Report on Human Rights
Practices for 1996--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. The concept of the separation of
religion and state is not accepted by either society or the Government.
The Government maintains adherence to the precepts of a rigorously
conservative form of Islam.
The Government does not permit the establishment of political
parties and suppresses opposition views. In 1992 King Fahd appointed
a Consultative Council, the Majlis Ash-Shura, and similar provincial
assemblies. The Council began holding sessions in 1994. The
judiciary is generally independent but is subject to influence
by the executive branch and members of the royal family.
Police and border forces under the Ministry of Interior are responsible
for internal security. 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. Members of the security forces committed human
The oil industry has fueled the transformation of Saudi Arabia
from a pastoral, agricultural, and commercial society to a rapidly
urbanizing one characterized by large-scale infrastructure projects,
an extensive social welfare system, and a labor market comprised
largely 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 has also undertaken an aggressive
campaign to increase the number of Saudi nationals represented
in the private and public work forces. This has included restrictions
on some categories of foreign workers, for example, limiting certain
occupations to Saudis only, increasing fees for some work visas,
and setting minimum wages for some job categories designed to
increase the cost to employers of non-Saudi labor.
The Government commits and tolerates serious human rights abuses.
There is no mechanism for citizens to change their government,
and citizens do not have this right. 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. Security forces continued
to abuse detainees and to arbitrarily arrest and detain persons.
Ministry of Interior officers abused prisoners and facilitated
incommunicado detention in contradiction of the law, but with
the acquiescence of the Government. Prolonged detention is a
problem. The legal system is subect to executive and royal family
influence. The Government prohibits or restricts freedom of speech,
the press, assembly, association, and religion. Reports of harassment
by the Mutawwa'in decreased in 1995 and 1996, though Mutawwa'in
intimidation, abuse, and detention of citizens and foreigners
of both sexes continued. Other problems include discrimination
and violence against women, suppression of ethnic and religious
minorities, and strict limitations on the rights of workers.
The Government disagrees with internationally accepted definitions
of human rights and views its interpretation of Islamic law as
its sole source of guidance for human rights.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There was one allegation of political or other extrajudicial killings
by government officials. In early December, Haytham Al-Bahir,
a Shi'a student, reportedly died of complications arising from
detention and torture, which aggravated a preexisting medical
On June 25, unknown persons exploded a truck bomb outside a U.S.
military housing complex at Al-Khobar. The bomb killed 19 U.S.
personnel and wounded hundreds of persons. Authorities arrested
dozens of people, and the investigation was continuing at year's
On April 22, the authorities announced the arrest of four persons
for the November 1995 car bombing of a U.S.-run military training
center for Saudi military that killed 7 persons and wounded 60.
All four were tried and found guilty in accordance with Saudi
judicial procedures, which include several levels of appellate
review, and mandatory review by the King prior to their execution
on May 31.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment
There were credible reports that the authorities continued to
abuse detainees, including citizens and foreigners. Ministry
of Interior officers are responsible for most incidents of abuse,
which can include beatings and the deprivation of sleep during
weeks of interrogation resulting in severe weight loss for the
detainee. There were unverified reports of worse abuses. Efforts
to confirm or discount reports of worse abuses, including torture,
are hindered by the Government's refusal to grant members of diplomatic
missions access to the Ministry of Interior detention facilities
or allow members of international human rights groups into the
country. The Government's past failure to denounce human rights
abusers has contributed to the public perception that abuses can
be committed with impunity.
Although reports of harassment by the Mutawwa'in decreased, Mutawwa'in
intimidation, abuse, and detention of citizens and foreigners
of both sexes continued (see Sections 1.d. and 1.e.).
The Government rigorously observes criminal punishments according
to its interpretation of Islamic law, including amputation, flogging,
and execution by beheading or stoning. No executions were performed
during the 5-month period from October 17, 1995, to March 14.
Executions resumed March 15, and by year's end the authorities
had beheaded 40 men and 1 woman for murder, 14 men for rape, 6
men and 2 women for drug offenses, 5 men for armed robbery, and
1 man for witchcraft. In a reversal of previous years, those
executed in 1996 were predominantly Saudi (39 men and 1 woman).
There were no executions by stoning in 1996.
In accordance with Shari'a, the authorities punish repeated thievery
by amputation of the right hand. However, amputation has not
been imposed since June 1995. 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. Family members are allowed access.
