Report on Human Rights
Practices for 2000
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. 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. Crown Prince Abdullah has played an increasing role in
governance since King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995. The Government
has declared the Islamic holy book the Koran, and the Sunna (tradition) of
the Prophet Muhammad, to be the country's Constitution. The
Government bases its legitimacy on governance according to the precepts of
a rigorously conservative form of Islam. Neither the Government nor
society in general accepts the concept of separation of religion and state.
The Government prohibits the establishment of political parties and
suppresses opposition views. In 1992 King Fahd appointed a
Consultative Council, or Majlis Ash-Shura, and similar provincial
assemblies. The Majlis, a strictly advisory body, began holding
sessions in 1993 and was expanded in 1997. 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, constitute the Committee to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue, a
semiautonomous agency that enforces adherence to Islamic norms by
monitoring public behavior. The Government maintains general control
of the security forces. However, members of the security forces
committed human rights abuses.
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 around 55 percent of the
gross domestic product (GDP) and 80 percent of government income.
Agriculture accounts for only about 6 percent of GDP. Government
spending, including spending on the national airline, power, water,
telephone, education, and health services, accounts for 24 percent of GDP.
About 40 percent of the economy is nominally private, and the Government is
promoting further privatization of the economy. In 1995 the
Government began an aggressive campaign to increase the number of Saudi
nationals represented in the public and private work forces. The
campaign has restricted employment of some categories of foreign workers by
limiting certain occupations to Saudis only, increasing fees for some types
of work visas, and setting minimum wages for some job categories in order
to increase the cost to employers of non-Saudi labor. In August 1998,
the Government announced that citizens had to constitute at least 5 percent
of the work force in private sector companies by October 1998, an amount
that, according to a 1995 ministerial decree, should be 15 percent.
Despite a crackdown on illegal workers and the citizens who employ or house
them, the program has continued to fall short of its goal of increasing the
Saudi percentage of the work force by 5 percent each year.
The Government's human rights record remained generally
poor in a number of areas; however, its record showed limited improvement
in some areas. Citizens have neither the right nor the legal means to
change their government. Security forces continued to abuse detainees
and prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, and facilitate
incommunicado detention; in addition there were allegations that security
forces committed torture. Prolonged detention without charge is a
problem. Security forces committed such abuses, in contradiction to
the law, but with the acquiescence of the Government. Mutawwa'in
(religious police, who constitute the Committee to Promote Virtue and
Prevent Vice) continued to intimidate, abuse, and detain citizens and
foreigners. The Government infringes on citizens' privacy rights.
The Government prohibits or restricts freedom of speech, the press,
assembly, association, religion, and movement. However, during the
year the Government tolerated a wider range of debate and criticism in the
press concerning domestic issues. Other continuing problems included
discrimination and violence against women, discrimination against ethnic
and religious minorities, and strict limitations on worker rights.
The Government views its interpretation of Islamic law as its sole source
of guidance on human rights and disagrees with internationally accepted
definitions of human rights. However, during the year, the Government
initiated limited measures to participate in international human rights
mechanisms. For example, it invited to the country the U.N. Special
Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers and acceded to (with
reservations) the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination Against Women.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were no confirmed reports of political killings.
In November 1998, several Mutawwa'in attacked and killed
an elderly Shi'a prayer leader in Hofuf for repeating the call to prayer
twice (a traditional Shi'a practice). Attempts by
Mutawwa'in to cover up the killing were unsuccessful. After
investigating the incident, the Government stated that medical reports
indicated that the man's death resulted from a drop in his blood pressure
because of old age. The Government stated that the death was not a
The investigation of the 1996 Al-Khobar bombing, which
killed 19 U.S. servicemen, continued. The Government has not yet
issued a report of its findings.
There were no reports of politically motivated
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading
There were credible reports that the authorities abused
detainees, both citizens and foreigners. Ministry of Interior
officials are responsible for most incidents of abuse, including beatings
and sleep deprivation. In addition, there were allegations of
torture. Although the Government has ratified the Convention Against
Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, it
has refused to recognize the authority of the Committee Against Torture to
investigate alleged abuses. In 1998 the Government pledged to
cooperate with U.N. human rights mechanisms, and it announced in April the
establishment of a committee to investigate allegations of torture pursuant
to its obligations under the convention (see Section 4). However,
although the Government asks for details of reports of torture and other
human rights abuses made by international human rights groups, it does not
permit international observers to investigate such reports. The
Government's general 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, hinders efforts to
confirm or discount reports of abuses. The Government's past failure
to criticize human rights abuses has contributed to the public perception
that security forces may commit abuses with impunity.
The Mutawwa'in continued to intimidate, abuse, and
detain citizens and foreigners of both sexes (see Sections 1.d., 1.f., and
The Government punishes criminals according to its
interpretation of Shari'a (Islamic law). Punishments include
flogging, amputation, and execution by beheading, stoning, or firing squad.
The authorities acknowledged 120 executions during the year, an increase
from 100 in 1999. Executions included 62 persons convicted of murder,
21 convicted of narcotics-related offenses, 22 convicted of rape, and 10
convicted of armed robbery. The executions also included two women
for murder and three for drug trafficking. The men were executed by
beheading and the women were executed by firing squad. The government
of Nigeria criticized Saudi Arabia for the execution of seven Nigerians
convicted of bank robbery. In accordance with Shari'a, the
authorities may punish repeated thievery by amputation of the right hand.
There were 27 reports of amputations, including 7 reports of multiple
amputations (right hand, left leg) for the crime of highway robbery during
the year. Persons convicted of less serious offenses, such as
alcohol-related offenses or being alone in the company of an unrelated
person of the opposite sex, sometimes were punished by flogging with a
On April 16, the Associated Press reported that 5
persons had been sentenced to 2,600 lashes and 6 years in prison, and 4
persons to 2,400 lashes and 5 years' imprisonment, for "deviant sexual
behavior." Amnesty International reported in July that six men
were executed on charges of deviant sexual behavior, some of which were
related to their sexual orientation. Amnesty International was
uncertain whether the six men who were executed were among the nine who
were sentenced to flogging and imprisonment in April.
