The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, ruled by the al-Saud family, with a legal system based on its interpretation of Shari'a (Islamic law). King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud assumed the throne in 2005. Despite some improvements, the government's human rights record remained poor. Most trials were closed, and defendants usually had no legal counsel; there was a lack of judicial independence. There were reports of authorities physically abusing and torturing prisoners. The Ministry of Interior allegedly sought to enforce a ban on the use of torture by police officers and dismissed some officers failing to adhere to this ban. Improvements included greater media attention to the excesses of the religious police and recent statements by the king endorsing an interfaith dialogue that would include Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders. Infliction of severe pain by judicially sanctioned corporal punishments, beatings, and other abuse occurred. The government did not provide legal recognition or protection for freedom of religion and formally outlaws the practice, advocacy, or conversion to any religion other than Islam. Discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, sect, race, and ethnicity was common. The religious police continued to abuse detainees and to arbitrarily arrest, detain, and hold persons, sometimes incommunicado. Several individuals died after beatings that took place while in the custody of the religious police. The government restricted the freedom of assembly, association, and movement. Limitations on the rights of foreign workers remained a severe problem, as did corruption and a lack of government transparency. The 178 all-male municipal councils, half of whose members were elected in April 2005 and half appointed in December 2005, performed limited administrative duties, reviewed budgets, and made recommendations to the Ministry of Rural Affairs and Municipalities. Improvements included less government restriction on media reporting of certain issues, including complaints against the government, and a lifting of bans on several books.
The United States, working with the government, strives to facilitate the development of a stable, responsive, transparent, and accountable state that complies with international human rights standards and allows its citizens to participate in the political process. The United States continues to engage actively with the government to permit wider participation in the decision-making process, support political and civil society institutions, increase government accountability, strengthen religious freedom, and ensure rights for ethnic and religious minorities, women, and foreign and domestic workers. Through mechanisms such as the U.S.-Saudi Arabia Strategic Dialogue, the United States encourages the government's efforts to implement reforms that counter extremism and strengthen human rights and democratic institutions.
The United States consistently urges the government to promote political participation, transparency, and accountability in the government. U.S. officials regularly meet with and encourage the work of the Human Rights Commission and the National Society for Human Rights, as well as NGOs not recognized by the government, such as the Human Rights First Society. U.S. officials participate in civic organization meetings, including roundtables to discuss internal political reform on such topics as the increasing importance of the Shura council and municipal councils, or the rights of women and minority groups.
The U.S. government continues to utilize exchange programs to promote democratic values. Through the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the United States sponsors participation by members of government and civil society in U.S. seminars focusing on topics such as the rule of law in judicial reform, religious and public education in the United States, U.S. elections, NGO administration, participatory democracy, civil liberties, youth leadership, and volunteerism. The United States provides exchanges and training to promote an independent judiciary, community involvement in government decision making, investigative journalism, grassroots democracy, and women's health issues. The United States continues to encourage civil society development through U.S. speakers programs co-hosted by local civil society organizations. In March 2008 the United States initiated a media exchange program with radio and television talk show hosts to help sharpen their professional skills, encourage moderation, promote democratic values, and counter common extremist ideas.
U.S. foreign assistance supports programs that provide ongoing political skills training, including in the area of legal reform, for potential female candidates and campaign activists. The United States plans to support training aimed at contributing to greater involvement in government activities by the Majlis Al-Shura (the Consultative Council) and the 178 municipal councils.
The United States consistently advocates for religious freedom, which is severely restricted in the country. In November 2007 the U.S. secretary of state redesignated Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern for severe violations of religious freedom. The ambassador and other senior U.S. officials regularly raise the issue of religious freedom with senior government officials. The United States encourages government officials to protect private religious worship by non-Muslims, eliminate discrimination against religious minorities, and promote tolerance towards non-Muslims and those Muslims who do not adhere to Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Hanbali Islam. The United States supports provisions calling for religious tolerance, improved human rights standards, and state accountability. One of the issues the United States continues to raise in private meetings is the government's efforts to revise and update its textbooks to remove all intolerant passages that advocate violence, disparage or promote hatred toward other religions, or encourage hostility toward other Islamic sects. That effort is expected to be completed in time for the start of the 2008 school year. Several IVLPs, Voluntary Visitor Programs, and U.S. speaker programs promote religious tolerance.
The United States encourages the government to raise public awareness of abuse of foreign workers, particularly domestic workers, and to extend labor protections to these workers. The United States advocates for long-term improvements in the status and legal rights of foreign laborers under the labor law. In coordination with source-country governments, the United States works to promote better legal protections for foreign workers, prevent trafficking in persons, protect trafficking victims, and investigate and prosecute traffickers.
The United States continues to provide education and training to the military to increase its awareness of international norms of human rights and foster greater respect for the principle of civilian control of the military and the rule of law. In October 2007 First Lady Laura Bush witnessed the signing of the U.S.-Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research during her visit to the country. This program is the first joint cooperation program between the United States and Saudi Arabia in the fight against cancer.