According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the kingdom’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based on sharia as interpreted within the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law and the government does not recognize the freedom to practice publicly any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts deemed contrary to sharia, including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. Shia clerics and activists who advocated for equal treatment of Shia Muslims were arrested, and the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was executed after being convicted on a number of charges including inciting terrorism and sedition. The government convicted and imprisoned individuals on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. The government sometimes harassed, detained, arrested, and occasionally deported some foreign residents who participated in private non-Islamic religious activities, citing prohibitions on gender mixing, noise disturbances, and immigration violations. A pattern of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur with respect to access to public services and equitable representation in government, educational and public-sector employment opportunities, and judicial matters. The government continued to censor or block some content in the media, including social media and the internet. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV, understood by some outside the country as the “religious police”) monitored social behavior in order to enforce laws and regulations protecting “public morals.” The Riyadh police detained a woman for “violations of general morals” after she posted on social media pictures of herself in public without a hijab or abaya and after she discussed sexual relations with unrelated men. On April 10, the cabinet approved a royal decree stripping the CPVPV of its authority to pursue suspects, arrest or detain them, or ask for their identification. In March at the Riyadh International Book Fair and in December at the Jeddah Book Fair some exhibitors displayed anti-Semitic and misogynistic books.
There were attacks during the year targeting Shia worshipers. On July 4, there were two attacks, one in Medina against the Prophet’s Mosque, a holy site for both Sunnis and Shia, and the other in Qatif. On January 29, suicide attackers killed four and wounded 18 in an attack on Shia al-Ridha Mosque in al-Ahsa province. The government, which provides security at both Sunni and Shia places of worship, condemned and investigated the attacks. No group claimed responsibility.
A pattern of societal prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued regarding private sector employment. Social media provided an outlet to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of religious groups.
Embassy and consulate officials at all levels continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs. During the year, the Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, and queried the legal status of those detained with officials from a variety of government entities. Embassy and consulate officials continued to discuss religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on October 31, 2016, the Secretary of State re-designated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.