During the year, a court ordered that the eye of an
Egyptian man be removed as punishment for an attack 6 years ago in which he
was convicted of throwing acid on another Egyptian man. The victim,
who lost his eye in the attack and suffered other disfigurement, had urged
the court to implement Al-Qisas, the Shari'a provision stipulating that the
punishment be commensurate with the crime. Press accounts stated that
the convicted man's eye was removed at a hospital in August.
Prison and jail conditions vary throughout the Kingdom.
Prisons generally meet internationally accepted standards and provide
air-conditioned cells, good nutrition, regular exercise, and careful
patrolling by prison guards. However, some police station jails are
overcrowded and unsanitary. Authorities generally allowed family
members access to detainees.
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. However, the Government
does not permit human rights monitors to visit prisons or jails. The
Government does not allow impartial observers of any type access to
specialized Ministry of Interior prisons, where it detains persons accused
of political subversion.
Representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) are present at the Rafha refugee camp, which houses
former Iraqi prisoners of war and civilians who fled Iraq following the
Gulf War. According to UNHCR officials, there was no systematic abuse
of refugees by camp guards. When isolated instances of abuse have
surfaced in the past, the authorities have been responsive and willing to
investigate allegations and reprimand offending guards. The camp
receives a high level of material assistance and is generally comfortable
and well-run. However, the Government generally confines refugees to
the camp, except in the event of approved emigration.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest; however, some
officers make arrests and detain persons without following explicit legal
guidelines. There are few procedures to safeguard against abuse,
although the Government claims that it punishes individual officers who
violate regulations. There have been few publicized cases of citizens
successfully obtaining judicial redress for abuse of the Government's power
of arrest and detention.
In accordance with a 1983 Ministry of Interior
regulation, authorities usually detain suspects for no longer than 3 days
before charging them. However, serious exceptions have been reported.
The regulation also has provisions for bail for less serious crimes.
Also, authorities sometimes release detainees on the recognizance of a
patron or sponsoring employer without the payment of bail. If they
are not released, authorities typically detain accused persons for an
average of 2 months before sending the case to trial or, in the case of
some foreigners, summarily deporting them. There is no established
procedure providing detainees the right to inform their family of their
The Mutawwa'in have the authority to detain persons for
no more than 24 hours for violations of the strict standards of proper
dress and behavior. However, they sometimes exceeded this limit
before delivering detainees to the police (see Section 1.f.). Current
procedures require a police officer to accompany the Mutawwa'in at the time
of an arrest. Mutawwa'in generally complied with this requirement.
During the year, in the more conservative Riyadh district, the number of
reports received of Mutawwa'in accosting, abusing, arresting, and detaining
persons alleged to have violated dress and behavior standards was
comparable to 1999. The Jeddah district also received a similar
number of reports as in the previous year.
In January the Government arrested 16 Filipino
Christians during a raid on a prayer service. Government officials
maintained that the religious service was attended by such a large number
of persons that it could not be considered private. All of the
detainees subsequently were released and deported to the Philippines (see
Section 2.c.). According to Amnesty International, Hashim Al-Sayyid
Al-Sada, a Shi'a cleric suspected of political or religious dissent, was
arrested in his home in April and reportedly has been held incommunicado
since then (see Section 2.c.). In June the Government arrested an
Indian Christian for possession of a videotape of a religious event.
He was released after spending 2 months in jail and was deported to India
(see Section 2.c.). On November 30, the police detained five
Christian worshipers for about an hour for questioning regarding their
activities (see Section 2.c.). In December the authorities raided a
worship service and arrested six Filipino citizens; three remained in
custody at year's end (see Section 2.c.).
Political detainees who are arrested by the General
Directorate of Investigation (GDI), the Ministry of Interior's security
service, commonly are 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 or
The authorities may detain without charge persons who
publicly criticize the Government or may charge them with attempting to
destabilize the Government (see Sections 2.a. and 3). In January the
Government announced that it had released, under its annual Ramadan
amnesty, 4,637 prisoners and detainees, including 1,807 foreigners.
It is unclear whether there were any political detainees or prisoners among
There is no reliable information about the total number
of political detainees.
Since beginning the investigation of the 1996 bombing of
a U.S. military facility in Saudi Arabia, authorities have detained,
interrogated, and confiscated the passports of a number of Shi'a Muslims
suspected of fundamentalist tendencies or Iranian sympathies. The
Government reportedly still holds in jail an unknown number of Shi'a
arrested in the aftermath of the bombing. Government security forces
reportedly arrest Shi'a on the smallest suspicion, hold them in custody for
lengthy periods, and then release them without explanation (see Section
The Government did not use forced exile, and there were
no reports that it revoked citizenship for political purposes during the
year. However, it previously has revoked the citizenship of opponents
of the Government who reside outside the country (see Section 3).
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The independence of the judiciary is prescribed by law
and usually is respected in practice; however, judges occasionally accede
to the influence of the executive branch, particularly members of the royal
family and their associates, who are not required to appear before the
courts. Moreover, the Ministry of Justice exercises judicial,
financial, and administrative control of the courts.
The legal system is based on Shari'a. 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 a code derived from the Koran and the
Sunna, another Islamic text. Cases involving relatively small
penalties are tried in Shari'a summary courts; more serious crimes are
adjudicated in Shari'a courts of common pleas. Appeals from Shari'a
courts are made to the courts of appeal.
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 Government permits Shi'a Muslims to use their own
legal tradition to adjudicate noncriminal cases within their community.
The military justice system has jurisdiction over
uniformed personnel and civil servants who are charged with violations of
military regulations. The Minister of Defense and Aviation and the
King review the decisions of courts-martial.
The Supreme Judicial Council is not a court and may not
reverse decisions made by a court of appeals. However, the Council
may review lower court decisions and refer them back to the lower court for
reconsideration. Only the Supreme Judicial Council may discipline or
remove a judge. The King appoints the members of the Council.
The Council of Senior Religious Scholars is an
autonomous body of 20 senior religious jurists, including the Minister of
Justice. It establishes the legal principles to guide lower-court
judges in deciding cases.
The law grants defendants the right to a lawyer and
translator; however, defendants usually appear without an attorney before a
judge, who determines guilt or innocence in accordance with Shari'a
standards. The courts generally do not provide foreign defendants
with translators. Defense lawyers may offer their clients advice
before trial or may attend the trial as interpreters for those unfamiliar
with Arabic. Public defenders are not provided. 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.
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 almost always are
required for criminal conviction--a situation that repeatedly has led
prosecuting authorities to coerce confessions from suspects by threats and
abuse. Female parties to court proceedings such as divorce and family
law cases generally must deputize male relatives to speak on their behalf.
Sentencing is not uniform. Laws and regulations
state that defendants should be treated equally; however, foreign residents
sometimes 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, age, 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 general members of the
royal family and other powerful families are not subject to the same rule
of law as ordinary citizens (see Sections 1.a. and 3). For example,
judges do not have the power to issue a warrant summoning any member of the
The King and his advisors review cases involving capital
punishment. 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. The Government does not provide
information on political prisoners or respond to inquiries about them.
It does not allow access to political prisoners by international
humanitarian organizations. 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 they are under
investigation. Amnesty International estimates the number of
political prisoners to be between 100 and 200.
f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or
The Government infringes on these rights. 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 intrusions, while laws and regulations prohibit officials from
intercepting mail and electronic communication except when necessary during
criminal investigations. Nonetheless, there are few procedural
safeguards against government interference with one's privacy, family,
home, or correspondence.
The police generally must demonstrate reasonable cause
and obtain permission from the provincial governor before searching a
private home; however, warrants are not required.
Customs officials routinely open mail and shipments to
search for contraband, including material deemed pornographic and
non-Muslim religious material. Customs officials confiscated or
censored materials considered offensive, including Christian Bibles and
religious videotapes (see Section 2.c.). The authorities also open
mail and use informants and wiretaps in internal security and criminal
matters. Security forces used wiretaps against foreigners suspected
of alcohol-related offenses. Informants (know as "mukhbir")
and ward bosses (known as "umdas") report "seditious
ideas" or antigovernment activity in their neighborhoods to the
Ministry of the Interior.
The Government enforces most social and Islamic
religious norms, which are matters of law (see Section 5). Women may
not marry noncitizens 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. In accordance
with Shari'a, women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims; men may marry
Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims.
Mutawwa'in practices and incidents of abuse varied
widely in different regions of the country but were most numerous in the
central Nejd region. In certain areas, both the Mutawwa'in and
religious vigilantes acting on their own harassed, assaulted, battered,
arrested, and detained citizens and foreigners (see Section 1.d.).
The Government requires the Mutawwa'in to follow established procedures and
to offer instruction in a polite manner; however, Mutawwa'in did not always
comply with the requirements. The Government has not criticized
publicly abuses by Mutawwa'in and religious vigilantes but has sought to
curtail such abuses.
Mutawwa'in enforcement of strict standards of social
behavior included the closing of commercial establishments during the five
daily prayer observances, insisting upon compliance with strict norms of
public dress, and dispersing gatherings of women in public places.
Mutawwa'in frequently reproached citizen and foreign women for failure to
observe strict dress codes, and arrested men and women found together who
were not married or closely related.
Some professors believe that informers monitor comments
made in university classrooms (see Section 2.a.).
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Government severely limits freedom of speech and the
press. However, the authorities allow the press some freedom to
criticize governmental bodies and social policies through editorial
comments and cartoons.
The authorities do not permit criticism of Islam or the
royal family, and criticism of the Government is limited. However,
during the year the authorities tolerated increasing criticism of
governmental bodies and social policies in editorial comments and cartoons.
For example, some newspapers published criticism of specific cabinet
ministries and ministers for their handling of a disease outbreak, while
another published a column criticizing the Minister of Finance for lack of
transparency in the Government's spending of oil revenues. One
newspaper published a column in support of allowing women to drive by
disputing the arguments of a member of the Council of Senior Islamic
Scholars who opposes such actions. The press also carried an
extensive discussion on human rights following the publication of an
Amnesty International report critical of government human rights practices.
While nearly all media reports concurred with the Government's dismissive
response to the Amnesty International report, one editorial that circulated
widely called on regional governments to listen to criticism and review
their human rights practices (see Section 4). Persons whose
criticisms align them with an organized political opposition are subject to
arrest and detention until they confess to a crime or sign a statement
promising not to resume such criticisms, which is tantamount to a
confession. Writer Zuheir Kutbi claims that he has been imprisoned
six times for his writings. Due to his imprisonment, Kutbi has been
deprived of employment and his passport, and lives under government
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 the
country. 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.
In November the Government approved a wide-ranging new
press law that would permit the creation of professional journalism
societies and permit the publication of foreign newspapers in the Kingdom.
The new law states that local publications will be subject to censorship
only in emergencies and pledges to protect free expression of opinion;
however, the law obliges authorities to censor foreign publications that
defame Islam and harm the interests of the state or the "ethics of the
people." It is not yet clear whether the implementation of the
new law will change current practices regarding freedom of expression.
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 the country. Both newspapers tend to
practice self-censorship in order to comply with government restrictions on
sensitive issues. The authorities continue to censor stories about
the country 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 the country reported in the international media,
although press restrictions on reporting of domestic news remain very
stringent. The Government's policy in this regard appears to be
motivated in part by pragmatic considerations: Saudi access to
outside sources of information, such as Arabic and Western satellite
television channels and the Internet, is increasingly widespread.
In February Information Minister Fuad Al-Farsi imposed a
ban of 1 week on the daily sports newspaper Ar-Reyadi because of a column
by a popular sports journalist, Prince Abdulrahman bin Saud, that attacked
another sports journalist. The ban was lifted after 2 days.
The editors of two Yemeni newspapers, Al-Wahdawi and Al-Ihya
Al-Arabi, claimed that actions taken against the newspapers by the Yemeni
Ministry of Information, including filing a lawsuit, detaining a
journalist, and suspending publication of one of the newspapers, were a
direct result of pressure applied by the Saudi Government after the
newspapers had published articles critical of Saudi Arabia.
In December a newspaper reported that while one of its
reporters was investigating a story about the illegal slaughtering of
animals by a restaurant, local police arrested, fingerprinted,
interrogated, and then released the reporter. In a front-page
commentary, the newspaper stated that local police were protecting the
The Government tightly restricts the entry of foreign
journalists into the Kingdom.
The Government owns and operates the country's
television and radio companies. Government censors remove any
reference to politics, religions other than Islam, pork or pigs, alcohol,
and sex from foreign programs and songs. There are well over 1
million satellite receiving dishes in the country, which provide citizens
with foreign broadcasts. The legal status of these devices is
ambiguous. The Government ordered a halt to their importation in 1992
at the request of religious leaders who objected to foreign programming
being made available on satellite channels. In 1994 the Government
banned the sale, installation, and maintenance of dishes and supporting
devices; however, the number of dishes continues to increase, and residents
legally may subscribe to satellite decoding services that require a dish.
In December the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars ruled
that watching the popular Ramadan television series "Tash Ma Tash"
was contrary to proper Islamic conduct. The program, which was
broadcast on a government channel, mildly parodied bureaucratic delays and
social problems. The Government did not publicize the Council's
ruling nor did it stop airing the program.
The Government bans all books, magazines, and other
materials that it considers sexual or pornographic in nature. The
Ministry of Information compiles and updates a list of publications that
are prohibited from being sold in the country.
Access to the Internet is available legally only through
Saudi servers, which are monitored heavily by the Government. Some
citizens attempt to circumvent this control by accessing the Internet
through servers in other countries. The Government attempts to block
all web sites that it deems sexual, pornographic, politically offensive, or
"un-Islamic." However, such web sites are accessible from
within the country. According to Human Rights Watch, in April the
Government closed a women-only Internet cafe in Mecca after a court
complaint that the cafe was being used for "immoral purposes."
The Government censors all forms of public artistic
expression and prohibits cinemas and public musical or theatrical
performances, except those that are considered folkloric.
Academic freedom is restricted. The authorities
prohibit the study of evolution, Freud, Marx, Western music, and Western
philosophy. Some professors believe that informers monitor their
classroom comments and report to government and religious authorities.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Government strictly limits freedom of assembly.
It prohibits public demonstrations as a means of political expression.
Public meetings are segregated by sex. Unless meetings are sponsored
by diplomatic missions or approved by the appropriate governor, foreign
residents who seek to hold unsegregated meetings risk arrest and
deportation. The authorities monitor any large gathering of persons,
especially of women. The Mutawwa'in dispersed groups of women found
in public places, such as restaurants. Government policy permits
women to attend cultural and social events at diplomatic chanceries and
residences only if they are accompanied by a father, brother, or husband.
However, in practice police often implement the policy in an arbitrary
manner. On many occasions during the year, authorities actively
prohibited women from entering diplomatic chanceries or residences to
attend cultural events and lectures. However, for several years
authorities have allowed unescorted Saudi women to attend women-only
cultural events hosted at a diplomatic mission.
In October citizens took part in a number of illegal
demonstrations protesting the Israeli Government's actions against
Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza in the fall.
According to media accounts, the authorities did not interfere with two
demonstrations conducted by women at universities and another outside a
mosque; however, the authorities dispersed several other small, apparently
spontaneous public demonstrations against Israel in Riyadh, Al-Jawf
province, and elsewhere.
The Government strictly limits freedom of association.
It prohibits 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.
The Government licenses a large number of humanitarian organizations and
tribal and professional societies, such as the Saudi Chemists Society and
the Saudi Pharmacists Society. The Government claims that such groups
operate without government interference because they are not detrimental to
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 public practice of other religions. Private worship by
non-Muslims generally is permitted.
Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy and the Government
has declared the Islamic holy book, the Koran, and the Sunna (tradition) of
the Prophet Muhammad, to be the country's Constitution. The
Government bases its legitimacy on governance according to the precepts of
the rigorously conservative and strict interpretation of the Hanbali school
of the Sunni branch of Islam and discriminates against other branches of
Islam. Neither the Government nor society in general accepts the
concepts of separation of religion and state, and such separation does not
Islamic practice generally is limited to that of the Wahabi order, which
adheres to the Hanbali school of the Sunni branch of Islam as interpreted
by Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahab, an 18th century Arabian religious reformer.
Practices contrary to this interpretation, such as visits to the tombs of
renowned Muslims, are discouraged. The practice of other schools of
Sunni Islam is discouraged, and there is institutionalized discrimination
against adherents of the Shi'a branch of Islam. The Government
supervises almost all mosques in the country and funds their construction,
maintenance, and operations.
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 imams
(prayer leaders) and others who work in the mosques. A governmental
committee is responsible for defining the qualifications of imams.
The Mutawwa'in are government employees, and the president of the
Mutawwa'in holds the rank of cabinet minister. The spreading of
Muslim teachings not in conformance with the officially accepted
interpretation of Islam is prohibited. Writers and other individuals
who publicly criticize this interpretation, including both those who
advocate a stricter interpretation and those who favor a more moderate
interpretation than the Government's, reportedly have been imprisoned and
faced other reprisals.
The Shi'a Muslim minority (roughly 900,000 persons)
lives mostly in the eastern province, in which Shi'a constitute about
one-third of the population. Members of the Shi'a minority are the
objects of officially sanctioned political and economic discrimination.
Prior to 1990, the Government prohibited Shi'a public processions during
the Islamic month of Muharram and restricted other processions and
congregations to designated areas in the major Shi'a cities. Since
1990 the authorities have permitted the celebration of the Shi'a holiday of
Ashura in the eastern province city of Qatif, provided that the celebrants
do not undertake large, public marches or engage in self-flagellation (a
traditional Shi'a practice). The celebrations are monitored heavily
by the police. No other Ashura celebrations are permitted in the
Kingdom, and many Shi'a travel to Qatif or to Bahrain to participate in
Early in the year, a Shi'a sheikh was taken into
custody, and three other sheikhs were arrested for unknown reasons near the
border with Jordan. Human Rights Watch reported that at least seven
additional Shi'a religious leaders reportedly remained in detention for
violating restrictions on Shi'a religious practices.
According to Amnesty International, Hashim Al-Sayyid Al-Sada,
a Shi'a cleric suspected of political or religious dissent, was arrested in
his home in April and reportedly has been held incommunicado since then
(see Section 1.d.).
The Government seldom permits private construction of
Shi'a mosques. Shi'a have declined government offers to build
state-supported mosques because the Government would prohibit the
incorporation and display of Shi'a motifs in any such mosques. The
Government actively discourages Shi'a travel to Iran to visit pilgrimage
sites, although Shi'a citizens are permitted to visit holy sites in Iraq.
Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, authorities have
detained, interrogated, and confiscated the passports of a number of Shi'a
suspected of subversion (see Sections 1.d. and 2.d.). The Government
reportedly still holds in jail an unknown number of Shi'a who were arrested
in the aftermath of the Al-Khobar bombing. Government security forces
reportedly arrest Shi'a on the smallest suspicion, hold them in custody for
lengthy periods, and then release them without explanation (see Section
In April in the city of Najran, in the southwest region
bordering Yemen, rioting by members of the Makarama Ismaili Shi'a
eventually led to an attack by an armed group of Shi'a on a hotel that
contained an office of the regional governor. Security forces
responded, leading to extended gun battles between the two sides.
Some press reports indicated that the rioting followed the arrest of a
Makarama Ismaili Shi'a imam and some of his followers on charges of
"sorcery." Various other reports attributed the unrest to
the closure of two Ismaili Shi'a mosques and the provincial governor's
refusal to permit Ismailis to hold public observances of the Shi'a holiday
of Ashura. Still other reports attributed the unrest to a local
crackdown on smuggling and resultant tribal discontent. Officials at
the highest level of the Government stated that the unrest in Najran was
not the result of Shi'a-Sunni tension or religious discrimination.
After the unrest ended the Government stated that 5 members of the security
forces were killed, and Ismaili leaders claimed that as many as 40 Ismaili
tribesmen were killed. There was no independent confirmation of these
Magic is widely believed in and sometimes practiced,
often in the form of fortune-telling and swindles. However, under
Shari'a the practice of magic is regarded as the worst form of polytheism,
an offense for which no repentance is accepted, and which is punishable by
death. There are an unknown number of detainees held in prison on the
charge of "sorcery," or the practice of "black magic"
or "witchcraft." In a few cases, self-proclaimed
"miracle workers" have been executed for sorcery involving
physical harm or apostasy. In 1999 the Al-Bilad newspaper reported
that the Interior Ministry ordered the execution of a Sudanese man
convicted of practicing magic in Jeddah for 31/2 years. The man
claimed to be an herbal medicine expert and had treated a number of women
with tonics and potions; he reportedly possessed 16 spell books and related
paraphernalia. The man reportedly confessed to conspiring with Jinns
(beings made of fire that coexist with humans) in "efforts to separate
wives from their husbands."
During the year, foreign imams were barred from leading
worship during the most heavily attended prayer times and prohibited from
delivering sermons during Friday congregational prayers. The
Government claims that its actions were part of its "Saudiization"
plan to replace foreign workers with citizens.
Under Shari'a conversion by a Muslim to another religion
is considered apostasy. Public apostasy is a crime punishable by
death if the accused does not recant.
The Government prohibits public non-Muslim religious
activities. Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, lashing, and
deportation for engaging in overt religious activity that attracts official
During the year, senior officials in the Government
publicly reaffirmed the right of non-Muslims to engage in private religious
worship. In an address to the 56th session of the U.N. Committee on
Human Rights in April, Prince Turki bin Muhammad bin Saud Al-Kabir,
Director of the International Organizations Department of the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, stated that "non-Muslims enjoy full freedom to engage
in their religious observances in private" (see Section 4). The
media widely disseminated Prince Turki's speech and the media increasingly
acknowledges the right to private non-Muslim worship. Such private
non-Muslim worship occurs on a wide scale throughout the country, including
on the premises of several foreign embassies.
Other high-level officials have confirmed that the
Government does not sanction investigation or harassment of such private
worship services. These officials ascribe any residual harassment of
private worship services or seizure of personal religious materials such as
Bibles or icons to individuals and organizations acting on their own
authority and in contradiction of government policy. Representatives
of Christian denominations present in the country report that the
Government is not interfering with private worship services as long as
those services remain discreet.
However, in January the Government arrested 16 Filipino
Christians during a raid on a prayer service. Government officials
maintained that the religious service was attended by such a large number
of persons that it could not be considered private. After 6 weeks of
detention, all of the detainees were released and deported to the
Philippines. On November 30, religious police broke up a worship
service of about 60 Christians. Police seized Bibles, musical
instruments, and documents relating to other Christian activities.
Police detained five of the worshipers for questioning, then released them
after they signed a confession. None of the worshipers was arrested.
In June the Government arrested an Indian Christian for possession of a
videotape of a religious event. He was released in August after
spending 2 months in jail and then deported to India (see Section 1.d.).
On December 8 in Riyadh, the authorities raided a gathering of 12 Filipino
Christians after a worship service. The authorities arrested six of
the individuals; two were released the same day, one subsequently was
released, and three remained in custody at year's end.
Proselytizing by non-Muslims is illegal, although there
were no reports during the year of arrests for proselytizing. Persons
wearing religious symbols of any kind in public risk confrontation with the
Mutawwa'in. This general prohibition against religious symbols also
applies to Muslims. A Christian wearing a crucifix or a Muslim
wearing a Koranic necklace in public would be admonished. In certain
areas, both the Mutawwa'in and vigilantes acting on their own harassed,
assaulted, battered, arrested, and detained citizens and foreigners (see
Sections 1.c., 1.d., and 1.f.).
Customs officials routinely open mail and shipments to
search for contraband, including material that is deemed pornographic, and
non-Muslim religious material. Customs officials confiscated or
censored materials considered offensive, including Bibles and religious
Islamic religious education is mandatory in public
schools at all levels. All children receive religious instruction,
which generally is limited to that of the Hanbali school of Islam.
In accordance with Shari'a, Saudi women are prohibited from marrying
non-Muslims, but Saudi men may marry Christians and Jews, as well as
The Government requires noncitizens to carry Iqamas, or
legal resident identity cards, which contain a religious designation for
"Muslim" or "non-Muslim."
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign
Emigration, and Repatriation
The Government restricts the travel of Saudi women, who
must obtain written permission from their closest male relative before the
authorities allow them to board domestic public transportation or to travel
abroad (see Section 5). In 1999 the Ministry of Interior announced
that preparations were underway to issue identity cards to women, which
would have been a step toward allowing women to establish independent legal
identities from men and to secure greater rights in many areas, including
travel. However, the Ministry announced in August that the current
identification document system for women would be maintained for another 3
years and thus identity cards would not be issued. Men may travel
anywhere within the country or abroad.
Foreigners typically are allowed to reside or work in
the country only under the sponsorship of a citizen or domestic 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 may be asked by the
authorities to show that they possess letters of permission from their
employer or sponsor.
Sponsors generally retain possession of foreign 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. There were numerous
reports of the Government prohibiting foreign employees involved in labor
disputes from departing the country until the dispute was resolved (see
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 or otherwise concluded. 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.
The Government actively discourages Shi'a from traveling to Iran to visit
pilgrimage sites. The Government still punishes Shi'a who travel to
Iran without permission from the Ministry of the Interior, or those
suspected of such travel, by confiscating passports for up to 2 years (see
Citizens may emigrate, but the law prohibits dual
citizenship. Apart from marriage to a Saudi national, there are no
provisions for 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 33,000 Iraqi civilians and
former prisoners of war given refuge in the country at the end of the Gulf
War, none has been granted permanent asylum; 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 UNHCR and other resettlement agencies.
Approximately 27,000 of the original 33,000 Iraqi
refugees had been resettled in other countries or voluntarily repatriated
to Iraq at year's end. Most of the approximately 5,400 remaining
refugees, as well as 160 Afghan refugees, are restricted to the Rafha
refugee camp. The UNHCR has monitored over 3,000 persons voluntarily
returning to Iraq from Rafha since December 1991 and found no evidence of
forcible repatriation (see Section 1.c.).
The Government has allowed some foreigners to remain
temporarily in the country in cases where their safety would be jeopardized
if they were deported to their home countries.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right
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 leaders.
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
concurrence. In 1992 the King appointed 60 members to a Consultative
Council, or Majlis Ash-Shura. This strictly advisory body began to
hold sessions in 1993. In 1997 the King expanded the council to 90
members. There are two Shi'a on the Council. The Council
engages in debates that, while closed to the general public, provide advice
and views occasionally contrary to the Government's proposed policy or
recommended course of action. The Government usually incorporates the
Majlis' advice into its final policy announcements or tries to convince it
that the Government's policy is correct.
The Council of Senior Islamic Scholars is another
advisory body to the King and the Cabinet. It reviews the
Government's public policies for compliance with Shari'a. The
Government views the Council as an important source of religious legitimacy
and takes the Council's opinions into account when promulgating
In June the press reported on the first meeting of a
newly established "Royal Family Council," which is composed of
the Crown Prince and representatives of major branches of the extended
royal family. The Council's stated purpose is to consider "major
decisions regarding the family." Its role in government, if any,
is not clear.
Communication between citizens and the Government
usually is 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--rarely are raised. Complaints about royal abuses of
power are not entertained. In general journalists, academics, and
businessmen believe that institutionalized avenues of domestic criticism of
the regime are closed. Feedback is filtered through private personal
channels and has affected various policy issues, including the Middle East
peace process, unemployment of young Saudi men, and the construction of new
The Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights
(CDLR), an opposition group, was established in 1993. The Government
acted almost immediately to repress it. In 1994 one of its founding
members, Mohammed Al-Masari, fled to the United Kingdom, where he sought
political asylum and established an overseas branch of the CDLR. In
1996 internal divisions within the CDLR led to the creation of the rival
Islamic Reform Movement (IRM), headed by Sa'ad Al-Faqih. Al-Masari
expressed the CDLR's "understanding" of two fatal terrorist
bombings of U.S. military facilities in 1995 and 1996 and sympathy for the
perpetrators. The IRM implicitly condoned the two terrorist attacks
as well, arguing that they were a natural outgrowth of a political system
that does not tolerate peaceful dissent. Both groups continue to
criticize the Government, using computers and facsimile transmissions to
send newsletters back to Saudi Arabia.
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.
Two of the 90 members of the Majlis Ash-Shura are Shi'a.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding
Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations
There are no publicly active human rights groups, and
the Government has made it clear that none critical of government policies
would be permitted. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch
reported that they have received no responses to their requests for access
to the country. However, the press carried an extensive discussion on
human rights following the publication in March of an Amnesty International
report critical of the Government's human rights practices. While
nearly all media reports concurred with the Government's dismissive
response to the report, one editorial that circulated widely called on
regional governments to listen to human rights criticism and review their
human rights practices (see Section 2.a.).
The Government generally does not permit visits by
international human rights groups or independent monitors. 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. The Government generally ignores or
criticizes as attacks on Islam citations by international monitors or
foreign governments of government human rights abuses.
However, during the year the Government initiated
limited measures to participate in international human rights mechanisms,
such as inviting the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges
and Lawyers to visit the country and acceding to the U.N. Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, with reservations
regarding aspects of the convention that it considers contrary to Shari'a
law (see Section 5). In an address to the 56th session of the
committee in April, Prince Turki bin Muhammad bin Saud Al-Kabir, Director
of the International Organizations Department of the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, stated that the Government welcomed the role of international
human rights mechanisms. The media widely disseminated Prince Turki's
Although the Government has established a committee to
investigate allegations of torture in the country pursuant to its
obligations under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman,
or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, it has refused to recognize the
authority of the Committee Against Torture to investigate alleged abuses
(see Section 1.c.).
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex,
Disability, Language, or Social Status
There is legal and systemic discrimination based on sex
and religion. 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 sectarian discrimination.
The Government does not keep statistics on spousal abuse
or other forms of violence against women. However, based on the
information available regarding physical spousal abuse and violence against
women, such violence and abuse appear to be common problems. 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. A Saudi man may
prevent his wife and any child or unmarried adult daughter from obtaining
an exit visa to depart the country (see Section 2.d.). Foreign
embassies continued to receive many reports that employers abuse foreign
women working as domestic servants. Some embassies of countries with
large domestic servant populations maintain safehouses to which their
citizens may flee to escape work situations that include forced
confinement, withholding of food, beating and other physical abuse, and
rape. Often the reported abuse is at the hands of female citizens.
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
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 or social rights
and are not treated as equal members of society. There are no active
women's rights groups. Women legally may not 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 a male relative. By law and custom, women may
not undertake domestic or foreign travel alone (see Section 2.d.). In
1999 the Ministry of Interior announced that preparations were underway to
issue identity cards to women, which would have been a step toward allowing
women to establish independent legal identities from men. However,
the Ministry announced in August that the current identification document
system for women would be maintained for another 3 years, and that identity
cards therefore would not be issued.
In public a woman is expected to wear an abaya (a black
garment that covers the entire body) and to cover her head and face.
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 hair as well. During the year,
Mutawwa'in continued to admonish and harass women to wear their abayas and
cover their hair.
Some government officials and ministries still bar
accredited female diplomats in the country from official meetings.
Women also are subject to discrimination under Shari'a
as interpreted in Saudi Arabia, 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, with up to four wives, it is
becoming less common due to demographic and economic changes. Islamic
law enjoins a man to treat each wife equally. In practice such
equality is left to the discretion of the husband. Some women
participate in Al-Mesyar (or "short daytime visit") marriages, in
which 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 any children resulting from
such a marriage have no inheritance rights. The Government places
greater restrictions on women than on men regarding marriage to non-Saudis
and non-Muslims (see Section 1.f.). While Shari'a provides women with
a basis to own and dispose of property independently, women often are
constrained from asserting such rights because of various legal and
societal barriers, especially regarding employment and freedom of movement.
Women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for
divorce, but men may divorce without giving cause. In doing so, men
are required to pay immediately an amount of money agreed upon at the time
of the marriage, which serves as a one-time alimony payment. Women
who demonstrate legal grounds for divorce still are entitled to this
alimony. If divorced or widowed, a Muslim 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. Numerous divorced foreign women
continued to be 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 over 58 percent of all
university students but are excluded from studying such subjects as
engineering, journalism, and architecture. Men may study overseas;
women may do so only if accompanied by a spouse or an immediate male
Women make up approximately 5 percent of the formal work
force and own about 4 percent of the businesses, although they must
deputize a male relative to represent the business. Most employment
opportunities for women are in education and health care, with lesser
opportunity in business, philanthropy, banking, retail sales, and the
media. Despite limited educational opportunities in many professional
fields, some female citizens are able to study abroad and return to work in
professions such as architecture and journalism. Many foreign women
work as domestic servants and nurses. In 1997 the Government
authorized women to work in a limited capacity in the hotel industry.
Women who wish to enter nontraditional fields are subject to
discrimination. Women may not accept jobs in rural areas if there are
no adult male relatives present with whom they may reside and who agree to
take responsibility for them. Most workplaces in which women are
present are segregated by sex. Frequently, contact with male
supervisors or clients is allowed only by telephone or fax machine.
In 1995 the Ministry of Commerce announced that women no longer would 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. However, in hospital settings and in
the oil industry, women and men work together, and, in some instances,
women supervise male employees.
In September Crown Prince Abdullah signed the U.N.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,
with reservations regarding aspects of the Convention that the Government
considers contrary to Shari'a law.
The Government provides all children with free education
and medical care. Children are not subject to the strict social
segregation faced by women, although they are segregated by sex in schools,
beginning at the age of 7. In more general social situations, boys
are segregated at the age of 12 and girls at the onset of puberty.
It is difficult to gauge the prevalence of child abuse,
since the Government currently keeps no national statistics on such cases.
One major hospital has begun a program to detect, report, and prevent child
abuse. In general Saudi culture greatly prizes children, and initial
studies show that severe abuse and neglect of children appear to be rare.
Trafficking in children for forced begging persists (see
Sections 6.c., and 6.f.).
Female genital mutilation (FGM), which is widely
condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and
psychological health, is practiced among some foreign workers from East
Africa and the Nile Valley. It is not always clear whether the
procedure occurred in Saudi Arabia or the workers' home countries.
There is no law specifically prohibiting FGM.
People With Disabilities
The provision of government social services increasingly
has brought the disabled into the public mainstream. In October
Riyadh governor Prince Salman Bin Abd Al-Aziz announced that the Government
was implementing new regulations designed to integrate disabled persons
into the mainstream of society; the regulations had not been implemented by
year's end. The media carry features lauding the 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. There is no
legislation that mandates public accessibility; however, newer commercial
buildings often include such access.
Foreign criminal rings reportedly bought and imported
disabled children for the purpose of forced begging (see Sections 5, 6.c.
Police generally transport mentally ill persons found
wandering alone in public to their families or a hospital. However,
there were reports that police pick up mentally ill persons for minor
violations, detain them for a few weeks, and then release them, only to
detain them again later for similar violations. Police officials
recognize the problem but claim that according to Islam, family members
should be taking care of such individuals.
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. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution,
some Shi'a who are suspected of subversion have been subjected periodically
to surveillance and limitations on travel abroad. Since beginning the
investigation of the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military installation,
authorities have detained, interrogated, and confiscated the passports of a
number of Shi'a Muslims, including Shi'a returning to the country following
their travel to Iran (see Sections 1.d. and 2.d.).
In April in the city of Najran, riots took place that
led to members of the Makarama Ismaili Shi'a community engaging in
gun battles with security forces that reportedly resulted in a number of
deaths. Conflicting unconfirmed reports attributed the unrest to
religious differences, smuggling, or land seizures (see Section 2.c.).
Under Saudi law, children of Saudi fathers are
considered Muslim, regardless of the country or the religious tradition in
which they may have been raised. In some cases, children raised in
other countries and in other religious traditions later taken by their
Saudi fathers to Saudi Arabia reportedly were coerced to conform to their
fathers' interpretation of Islamic norms and practices.
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. For example, pay scales for identical
or similar labor or professional services are set by nationality such that
two similarly qualified and experienced foreign nationals performing the
same employment duties receive varied compensation based on their
nationalities (see Section 6.b.).
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
Government decrees prohibit the establishment of labor
unions, and strikes are prohibited; however, several work stoppages were
staged in Jeddah during the year by foreign hospital, food processing, and
construction workers who had not been paid.
In 1995 Saudi Arabia was 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 two-thirds 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 (see Section 5).
There are no export processing zones.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The Government prohibits forced or compulsory labor
pursuant to a 1962 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,
which results in situations that sometimes involve forced labor, especially
in remote areas where workers are unable to leave their place of work.
Some sponsors prevented foreign workers from obtaining
exit visas to pressure them to sign a new work contract or to drop claims
against their employers for unpaid salaries (see Section 2.d.). Some
sponsors also pressure foreign workers by refusing to provide them with a
"letter of no objection" that would allow them to be employed by
The labor laws, including those designed to limit
working hours and regulate working conditions, do not apply to foreign
domestic servants, and such domestic servants may not seek the protection
of the labor courts. There were credible reports that female domestic
servants sometimes were forced to work 12 to 16 hours per day, 7 days per
week. There were numerous confirmed reports of maids fleeing
employers and seeking refuge in their embassies (see Section 5). The
authorities often forced runaway maids to return to their places of
There have been many reports of workers whose employers
refused to pay several months, or even years, of accumulated salary or
other promised benefits. Foreign workers with such grievances, except
domestic servants, have the right to complain before the labor courts, but
few do so because of fear of deportation. The labor system is
conducive to the exploitation of foreign workers because enforcement of
work contracts is difficult and generally favors employers. Labor
courts, while generally fair, may take many months to reach a final
appellate ruling, during which time an employer may prevent the foreign
laborer from leaving the country. An employer also may delay a case
until a worker's funds are exhausted and the worker is forced to return to
his home country.
The law does not specifically prohibit forced or bonded
labor by children. Nonetheless, with the rare exception of criminal
begging rings, and the possible exceptions of family businesses, forced or
bonded child labor does not occur (see Section 6.d.). Children,
mainly of South Asian and African origin, frequently are used for the
purpose of organized begging, particularly in the vicinity of the Grand
Mosque in Mecca during Islamic holidays (see Section 6.f.).
d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for
The minimum age for employment is 13 years, which may be
waived by the Ministry of Labor with the consent of a juvenile's guardian.
There is no minimum age for workers employed in family-oriented businesses
or in other areas that are construed as extensions of the household, such
as farming, herding, and domestic service. The law does not prohibit
specifically forced or bonded labor by children, but it is not a problem,
with the rare exception of forced child begging rings, and possibly family
businesses (see Section 6.c.).
Children under the age of 18 and women may not be
employed in hazardous or harmful industries such as mining or industries
that use power-operated machinery. While there is no formal
government entity responsible for 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.
However, in general children play a minimal role in the work force.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
There is no legal minimum wage. Labor regulations
limit the work week to 48 hours, including no more than 8 hours a day and
no more than 5 hours without a break for rest, prayer, and food. The
regulations allow employers to require up to 12 additional hours of
overtime per workweek at time-and-a-half pay. Labor law provides for
a 24-hour rest period, normally on Fridays, although the employer may grant
it on another day. The average wage generally provides a decent
standard of living for a worker and family.
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, or limit vocational
programs for women, violate ILO Convention 111.
Some foreign nationals who have been recruited abroad
have complained that after their arrival in Saudi Arabia they were
presented with work contracts that specified lower wages and fewer benefits
than originally promised. Other foreign workers reportedly have
signed contracts in their home countries and later were 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. Foreign employees involved
in disputes with their employers may find their freedom of movement
restricted (see Section 2.d.). A large number of female domestic
servants often were subjected to abuse (see Sections 5 and 6.c.).
"Saudiization" is the Government's attempt to
decrease the number of foreigners working in certain occupations and to
replace them with Saudi workers. To accomplish this goal, the
Government has taken several long-term steps, most notably limiting
employment in certain fields to citizens, prohibiting renewal of existing
contracts, and requiring that 5 percent of the work force in private sector
companies be filled by citizen workers. The Government also requires
firms to increase the proportion of citizen workers by 5 per cent each
year. There is a limited number of persons, both influential and
otherwise, who attempted to circumvent the requirements of the law.
For example, employers have altered job descriptions or hired foreigners
for nominally low-level positions but in fact had them fill positions
reserved for citizens. In Jeddah fruit and vegetable vending jobs at
a large open-air market were Saudiized in late 1999. However, by
early in the year, the newly hired Saudi sellers had hired back many of the
fired foreigners to run the stalls for them at lower wages than they had
earned before the Saudiization occurred. Influential persons
effectively may circumvent the law because the Ministry of Labor is
reportedly unwilling to confront them.
The ongoing campaign to remove illegal immigrants from
the country has done little to Saudiize the economy because illegal
immigrants largely work in low-income positions, which most Saudis consider
unsuitable. In some cases, the campaign may have resulted in enhanced
job security and wage stability for some legally employed immigrants in
low-income positions. The Government is carrying out the campaign by
widely publicizing its enforcement of existing laws against illegal
immigrants and citizens who employ or sponsor illegal immigrants. In
addition to deportation for illegal workers and jail terms and fines for
citizens hiring illegal workers, the Government announced in 1998 that
houses rented to illegal aliens would be ordered closed. In 1997 the
Government offered an amnesty of several months' duration, which allowed
illegal immigrants and their employers or sponsors to avoid the possibility
of prosecution by voluntarily seeking expeditious repatriation. As of
September 1999, as many as 1.1 million persons departed the country under
terms of the amnesty or were deported for violating residence and labor
laws. During this process, the Government yielded to domestic
pressure and granted grace periods and exemptions to certain categories of
illegal immigrants (such as domestic servants, drivers, and shepherds),
thereby allowing many illegal immigrants to legalize their status without
leaving the country. The Government announced in April that the grace
period would expire in June and that anyone staying illegally could be
subject to imprisonment, a fine, and questioning regarding who was
assisting them. Illegal immigrants generally are willing to accept
lower salaries and fewer benefits than legally employed immigrants.
The departure or legalization of illegal workers reduced the competition
for certain jobs and thereby reduced the incentive for legal immigrants to
accept lower wages and fewer benefits as a means of competing with illegal
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.
Farmers, herdsmen, domestic servants, and workers in family-operated
businesses are not covered by these regulations. Workers risk losing
employment if they remove themselves from hazardous work conditions.
f. Trafficking in Persons
The law does not prohibit specifically trafficking in
persons; however, the law prohibits slavery and the smuggling of persons
into the country.
Children, mainly of South Asian and African origin,
frequently are used for the purpose of organized begging, particularly in
the vicinity of the Grand Mosque in Mecca during Islamic holidays.
There were reports that some of these children were smuggled into the
country by organized rings.
There were unconfirmed reports that women were
trafficked into the country to work as prostitutes.
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department,