Boards of Investigation and Public Prosecution, organized on a
regional basis, were established by King Fahd 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 diplomats have been granted regular access to incarcerated
No impartial observers are 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 (POW's) 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 surface, the authorities are generally responsive and willing
to reprimand offending guards. The camp itself is comparatively
comfortable and well run.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest. Despite the law, however,
officers make arrests and detain persons without following explicit
legal guidelines. There are few procedures to safeguard against
abuse. However, there was a case in 1995 in which a Saudi citizen
successfully sued the Government for wrongful imprisonment and
was awarded compensation.
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
for less serious 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
an average of 1 to 2 months before going to trial.
There is no established procedure providing detainees the right
to inform their family of their arrest. If asked, the authorities
usually confirm the arrest of foreigners to their country's diplomats.
In general, however, foreign diplomats 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 in
the past been tried and executed without notification of their
arrest ever having been given to their government's representatives.
The Mutawwa'in enforce a strict public code of proper dress and
behavior. However, reports of harassment, intimidation, and detention
of those deemed to be violating the code declined in 1995 and
1996. The Mutawwa'in have the authority to detain people for
no more than 24 hours for violation of behavior standards. However,
they sometimes exceeded 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 make an arrest, although this requirement is sometimes
Detainees arrested by the General Directorate of Investigation
(GDI), which is the Ministry of Interior's security service, are
commonly held incommunicado in special prisons during the initial
phase of an investigation, which may last weeks or months. The
GDI allows the detainees only limited contact with their families
The authorities detain without charge people who publicly criticize
the Government, or they charge them with attempting to destabilize
the Government (see Sections 2.a. and 3). 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 that year sparked protest demonstrations
resulting in the arrest of 157 persons for antigovernment activities.
At the end of 1994, 27 of these persons remained in detention
pending investigation; the Government has not announced the release
of any of those detainees in the succeeding 2 years. The thousands
of prisoners and detainees released under the annual Ramadan amnesty
included no political dissidents. The total number of political
detainees is impossible to determine.
The Government does not use forced exile. However, Mohammed al-Masari
and Osama Bin Ladin, two critics of the Government who live outside
of the country, have had their citizenship revoked.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial.
The independence of the judiciary is prescribed by law and is
usually respected in practice. However, judges occasionally accede
to the influence of the executive branch, particularly members
of the royal family and their associates. Moreover, judicial,
financial, and administrative control of the courts rests with
the Ministry of Justice.
The legal system 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, another Islamic text. 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 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 the 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 clients advice before trial or
may attend the trial as interpreters for those unfamiliar with
Arabic. The courts do not provide foreign defendants with translators.
Public defenders are not provided. 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 Ministry of Justice.
Most trials are closed. A woman's testimony does not carry the
same weight as that of a man. In a Shari'a court, the testimony
of one man equals that of two women.
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 that repeatedly has led prosecuting
authorities to coerce confessions from suspects by threats and
Sentencing is not uniform. Foreign residents often receive harsher
penalties than citizens. Under Shari'a, 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, members of the royal family,
and other powerful families, are 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
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 commute death sentences
and grant pardons except for 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 the rigidly fundamentalist Committee for the Defense of Legitimate
Rights (CDLR), an opposition group based in London (see Section
3), and their alleged involvement in a 1994 assault on an Interior
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home,
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.
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
also open mail and use informants and wiretaps in internal security
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 six 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, though on a lesser scale than in 1995. 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 exerted tighter control
over the Mutawwa'in (see Section 1.d.). The Government, however,
has not condemned the actions of religious vigilantes but has
sought to curtail their activities.
Mutawwa'in enforcement of strict standards of social behavior
included the closure of commercial establishments during the daily
prayer observances, insistence upon modest dress in public, and
harassment of patrons of videotape rental shops. They remonstrate
with 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 Government severely limits freedom of speech and the 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.
The print media are 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 (SPA), which expresses official Government views.
Newspapers typically publish news on sensitive subjects, such
as crime or terrorism, only after it has been released by the
SPA or when it has been authorized by a senior government official.
Two Saudi-owned, London-based dailies, Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat and
Al-Hayat, are widely distributed and read in Saudi
Arabia. The authorities continue to censor stories about Saudi
Arabia 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. However, the
Ministry of Information continued to relax its blackout policy
regarding politically sensitive news concerning Saudi Arabia reported
in international media, although press restrictions on reporting
of domestic news remain very stringent. The terrorist bombing
of a U.S. military facility in Al Khobar on June 25 was promptly
reported by the government media.
The Government's policy in this regard appears to be motivated
in part by pragmatic considerations: Saudi access to outside
sources of information, especially Cable News Network and other
satellite television channels, is widespread.
The Government tightly restricts the entry of foreign journalists
into the Kingdom but admitted a markedly increased number into
the country in 1996.
The Government owns and operates the television and radio companies.
Government censors remove any reference to politics, religions
other than Islam, pork or pigs, alcohol, or any sexual innuendo
from foreign programs and songs. Reflecting competition from
outside satellite television networks, Saudi television has introduced
some program changes, including "Face to Face," a weekly
live talk show in which ministers and other senior officials interact
with a moderator and answer phone and facsimile questions from
There are as many as 300,000 satellite receiving dishes in the
Kingdom that 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.
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. There are isolated reports of harassment
and arrest of foreign workers conducting clandestine worship services,
particularly around non-Muslim religious holidays. One Christian
worship service was broken up by police and Mutawwa'in, and the
man who hosted the service was punished by lashing.
Conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered apostasy.
Public apostasy is a crime under Shari'a law and punishable by
Islamic practice is generally limited to that of the Wahhabi sect's
interpretation of the Hanbali School of the Sunni branch of Islam.
Practices contrary to this interpretation, such as visits to
the graves of renowned Muslims, are discouraged.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs directly supervises and is a major
source of funds for the construction and maintenance of almost
all mosques in the country. The Ministry pays the salaries of
all imams and others who work in the mosques. A governmental
committee is responsible for defining the qualifications of imams.
The religious police, or the Mutawwa'in, receive their funding
from the Government and the general president of the Mutawwa'in
holds the rank of minister.
The Shi'a Muslim minority (roughly 500,000 of over 13 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 the marchers
do not display banners or engage
in self-flagellation. In May 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.
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).
Males may travel anywhere within the country or abroad.
Foreigners are typically allowed to reside or work in Saudi Arabia
only under the sponsorship of a Saudi national or business. 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 within the country are
often asked by the authorities to show that they possess letters
of permission from their employer or sponsor.
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 as a 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 country for lengthy periods
against their will. The authorities sometimes confiscate the
passports of suspected oppositionists and their families. Some
husbands of women who participated in a 1991
motorcade through the streets of Riyadh in protest of government
restrictions on female driving reported that, 5 years later, they
still have not had their passports returned. The Government prevents
Shi'a Muslims believed to have pro-Iranian sympathies from traveling
Citizens may emigrate, but the law prohibits dual citizenship.
Apart from marriage to a Saudi national, 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; however, the Government has underwritten the entire
cost of providing safe haven to the Iraqi refugees, and continues
to provide excellent logistical and administrative support to
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and
other resettlement agencies.
At year's end, approximately 25,000 of the original 35,000 Iraqi
refugees had been resettled in third countries or voluntarily
repatriated to Iraq. Most of the remaining 10,000 refugees are
restricted to the Rafha refugee camp. The UNHCR has monitored
over 2,800 persons voluntarily returning to Iraq from Rafha since
December 1991 and found no evidence of forcible repatriation.
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 on civil and religious matters within
certain limitations established by religious law, tradition, and
the need to maintain consensus among the ruling family and religious
The King is also the Prime Minister, and the Crown Prince serves
as Deputy Prime Minister. The King appoints all other
ministers, who in turn appoint subordinate officials with cabinet
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 low profile
and is not regarded as a significant political force by the citizenry
or those in power.
The Council of Senior Islamic Scholars is another advisory body
to the King and the Cabinet. It issues decisions based on Shari'a
in its review of the Government's public policies. The Government
views the Council as an important source of religious legitimacy,
and takes the Council's opinions into account when promulgating
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 or local official. However,
as governmental functions have become more complex, time-consuming,
and centralized, public access to senior officials has become
more restricted. Since the assassination of King Faisal in 1975,
Saudi kings have reduced the frequency of their personal contacts
with the public. Ministers and district governors more readily
grant audiences at a majlis.
Typical topics raised in a majlis are complaints about bureaucratic
delay or insensitivity, requests for personal redress or assistance,
and criticism of particular acts of government affecting family
welfare. Broader "political" concerns--social, economic,
or foreign policy--are rarely raised. Complaints about royal
abuses of power would not be entertained. In general journalists,
academics, and businessmen feel that avenues of domestic criticism
and feedback to the regime are closed.
