The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is both head of state and head of government. The 1992 Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government, and it provides that the Quran and Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) serve as the country’s constitution. It specifies that the rulers of the country shall be male descendants of the founder, King Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud). In 2015 the country held its most recent municipal elections on a nonparty basis for two-thirds of the 3,159 seats in the 284 municipal councils around the country. Independent polling station observers did not identify significant irregularities with the elections.
The State Security Presidency (SSP), the National Guard, and the Ministries of Defense and Interior, all of which report to the king, are responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The SSP includes the General Directorate of Investigation (Mabahith), Special Security Forces, and Special Emergency Forces; police are under the Ministry of Interior. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces.
Through royal decrees the government instituted significant reforms to male guardianship provisions that had long required women to obtain permission from a close male relative for a range of activities, including applying for passports and traveling abroad, registering the birth of a child, registering a marriage or divorce, obtaining status as a “head of household,” and seeking legal guardianship of children. Other new regulations expanded women’s economic empowerment by banning gender discrimination in the workplace and opening new employment opportunities for women.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture of prisoners and detainees by government agents; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; criminalization of libel, censorship, and site blocking; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and movement; severe restrictions of religious freedom; citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections; trafficking in persons; violence and official discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were implemented; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and prohibition of trade unions.
In several cases the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity. Following the high-profile October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, a court sentenced five officials to death and three officials to prison on December 23. The court ruled that guilt could not be established in the case of three other defendants.
In September state-owned oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked by drones and missiles. Houthi militants in Yemen claimed responsibility, but the Saudi government concluded Iran was responsible for the attack. Houthi militants were also responsible for numerous other attacks on civilian infrastructure inside Saudi Arabia, including airports, schools, hospitals, and oil facilities. Saudi Arabia continued air operations in Yemen throughout the year as leader of a coalition formed in 2015 to counter the 2014 Houthi takeover of government institutions and facilities. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen reportedly resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure on multiple occasions. The pace of airstrikes declined in the fall, as the warring parties pursued a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT) investigated allegations of civilian casualties, but the Saudi government did not prosecute any cases based on JIAT findings.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law does not provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage; it establishes an absolute monarchy led by the Al Saud family as the political system. The Allegiance Council, composed of up to 34 senior princes appointed by the king, is formally responsible for selecting a king and crown prince upon the death or incapacitation of either. Only select members of the ruling family have a voice in the choice of leaders, the composition of the government, or changes to the political system.
The law provides citizens the right to communicate with public authorities on any matter and establishes the government on the principle of consultation (shura). The king and senior officials, including ministers and regional governors, are required to be available through majlis, open-door meetings where in theory any male citizen or noncitizen may express an opinion or a grievance without an appointment.
Most government ministries and agencies had women’s sections to interact with female citizens and noncitizens, and at least two regional governorates hired female employees to receive women’s petitions and arrange meetings for women with complaints for, or requests of, the governor.
Recent Elections: In 2015 elections were held for two-thirds of the 3,159 seats on 284 municipal councils; the government appointed the remaining third. Council members serve until an intervening election–nominally for four-year terms–but there was no active discussion of holding municipal elections during the year. Women were allowed to vote and run as candidates for the first time in 2015. The voting age was also lowered universally to 18 years. The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs actively encouraged women’s participation in the municipal elections. Election regulations prohibited candidates from contesting under party affiliation. Twenty-one women won seats and 17 were appointed to seats, totaling approximately 1 percent of all available seats.
The NSHR observed the elections, and select international journalists were also permitted to observe. Independent polling station observers identified no irregularities with the election. Prior to the election, several candidates reported they were disqualified for “violating the rules and regulations” without further explanation. They had the right to appeal, and some were reinstated in time for the elections. Uniformed members of the security forces, including the military and police, were ineligible to vote.
Political Parties and Political Participation: There were no political parties or similar associations. The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans a number of organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups. The government continued to regard human rights organizations, such as ACPRA, as illegal political movements and treated them accordingly.
Participation of Women and Minorities: The government changed laws and regulations to open new social and economic opportunities for women, but societal and institutional gender discrimination continued to exclude women from some aspects of public life. Political participation remained restricted, and authorities arrested and abused women’s rights activists perceived as critical or independent of the government. Nevertheless, women served in senior advisory positions within government ministries.
On March 8, the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques appointed a female official to a leadership position for the first time, naming Dr. Munira bint Awad al-Jamihi as head the General Directorate for Women’s Affairs. On April 1, Minister of Civil Services Sulaiman al-Hamdan appointed Hind al-Zahid as undersecretary for women’s empowerment. In June the Ministry of Education appointed five women to leadership positions as undersecretaries and directors general. On August 19, Minister of Education Hamad Al al-Sheikh appointed Ibtisam al-Shehri as the first spokeswoman for public education in the country.
Thirty women were members of the Consultative Council, the 150-person royally appointed body that advises the king and may propose but not pass laws.
Women’s ability to practice law was limited; there were no women on the High Court or Supreme Judicial Council and no female judges or public prosecutors. On August 26, however, the PPO announced the appointment of 50 women as public prosecution investigators, marking the first time that women had held this position.
The country had an increasing number of female diplomats. On February 23, a royal decree appointed the first female Saudi ambassador, naming H.R.H. Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud to be ambassador to the United States. In May local media reported that approximately 30 percent of Ministry of Foreign Affairs employees were women.
Bureaucratic procedures largely restricted women working in the security services to employment in women’s prisons, at women’s universities, and in clerical positions in police stations, where they were responsible for visually identifying other women, for example wearing niqabs, for law enforcement purposes. In June the Ministry of Interior employed women as security guards at the women’s offices of the Civil Affairs Departments throughout the kingdom.
No laws prevent male citizens from minority groups from participating in political life on the same basis as other male citizens. Societal discrimination, however, marginalized the Shia Saudi population, and tribal factors and longstanding traditions continued to dictate many individual appointments to positions. Unofficially, government authorities will not appoint a Bedouin tribesman to a high-ranking cabinet-level position, and Bedouins can reach only the rank of major general in the armed forces. All cabinet members from tribal communities were members of urbanized “Hamael” tribes, rather than Bedouin tribes. While the religious affiliation of Consultative Council members was not known publicly, the council included an estimated seven or eight Shia members. The cabinet contained one religious minority member, Mohammad bin Faisal Abu Saq, a Shia Ismaili, who had held the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs since 2014. Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Saudis resided, had large proportions of Shia Saudis as members to reflect the local population, including a majority in Qatif and 50 percent in al-Ahsa. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts.