Report on Human Rights
Practices for 1997Saudi 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. 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 has declared the Islamic
holy books, 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 the society
in general accept 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 and similar provincial assemblies. The
Consultative Council 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
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 maintained 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 35
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. 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 1997 the
Government has offered a limited amnesty under which illegal residents
may depart the country without penalty.
The Government commits and tolerates serious human rights
abuses. 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. Prolonged detention is a problem. Security
forces committed such abuses, in contradiction of law, but with
the acquiescence of the Government. Mutawwa'in continued to intimidate,
abuse, and detain citizens and foreigners. The Government prohibits
or restricts freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association,
and religion. Other continuing problems included discrimination
and violence against women, discrimination against 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 on human rights.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person,
Including Freedom From:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial
There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial
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 disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or
Degrading Treatment or Punishment
There were credible reports that the authorities continued
to abuse detainees, both citizens and foreigners. Ministry of
Interior officials are responsible for most incidents of abuse,
including beatings, sleep deprivation, and torture. 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 denounce human rights abuses has contributed to
the public perception that abuses can be committed with impunity.
Although the number of reports of harassment by the Mutawwa'in
remained relatively low in comparison with previous years, the
Mutawwa'in continued to intimidate, abuse, and detain citizens
and foreigners of both sexes (see Section 1.d.).
The Government punishes criminals according to its interpretation
of Islamic law or Shari'a. Punishments include flogging, amputation,
and execution by beheading, stoning, or firing squad. In 1997
the authorities acknowledged 134 executions: 47 men and 1 woman
for murder (34 Saudis and 14 foreigners); 6 men for rape (all
Saudis), 5 men for forcible sodomy (all Saudis); 64 men and 2
women for narcotics offenses (2 Saudis and 64 foreigners); and
9 men for armed robbery (2 Saudis and 7 foreigners). The men
were executed by beheading. The women were executed by firing
squad. There were no executions by stoning. In accordance with
Shari'a, the authorities may punish repeated thievery by amputation
of the right hand. However, there were no amputations. 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, were sometimes punished by flogging with a cane.
Prison and jail conditions vary throughout the Kingdom.
Prisons generally meet minimum international 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. The Government,
however, does not permit human rights monitors to visit prisons
or jails. Diplomats were regularly granted access to incarcerated
foreign citizens. However, 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 housing
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 comparatively comfortable and well run. However, the Government
generally confines refugees to the camp except in the event of
approved emigration from Saudi Arabia.
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. There was only one known case of a citizen successfully
obtaining judicial redress for abuse of the Government's power
of arrest and detention. In 1995 a citizen successfully sued
the Government for wrongful imprisonment and was awarded compensation.
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 not released, authorities typically detain the accused
an average of 2 months before sending their 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 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, authorities have
arrested, tried, and executed foreigners without notifying the
foreign government. In 1997 authorities frequently failed to
notify diplomats of the arrest, detention, and even deportation
of foreign nationals.
The Mutawwa'in have the authority to detain people for no
more than 24 hours for violation of strict standards of proper
dress and behavior. However, they sometimes exceeded this limit
before delivering detainees to the police (see Section l.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. The number of reports of Mutawwa'in arresting
and detaining persons who allegedly violated dress and behavior
standards was approximately at the same reduced level as in the
Detainees arrested by the General Directorate of Investigation
(GDI), 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 people without charge who publicly
criticize the Government or 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. In 1997 there were unverified but credible
reports that a number of such persons were released from prison,
including Suleiman Al-Rushudi, a founding member of the dissident
Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR). The total
number of current political detainees cannot be determined but
is estimated at less than 200 persons. The Government released
under its annual Ramadan amnesty hundreds or thousands of prisoners
and detainees convicted or held for minor offenses.
The total number of political detainees can not be
accurately determined, but is probably less than 50.
Since beginning the investigation of the 1996 bombing of
a U.S. military facility in Saudi Arabia, authorities have detained
and interrogated an increased number of Shi'a Muslims suspected
of fundamentalist tendencies or Iranian sympathies.
The Government did not use forced exile, and it did not revoke
citizenship for political purposes in 1997. However, it has previously
revoked the citizenship of opponents of the Government who reside
outside the country, such as Mohammed Al-Masari (see Section 3)
and Osama Bin Ladin, widely regarded as a financier and organizer
of terrorist activities.
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, the
Ministry of Justice exercises judicial, financial, and administrative
control of the courts.
The legal system is based on Shari'a or Islamic law. 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 Shari'a summary courts; more serious crimes are adjudicated
in Shari'a courts of common pleas. Appeals from Shari'a courts
are 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
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 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 15 senior religious jurists, including the Minister of
Justice. It establishes the legal principles to guide lower court
judges in deciding 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. 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. However,
in a highly publicized 1997 case involving two foreign women charged
with murder, the Saudi court conducted preliminary matters and
the trial with relatively open and transparent procedures, including
more effective use of counsel, increased consular presence, and
increased family access.
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 abuse.