An opposition group, the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate
Rights, which advocates a rigidly fundamentalist Islamic viewpoint,
was established in 1993 by six citizens. The Government acted
quickly to repress the CDLR following its formation. In 1994
CDLR spokesman Mohammed Al-Masari secretly fled to the United
Kingdom, where he sought political asylum and established an overseas
branch of the CDLR. Al-Masari continued to criticize the Government,
using computers and facsimile transmissions to send newsletters
back to Saudi Arabia. In March internal divisions within the
CDLR spawned the rival Islamic Reform Movement (IRM), headed by
Sa'ad Al-Faqih. Al-Masari has expressed the group's "understanding"
of two fatal terrorist bombings of American military facilities
and sympathy for the perpetrators. The IRM also implicitly condoned
the two terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, arguing that they were
a natural outgrowth of a political system that does not tolerate
In April the Saudi Ambassador in the United Kingdom stated publicly
that his Government would withdraw from large contracts for British
weapons unless the United Kingdom expelled Al-Masari. The British
Government denied Al-Masari's initial request for asylum, due
to the circumstances of his illegal entry, but eventually Al-Masari
was granted permission to remain in the United Kingdom for 4 years,
with the option of applying for permanent residency at the end
of that period. There is no evidence of Saudi Government retribution
against the British Government for this decision.
Women play no formal role in government and politics, and are
actively discouraged from doing so. Participation by women in
a Majlis is restricted, although some women seek redress through
female members of the royal family. Only 1 of the 60 members
of the Majlis Ash-Shura is a Shi'a.
Section 4. Governmental Attitude Regarding International
and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human
There are no publicly active human rights groups, and the Government
has made it clear that none critical of government policies would
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 its interpretation of 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.
Section 5. Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion,
Disability, Language, or Social Status
Systematic discrimination based on sex and religion are built
into the law. The law forbids discrimination based on race, but
not nationality. The Government and private organizations cooperate
in providing services for the disabled. The Shi'a religious minority
suffers social, legal, and religious discrimination.
The Government does not keep statistics on spousal or other forms
of violence against women. Hospital workers report that many
women are admitted for treatment of injuries that apparently result
from spousal violence. Some foreign women have suffered physical
abuse from their Saudi husbands, who can prevent their wives from
obtaining exit visas.
Foreign 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 to escape work situations that include 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 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 to assist such 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. Women, including foreigners,
may not legally drive motor vehicles 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
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 instructed Western women to wear the abaya and cover their
Some government officials and ministries still bar accredited
female diplomats in Saudi Arabia from official meetings and diplomatic
Women are also subject to discrimination in Islamic law, which
stipulates that daughters receive half the inheritance awarded
to their brothers. In a Shari'a court, the testimony of one man
equals that of two women (see Section 1.e.). Although Islamic
law permits polygyny, it is becoming less common. Islamic law
enjoins a man to treat each wife equally. In practice such equality
is left to the discretion of the husband. Some women participated
in al-Mesyar (or "short daytime visit") marriages, where
the women relinquish their legal rights to financial support and
nighttime cohabitation. Additionally, the husband is not required
to inform his other wives of the marriage, and the children have
no inheritance rights. The Government places greater restrictions
on women than on men regarding marriage to non-Saudis and non-Muslims
(see Section 2.d.).
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
Women make up 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 1995
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 children with free education and medical
care. 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
The provision of government social services has increasingly brought
the disabled into the public domain. The media carry features
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.
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. The Sunni majority discriminates socially
against the Shi'a minority.
Shi'a 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 suspected of subversion have been subjected
periodically to surveillance and limitations on travel abroad.
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.
In 1995 Saudi Arabia was suspended from the U.S. Overseas Private
Investment Corporation insurance programs because of the Government's
lack of compliance with internationally recognized worker rights
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
Collective bargaining is forbidden. Foreign workers comprise
about half of the work force. There is no minimum wage; wages
are set by employers and vary according to the type of work performed
and the nationality of the worker.
There are no export processing zones.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
Forced labor is prohibited by a 1952 royal decree that abolished
slavery. Ratification of the International Labor Organization
(ILO) Conventions 29 and 105, which prohibit forced labor, gives
them 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 (see Section
2.d.). In another pressure tactic, sponsors may refuse to provide
foreign workers with a "letter of no objection" that
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'
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 labor system abets the
exploitation of foreign workers because enforcement of work contracts
is difficult and generally favors Saudi employers. Labor cases
can take many months to reach a final appellate ruling, during
which time the employer can prevent the foreign laborer from leaving
the country; alternatively, an employer can delay a case until
a worker's funds are exhausted and the worker is forced to return
to his home country.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
The minimum age for employment is 13 years of age, 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
Children under the age of 18 and women may not be employed in
hazardous or harmful industries, such as mining 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. In general, however, children play a minimal role
in the work force.
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 upon arrival. 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
that 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. Workers would risk their
employment if they were to remove themselves from hazardous work
Source: U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices