq after staging a riot at the Rafha camp. However, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has monitored over 2,700 persons voluntarily returning to Iraq from Rafha since December 1991 and found no evidence of forcible repatriation of bona fide camp refugees. However, Iraqis who have attempted to infiltrate the camp subsequent to December 1991, who are not recognized as refugees by Saudi authorities, have been turned back. The Government has temporarily allowed some foreigners to remain in Saudi Arabia in cases where their safety would be jeopardized if they were deported to their home countries.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
Citizens do not have the right to change their government. There are no formal democratic institutions, and only a few citizens have a voice in the choice of leaders or in changing the political system. The King rules in matters civil and religious within certain limitations established by religious law, tradition, and the need to maintain consensus among the ruling family and religious leaders. The King is also the Prime Minister, and the Crown Prince serves as first deputy Prime Minister. The King appoints all other ministers, who in turn appoint subordinate officials with cabinet concurrence. In 1993 the King appointed 60 members to a Consultative Council, or Majlis Ash-Shura. This strictly advisory body began to hold sessions in 1994, but the Council has maintained a very low profile and has not publicized its work in detail. The Council of Senior Islamic Scholars is another advisory body to the King and the Cabinet. It issues decisions based on Shari'a law supporting the Government's public policies. The Government uses the Council as an important source of religious legitimacy. Communication between citizens and the Government is usually expressed through client-patron relationships and by affinity groups such as tribes, families, and professional hierarchies. In theory, any male citizen or foreign national may express an opinion or air a grievance at a Majlis--an open-door meeting held by the King, a prince, or an important national and local official. However, as governmental functions have become more complex, time-consuming, and centralized, public access to senior officials has become more restricted. After the assassination of King Faisal in 1975, Saudi kings have reduced the frequency of their personal contacts with the public. Access to King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah by ordinary citizens is difficult, in part due to strict security measures. Ministers and district governors more readily grant audience at a Majlis. Participation by women is restricted, although some women seek redress through female members of the royal family. 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.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
There are no publicly active human rights groups, and none critical of government policies would be permitted. The Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights was established in 1993 by six citizens. CDLR does not advocate internationally recognized human rights but takes a rigidly Islamic fundamentalist approach. Statements by CDLR supporters have advocated policies and actions that are antiwomen and anti-Shi'a. Other statements, attributed to its London-based spokesman, Muhammed Al Masari, have expressed the group's "understanding" of the National Guard headquarters bombing (see Section 1.a.). After its establishment, the Government acted quickly to repress CDLR (see Section 2.a.). The Government does not permit visits by international human rights groups or independent monitors, nor has it signed major international human rights treaties and conventions. The Government disagrees with internationally accepted definitions of human rights and views Islamic law as the only necessary guide to protect human rights. Citations of Saudi human rights abuses by international monitors or foreign governments are routinely ignored or condemned by the Government as assaults on Islam. Sharp criticism leveled by the Government of Turkey over the execution in August of four Turkish citizens for smuggling amphetamines prompted the Government to issue a strong defense of the Shari'a legal code.
Section 5 .Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
Systematic discrimination based on sex and religion are built into Saudi law. Saudi law forbids discrimination based on race, but not nationality. The Government and private organizations cooperate in providing services for the disabled. There are no indigenous linguistic minorities in Saudi Arabia.
Hospital workers report that many women are admitted for treatment of injuries that apparently result from spousal violence. Some foreign women married to Saudis have suffered physical abuse from the spouse or father-in-law. Embassy officials must seek the assistance of government officials to intervene in such cases. The Government does not keep statistics on spousal or other forms of violence against women. Embassies receive many reports that employers abuse foreign women working as domestic servants. Embassies of countries with large domestic servant populations maintain safehouses to which citizens may flee from abusive employers. In August one such safehouse held 68 residents escaping work situations that included forced confinement, withholding of food, beating and other physical abuse, and rape. Often the abuse is at the hands of female Saudis. In general, the Government considers such cases as family matters and does not intervene unless charges of abuse are brought to its attention. It is almost impossible for foreign women to obtain redress in the courts due to the courts' 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 which can assist these women. By religious law and social custom, women have the right to own property and are entitled to financial support from their husbands or male relatives. However, women have few political and social rights and are not treated as equal members of society. There are no active women's rights groups, nor would one be tolerated by the Government. Women, including foreigners, may not legally drive motor vehicles or ride bicycles and are restricted in their use of public facilities when men are present. Women must enter city buses by separate rear entrances and sit in specially designated sections. Women risk arrest by the Mutawwa'in for riding in a vehicle driven by a male who is not an employee or a close male relative. Women are not admitted to a hospital for medical treatment without the consent of their male relative. By law and custom, women may not undertake domestic and foreign travel alone (see Section 2.d.). In public women are expected to wear the abaya, a black garment covering the entire body. A woman's head and face should also be covered. The Mutawwa'in generally expect women from Arab countries, Asia, and Africa to comply more fully with Saudi customs of dress than they do Western women; nonetheless, in recent years they have increased pressure on Western women to wear the abaya and cover their hair. Women are also subject to discrimination in Islamic law which stipulates that daughters receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers--reflecting the fact that men have financial obligations to their mothers and sisters. In a Shari'a court, the testimony of one man equals that of two women. Although Islamic law permits polygamy for men, it is becoming less common. Islamic law allows a husband four wives, provided that he treats each wife equally. In practice, such equality is left to the discretion of the husband. The Government places greater restrictions on women than on men regarding marriage to non-Saudis and non-Muslims (see Section 1.f.). Women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce, but men may divorce without giving cause. If divorced or widowed, a woman normally may keep her children until they attain a specified age: 7 years for boys, 9 years for girls. Children over these ages are awarded to the divorced husband or the deceased husband's family. Divorced women who are foreigners are often prevented by their former husbands from visiting their children after divorce. Women have access to free, but segregated, education through the university level. They constitute 55 percent of all university graduates--but are excluded from studying such subjects as engineering, journalism, and architecture. Men are able to study overseas; women may do so only if accompanied by a spouse or an immediate male relative. Women comprise only 5 percent of the work force. Whereas salary and other benefits are the main concerns for men seeking employment, for women the primary goal is merely establishing some toehold in the private or public sector. Most employment opportunities for women are in education and health care, with lesser opportunity in business, philanthropy, banking, retail sales, and the media. Women wishing to enter nontraditional fields are subject to discrimination. Women may not accept jobs in rural areas if they are required to live apart from their families. All workplaces where women are present are segregated by sex. Contact with male supervisors or clients is allowed by telephone or facsimile machine. In July the Ministry of Commerce announced that women would no longer be issued business licenses for work in fields that might require them to supervise foreign workers, interact with male clients, or deal on a regular basis with government officials.
The Government provides all Saudi children with free education and medical care. Children are highly valued in society, and large families are common. Children are not subject to the strict social segregation faced by women, though they are segregated by sex in schools starting at age 7. In more general social situations, boys are segregated at age 12, and girls at the onset of puberty. It is difficult to gauge the prevalence of child abuse, since the Government keeps no statistics on such cases and is disinclined to infringe on family privacy. Societal abuse of children does not appear to be a major problem.
People with Disabilities
Traditionally, disabled individuals were secluded within the family, but the provision of government social services has increasingly brought them into the public domain. Public awareness and acceptance of the disabled are growing. The press features articles lauding the public accomplishments of disabled persons and sharply criticizing parents who neglect disabled children. The Government and private charitable organizations cooperate in education, employment, and other services for the disabled. The law provides hiring quotas for the disabled. While there is no legislation for public accessibility, newer commercial buildings often include such access.
The Government is intolerant of the practice of any non-Islamic religion. It also imposes restrictions on the Shi'a Muslim minority (see Section 2.c.). Shi'a citizens are discriminated against in government and employment, especially in national security jobs. Several years ago the Government subjected Shi'a to employment restrictions in the oil industry and has not relaxed them. Some Sunni clerics, including Al-Awdah and one CDLR founder, have made strong anti-Shi'a statements (see Section 2.a.). Shi'a also face restrictions on access to several 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. Some Sunni clerics advocate stronger government discriminatory measures against Shi'a citizens, accusing them of polytheism and apostasy--capital offenses punishable by beheading.
Although racial discrimination is illegal, there is substantial societal prejudice based on ethnic or national origin. Foreign workers from Africa and Asia are subject to various forms of formal and informal discrimination and have the most difficulty in obtaining justice for their grievances.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
Government decrees prohibit the establishment of labor unions and any strike activity. Since July Saudi Arabia has been suspended from the U. S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) insurance programs because of the Government's lack of compliance with internationally recognized worker rights standards.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
Collective bargaining is forbidden. Foreign workers comprise about half of the work force. Wages are set by employers and vary according to the nationality of the worker. There are no export processing zones.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
Forced labor has been prohibited since 1962 by the royal decree that abolished slavery. Ratification of the International Labor Organization's (ILO) conventions 29 and 105, which prohibit forced labor, has the force of law. However, employers have significant control over the movements of foreign employees, giving rise to situations that might involve forced labor--especially in remote areas where workers are unable to leave their place of work. Sometimes sponsors prevent foreign workers from obtaining exit visas to pressure them to sign a new work contract or to drop claims against their employers for unpaid salary. In another pressure tactic, sponsors may refuse to provide foreign workers with a "letter of no objection" which would allow them to be employed by another sponsor. The labor laws do not protect domestic servants. There were credible reports that female domestic servants were sometimes forced to work 12 to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. There were numerous confirmed reports of runaway maids (see Section 5). The authorities often returned runaway maids to their employers against the maids' wishes. There have been many reports of workers whose employers have refused to pay several months, or even years, of accumulated salary or other promised benefits. Nondomestic workers with such grievances have the right to complain before the labor courts, but few do so because of fear of deportation. The Government abets the exploitation of foreign workers because the system for enforcing work contracts is weak and generally favors Saudi employers. Labor cases can take many months to reach a final ruling, during which time the employer may prevent the foreign laborer from leaving the country; alternatively, an employer may delay a case until a worker's funds are exhausted and the worker is forced to leave the country.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
The minimum age for employment is 13 years, which may be waived by the Ministry of Labor with the consent of the juvenile's guardian. There is no minimum age for workers employed in family-oriented businesses or in other situations that are construed as extensions of the household, e.g., farmers, herdsmen, and domestic servants. Workers in such fields are not protected by labor regulations. 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 Ministry of Justice 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. Labor regulations establish a 48-hour workweek at regular pay and allow employers to require up to 12 additional hours of overtime at time-and-a-half pay. Labor law provides for a 24-hour rest period, normally Fridays, although the employer may grant it on another day. Many foreign nationals who have been recruited abroad have complained that after arrival in Saudi Arabia they were presented with work contracts specifying lower wages and fewer benefits than originally promised. Other foreign workers have reportedly signed contracts in their home countries and were later pressured to sign less favorable contracts after arrival. Reliable reports indicate that the length of service called for in the original contract is sometimes increased after arrival by as much as 3 years. Some employees report that at the end of their contract service, their employers refuse to grant permission to allow them to return home. The ILO has stated that the Government has not formulated legislation implementing the ILO Convention on Equal Pay and that regulations which segregate work places by sex, and limit vocational programs for women, violate ILO Convention 111. Labor regulations require employers to protect most workers from job-related hazards and disease. Foreign nationals report frequent failures to enforce health and safety standards. Workers in family operated businesses, farmers, herdsmen, and domestic servants are not covered by these regulations.
In this section
U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Saudi Arabia
Discrimination based on race, nationality, ethnicity
Economic, social and cultural rights
Freedom from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment
Freedom of assembly and association
Freedom of expression
Freedom of movement
Freedom of religion
Freedom of speech
Human rights and fundamental freedoms
Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV)
Social group discrimination
Trafficking in persons
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