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. In a case that
received much publicity, a British nurse convicted of murdering
an Australian nurse in 1996 was spared the death penalty when
the victim's brother waved his right to demand that punishment
and agreed to accept "blood money" instead. A second
British nurse involved in the murder was convicted of a lesser
offense and not sentenced to death.
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. 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 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.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy,
Family, Home, or Correspondence
The sanctity of family life and the inviolability of the
home are among the most fundamental of Islamic precepts. Royal
decrees announced in 1992 include provisions calling for the Government
to defend the home from unlawful intrusions. Nonetheless, there
are few protections from government interference with one's privacy,
family, home, or correspondence.
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 and shipments for contraband,
including material deemed pornographic and non-Muslim religious
material. Customs officials confiscated or censored offending
materials, including Christian Bibles and religious video tapes
(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
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. In accordance
with Islamic law, women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims,
but 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. However, in certain areas,
the Mutawwa'in and religious vigilantes acting on their own harassed,
assaulted, battered, arrested, and detained citizens and foreigners,
albeit on a lesser scale than in 1995 and earlier years (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 publicly condemned abuses by Mutawwa'in and religious
vigilantes but has sought to curtail them.
Mutawwa'in enforcement of strict standards of social behavior
included the closing of commercial establishments during daily
prayer observances, insisting upon compliance with strict
norms of public dress, and dispersing gatherings of women
in public places. Mutawwa'in frequently remonstrated with Saudi
and foreign women for failure to observe strict dress codes, arrested
men and women found together who were not married or otherwise
close relatives, and arrested men suspected of homosexual activity.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Government severely limits freedom of speech and of 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.
Both Ash-Sharq al-Awsat and Al-Hayat tend to practice self-censorship
in order to comply with government restrictions on sensitive issues.
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 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 (CNN) and other satellite television channels, is
The Government tightly restricts the entry of foreign journalists
into the Kingdom. 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,
and sex from foreign programs and songs.
There are approximately 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 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 informers monitor their
classroom comments and report to government and religious authorities.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The Government strictly limits the 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 seeking to hold unsegregated meetings risk arrest
and deportation. The authorities monitor any large gathering
of people, especially of women. 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 repeated occasions during the
year, authorities actively prohibited escorted and unescorted
women from entering diplomatic chanceries to attend cultural events
and lectures. The Mutawwa'in dispersed groups of women found
in public places such as restaurants.
The Government strictly limits the 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
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.
Conversion by a Muslim to another religion is considered
apostasy. Public apostasy is a crime under Shari'a law and punishable
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 imams and others who work in the mosques. A governmental committee
is responsible for defining the qualifications of imams. The
Mutawwa'in receive their funding from the Government, and the
general president of the Mutawwa'in holds the rank of cabinet
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 political 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'ite holiday of Ashura, provided the marchers
do not display banners or engage in self-flagellation. Ashura
commemorations took place in 1997 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 the Government would prohibit the incorporation and display
of Shi'ite motifs in any such mosques.
The Government does not permit public non-Muslim religious
activities. Non-Muslim worshippers risk arrest, lashing, and
deportation for engaging in religious activity that attracts official
attention. There were no reports of government action against
private religious services in 1997. Furthermore, for the first
time, a senior Saudi leader stated publicly that the Government
does not "prevent" private non-Muslim religious worship
in the home. Such private non-Muslim worship activities occur
on a wide scale through the country, including on the premises
of several embassies. Other high level Saudi authorities have
privately confirmed that the Government's policy allows for private
non-Muslim worship and that the Government does not sanction investigation
or harassment of such private worship services. The Government
ascribes any residual harassment of private worship services to
individuals and organizations acting on their own authority and
in contradiction of government policy. In 1997 there were unverifiable,
second-hand reports indicating that the Mutawwa'in broke up two
non-Muslim worship services in private homes in Hafr Al-Batn and
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. There were credible reports that Mutawwa'in
arrested and beat foreigners found trafficking in religious symbols.
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). Men 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 may
be 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.
There were numerous reports of the Government prohibiting foreign
employees involved in labor disputes from departing the country
until the dispute was resolved.
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 sometimes prevents Shi'a Muslims
believed to have pro-Iranian sympathies from traveling abroad.
The Government also detained and interrogated some Saudi Shi'a
Muslims who had traveled to Iran, upon their return to Saudi Arabia
(see Section 5).
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 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 it 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 29,000 of the original 35,000
Iraqi refugees had been resettled in other countries or voluntarily
repatriated to Iraq. Most of the approximately 6,000 remaining
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 (see Section 1.c.).
The Government has allowed some foreigners to remain temporarily
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
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, including at least 3 Shi'a members.
The Council has maintained a low profile and is not regarded
as a significant political force by either the citizenry or those
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 legislation.
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 believe that institutionalized avenues
of domestic criticism of the regime are closed. Feedback is filtered
through private personal channels and during the year affected
policy issues such as the Middle East peace process, unemployment
of young Saudi men, and the construction of new infrastructure.
The Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, 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 spawned the rival Islamic Reform
Movement (IRM), headed by Sa'ad al-Eaqih. Al-Masari expressed
the CDLR's "understanding" of two fatal terrorist bombings
of American military facilities in 1995 and 1996 and sympathy
for the perpetrators. The IRM implicitly condoned the two terrorist
attacks in Saudi Arabia also, 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. At least 3 of the 90 members
of the Majlis Ash-Shura are 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 will be permitted. Both Amnesty International and Human
Rights Watch reported that they received no responses to their
requests for information or access to the country.
The Government does not permit visits by international human
rights groups or independent monitors, nor has it fully acceded
to all 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. The Government
generally ignores, or condemns as attacks on Islam, citations
of Saudi human rights abuses by international monitors or foreign
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex,
Religion, 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
The Government does not keep statistics on spousal or other
forms of violence against women. However, based on the limited
amount of information available regarding physical spousal abuse
and violence against women, such violence and abuse appear to
be a problem. 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 can prevent his wife and any
child or unmarried adult daughter from obtaining an exit visa
to depart Saudi Arabia (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 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
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, 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 a male relative. By
law and custom, women may not undertake domestic or foreign travel
alone (see Section 2.d.).
In public a woman is expected to wear an abaya, a black garment
covering the entire body, and to also 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.
In 1997 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 Saudi Arabia from official meetings and diplomatic
Women are also subject to discrimination under 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 1.f.).
Women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce,
but men may divorce without giving cause. If divorced or widowed,
a woman normally may keep her children until they attain a specified
age: 7 years for boys, 9 years for girls. Children over these
ages are awarded to the divorced husband or the deceased husband's
family. Numerous divorced women who are foreigners continued
to be prevented by their former husbands from visiting their children
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 subjects such as engineering,
journalism, and architecture. Men may study overseas; women may
do so only if accompanied by a spouse or an immediate male relative.
Women make up approximately 5 percent of the work force.
Most employment opportunities for women are in education and
health care, with lesser opportunity in business, philanthropy,
banking, retail sales, and the media. In 1997 the Government
authorized women to work in a limited capacity in the hotel industry.
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 the age of 7. In more general social situations,
boys are segregated at the age of 12 and girls at the onset of
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. Since the Iranian
revolution, some Shi'a suspected of subversion have been subjected
periodically to surveillance and limitations on travel abroad.
Since the authorities began investigating the 1996 bombing of
an American military installation, they have detained and interrogated
an increased number of Shi'a, including Shi'a returning to Saudi
Arabia following travel to Iran (see Sections 1.d and 2.d.).
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 will receive different 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 any strike activity.
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 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 (see Section 5).
There are no export processing zones.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory
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, giving rise to situations that might 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 salary (see Section
2.d.). In another pressure tactic, some sponsors refused 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' wishes.
There have been many reports of workers whose employers 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 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.
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.).
In 1997 the Government actively sought to eradicate forced child
begging. According to reports, criminal rings consisting almost
exclusively of foreigners bought and imported South Asian children,
including disabled children. Ring organizers systematically forced
the children to beg in the streets and then confiscated all money
that the children gained. Saudi authorities arrested some ring
organizers and returned at least 76 children to their own countries.
d. Status of Child Labor Practices and
Minimum Age for Employment
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 servants. The law does not specifically prohibit
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 and 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.
Some 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. Some
female domestic servants were often subject to abuse (see Sections
5 and 6.c.).
Saudiization is the Government's attempt to decrease
the number of expatriates working in certain occupations and to
replace them with Saudi workers. To this end, the Government
has taken several long term steps, most notably limiting employment
in certain fields to Saudis, by prohibiting renewal of existing
contracts, and requiring that open positions be filled by Saudi
workers. There is a limited number of persons, both influential
and otherwise, who attempt 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 Saudi positions. Furthermore, influential persons
may effectively circumvent the law because the Ministry of Labor
is simply unwilling to confront them.
The campaign to remove illegal immigrants from the country
did little if anything to Saudiize the economy since illegal immigrants
largely work in low-income positions, which most Saudis consider
unsuitable. The campaign did, however, improve overall working
conditions for legally employed immigrants in low-income positions.
The Government carried out the campaign by widely publishing
its intent to enforce existing laws against illegal immigrants
and Saudis employing or sponsoring illegal immigrants. At the
same time, 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. Not less than 200,000 persons
departed the country under terms of the amnesty. In the process,
the Government bowed to domestic pressure and granted grace periods
and exemptions for certain categories of illegal immigrants, thereby
allowing many illegal immigrants to legalize their status without
leaving the country. The effect of the expeditious repatriation
of some illegal immigrants and the legalization of others has
been to improve overall working conditions for legally employed
expatriates. Illegal immigrants are generally willing to accept
lower salaries and fewer benefits than legally employed immigrants.
Their departure or legalization 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 immigrants. Furthermore, the departure or legalization
removed a large portion of the class of persons most vulnerable
to abuse and exploitation because of their illegal status.
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.
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 their employment
if they were to remove themselves from hazardous work conditions.
Source: U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices