Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law does not provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. The Basic Law specifies, “Mass media and all other vehicles of expression shall employ civil and polite language, contribute towards the education of the nation, and strengthen unity. The media are prohibited from committing acts that lead to disorder and division, affect the security of the state or its public relations, or undermine human dignity and rights.” Authorities are responsible for regulating and determining which speech or expression undermines internal security. The government can ban or suspend media outlets if it concludes they violated the press and publications law, and it monitored and blocked hundreds of thousands of internet sites. There were frequent reports of restrictions on free speech.
The counterterrorism law’s definition of terrorism includes “any conduct…intended to disturb public order…or destabilize the state or endanger its national unity.” The law also penalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the king or crown prince…or anyone who establishes or uses a website or computer program…to commit any of the offenses set out in the law.” Local human rights activists, international human rights organizations, and the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism criticized the law for its overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism and complained the government used it to prosecute peaceful expression and dissent.
Freedom of Expression: The government monitored public expressions of opinion and took advantage of legal controls to impede the free expression of opinion and restrict individuals from engaging in public criticism of the political sphere. The law forbids apostasy and blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty, although there were no recent instances of death sentences being carried out for these crimes (see section 1.a.). Statements that authorities construed as constituting defamation of the king, monarchy, governing system, or Al Saud family resulted in criminal charges for citizens advocating government reform. The government prohibits public employees from directly or indirectly engaging in dialogue with local or foreign media or participating in any meetings intended to oppose state policies.
Some human rights activists were detained and then released on the condition that they refrain from using social media for activism, communicating with foreign diplomats and international human rights organizations, and traveling outside the country, according to human rights organizations.
The government detained a number of individuals for crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. From September to November, human rights groups and foreign media reported that authorities detained at least six persons, including an academic, poet, and tribal chief, for allegedly criticizing the General Entertainment Authority (GEA).
On October 10, Omar al-Muqbil, an academic at Qassim University, was allegedly arrested over a video criticizing the GEA’s recent policy of hosting concerts by international artists. In the video he accused the GEA of “erasing society’s original identity.” On October 21, poet Safar al-Dughilbi was summoned for questioning regarding a poem he wrote that referred to the “ill-practices” of the GEA. On October 22, the Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account announced a chief of the Otaiba tribe, Faisal Sultan Jahjah bin Humaid, was detained and questioned following a tweet criticizing the GEA and calling for “reasonable forms of entertainment.”
On November 12, the chairman of the GEA, Turki Al al-Sheikh, warned on Twitter the government would “take legal steps against anyone who criticizes or complains about the authority’s work.”
Between November 16 and November 20, authorities detained at least 11 persons, mostly journalists, writers, and entrepreneurs, according to the ALQST. A few days later, authorities released at least eight of those detained.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The Press and Publications Law governs printed materials; printing presses; bookstores; the import, rental, and sale of films; television and radio; foreign media offices and their correspondents; and online newspapers and journals. Media fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Media. The ministry may permanently close “whenever necessary” any means of communication–defined as any means of expressing a viewpoint that is meant for circulation–that it deems is engaged in a prohibited activity, as set forth in the law.
Media policy statements urged journalists to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve cultural heritage. In 2011 a royal decree amended the press law to strengthen penalties, create a special commission to judge violations, and require all online newspapers and bloggers to obtain a license from the ministry. The decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”
The law states that violators can face fines up to 50,000 riyals ($13,300) for each violation of the law, which doubles if the violation is repeated. Other penalties include banning individuals from writing. While the Violations Considerations Committee in the Ministry of Media has formal responsibility for implementing the law, the Ministry of Interior, the CPVPV, and judges considered these issues regularly and exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law. It was unclear which of these institutional processes accords with the law.
Although unlicensed satellite dishes were illegal, the government did not enforce restrictions on them, and their use was widespread. Many foreign satellite stations broadcast a wide range of programs into the country in Arabic and other languages, including foreign news channels. Access to foreign sources of information, including via satellite dishes and the internet, was common. Foreign media were subject to licensing requirements from the Ministry of Media and could not operate freely. Privately owned satellite television networks, headquartered outside the country, maintained local offices and operated under a system of self-censorship.
On March 3, local media reported that authorities temporarily suspended a talk show hosted by journalist and Saudi Broadcasting Corporation president Dawood al-Shirian after it showed episodes on the guardianship system, the shortage of driving schools for women, and Saudi women seeking asylum abroad. The show returned a week later on March 10, according to Okaz daily newspaper.
On June 11, local media reported the GEA banned Kuwaiti artist Mona Shadad from appearing on local radio and television channels after Shadad appeared in a video praising Qatar.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists, writers, and bloggers to arrest, imprisonment, and harassment during the year (see sections 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions and 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Throughout the year NGOs, academics, and the press reported on the government’s targeting of dissidents using automated social media accounts to ensure that progovernment messages dominated social media trend lists and effectively silenced dissenting voices. Automated account activity was reportedly accompanied by online harassment by progovernment accounts in some instances. Dissidents with large social media followings were targeted for offline harassment and surveillance as well.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government reportedly penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines and directly or indirectly censored the media by licensing domestic media and by controlling importation of foreign printed material.
All newspapers, blogs, and websites in the country must be government licensed. The Ministry of Media must approve the appointment of all senior editors and has authority to remove them. The government provided guidelines to newspapers regarding controversial issues. The Saudi Press Agency reported official government news. The government owned most print and broadcast media and book publication facilities in the country, and members of the royal family owned or influenced privately owned and nominally independent operations, including various media outlets and widely circulated pan-Arab newspapers published outside the country. Authorities prevented or delayed the distribution of foreign print media covering issues considered sensitive, effectively censoring these publications.
The government censored published material it considered blasphemous, extremist, racist, or offensive or as inciting chaos, violence, sectarianism, or harm to the public order. In 2017 the PPO stated that producing and promoting “rumors that affect the public order” was a crime under the cybercrimes law and punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine of three million riyals ($800,000), or both. In June 2018 the PPO warned against sending, producing, or storing any material that stirs up tribalism and fanaticism or harms public order, which is also punishable by the above penalties. On July 10, the Shura Council called on the General Commission for Audiovisual Media to intensify efforts to prevent the broadcast of content that contravenes the country’s laws, customs, traditions, and public decorum or harms the reputation of the kingdom and its people. According to the Saudi Press Agency, the council underlined the need to enhance control of the electronic games market through surveillance of stores, markets, and websites in accordance with local and international regulations.
In some cases, however, individuals criticized specific government bodies or actions publicly without repercussions. The Consultative Council (Majlis ash-Shura), an advisory body, frequently allowed print and broadcast media to observe its proceedings and meetings, but the council closed some high-profile or controversial sessions to the media.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were numerous reports during the year of the government using libel laws to suppress publication of material that criticized policies or public officials.
The cybercrimes law provides for a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment for “defamation and infliction of damage upon others through the use of various information technology devices,” including social media and social networks.
National Security: Authorities used the cybercrimes law and the counterterrorism law to restrict freedom of expression, including by prosecuting numerous individuals under these laws on charges related to statements made on social media.
The Ministry of Media or its agencies must authorize all websites registered and hosted in the country. The General Commission for Audiovisual Media has responsibility for regulating all audio and video content in the country, including satellite channels, film, music, internet, and mobile applications, independent from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Internet access was widely available.
The press and publications law implicitly covers electronic media, since it extends to any means of expression of a viewpoint meant for circulation, ranging from words to cartoons, photographs, and sounds. In 2011 the government issued implementing regulations for electronic publishing that set rules for internet-based and other electronic media, including chat rooms, personal blogs, and text messages. In May 2018 then information minister Awwad bin Saleh al-Awwad approved the executive regulations for types and forms of electronic publishing activities. The list consists of 17 items defining the mechanisms of dealing with electronic publishing activities, classifications, and ways of obtaining the appropriate regulatory licenses to carry out the required activities. Laws, including the cybercrimes law, criminalize a number of internet-related activities, including defamation, hacking, unauthorized access to government websites, and stealing information related to national security as well as the creation or dissemination of a website for a terrorist organization. Security authorities actively monitored internet activity, both to enforce laws, regulations, and societal norms and to monitor recruitment efforts by extremist organizations such as ISIS.
The government reportedly collected information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online. According to Freedom House, authorities regularly monitored nonviolent political, social, and religious activists and journalists in the name of national security and maintaining social order. The NGO Citizen Lab reported that NSO Group, an Israeli cybersecurity firm, provided spyware to the government to monitor activists’ communications on web-based applications.
Access to the internet is legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers. The government required internet service providers to monitor customers and required internet cafes to install hidden cameras and provide identity records of customers. Although authorities blocked websites offering proxies, persistent internet users accessed the unfiltered internet via other means.
On a number of occasions, government officials and senior clerics publicly warned against inaccurate reports on the internet and reminded the public that criticism of the government and its officials should be done through available private channels. The government charged those using the internet to express dissent against officials or religious authorities with terrorism, blasphemy, and apostasy.
The press and publications law criminalizes the publication or downloading of offensive sites, and authorities routinely blocked sites containing material perceived as harmful, illegal, offensive, or anti-Islamic. The governmental Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) filtered and blocked access to websites it deemed offensive, including adult content, as well as pages calling for domestic political, social, or economic reforms or supporting human rights, including websites of expatriate Saudi dissidents.
The CITC coordinated decisions with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency on blocking phishing sites seeking to obtain confidential personal or financial information. Authorities submitted all other requests to block sites to an interagency committee, chaired by the Ministry of Interior, for decision. Under the Telecommunication Act, failure by service providers to block banned sites can result in a fine of five million riyals ($1.33 million).
In 2016 the CITC announced it was no longer blocking any free voice, video, or messaging services after criticisms on social media that these services had been blocked. In 2017 the CITC announced the unblocking of calling features for private messenger apps that met regulatory requirements in the country, such as Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Snapchat, Skype, Line, Telegram, and Tango. On March 12, WhatsApp users reported the unblocking of its calling feature, but the service was reblocked hours later. Other video-calling apps, including Viber, reported services were still blocked.
The government has blocked Qatari websites such as al–Jazeera since 2017, due to a dispute between Qatar and a group of countries that included Saudi Arabia.
In 2017 a government official stated that writing for blocked websites, providing them with materials to publish, or promoting alternative addresses to access them is a crime under the cybercrimes law.
The government restricted some public artistic expression but opened up cultural expression in a number of areas. Academics reportedly practiced self-censorship, and authorities prohibited professors and administrators at public universities from hosting meetings at their universities with foreign academics or diplomats without prior government permission (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).
During the year there was an increase in the number of concerts, sports competitions, and cultural performances available to the public. In 2016 King Salman issued royal decrees creating the GEA and the General Authority for Culture with a mandate to expand the country’s entertainment and cultural offerings in line with its social and economic reform plan, known as Vision 2030. During the year the GEA sponsored events dedicated to film, comics, music, and dance. In June 2018 King Salman issued a royal order creating the Ministry of Culture, separating it from the Information Ministry and appointed Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud as its minister. The country’s first cinema in more than 35 years opened in April 2018, and additional cinemas opened across the country during the year.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law does not provide for freedom of assembly and association, which the government severely limited.
The law requires a government permit for an organized public assembly of any type. The government categorically forbids participation in political protests or unauthorized public assemblies, and security forces reportedly arrested demonstrators and detained them for brief periods. Security forces at times allowed a small number of unauthorized demonstrations throughout the country.
The law provided for limited freedom of association; however, the government strictly limited this right. The law provides a comprehensive legal framework to govern the establishment, operation, and supervision of associations and foundations. The government, however, prohibited the establishment of political parties or any group it considered as opposing or challenging the regime. All associations must be licensed by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and comply with its regulations. Some groups that advocated changing elements of the social or political order reported their licensing requests went unanswered for years, despite repeated inquiries. The ministry reportedly used arbitrary means, such as requiring unreasonable types and quantities of information, to delay and effectively deny licenses to associations.
On August 20, local media reported the issuance of new government regulations that obligate members of the Shura Council and university professors to disclose membership in foreign institutions and associations. These individuals must obtain approval from the relevant authorities before joining any foreign organization.
In 2013 and 2014, the few local NGOs that had operated without a license ceased operating after authorities ordered them disbanded. In the years since banning the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) in 2013, the government pursued criminal charges against ACPRA affiliates. In February 2018 the SCC sentenced lawyer and ACPRA-member Issa al-Nukheifi to six years in prison, based on charges of “infringing on the public order and religious values,” “opposing Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen,” and related charges. Prisoners of Conscience reported in August that al-Nukheifi was facing additional charges and a new trial.
Government-chartered associations limited membership only to citizens.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law does not contain provisions for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the free movement of male citizens within the country. The guardianship system does not require a woman to have the permission of her male guardian (normally a father, husband, son, brother, grandfather, uncle, or other male relative) to move freely within the country (see section 6, Women). Courts, however, sometimes ruled that women should abide by a male guardian’s request to stay at home by “occasionally upholding a guardian’s right to obedience from his female dependents,” according to an HRW report.
Authorities respected the right of citizens to change residence or workplace, provided they held a national identification card (NIC). The law requires all male citizens who are 15 or older to possess a NIC. In 2012 the Ministry of Interior announced it would start issuing NICs to all female citizens at the age of 15, phasing in the requirement over a seven-year period. There was minimal information available regarding whether this initiative was successfully implemented.
In June 2018 the country lifted its longstanding ban on women driving. The process of issuing licenses, however, was slowed by the small number of training schools available to women, which resulted in waiting lists for driving classes, since a driving school certificate is a requirement to obtain a license. Another obstacle was the high cost of driver’s education for women, which international media reported was four to five times as expensive as men’s fees, reportedly because women’s schools had better technology and facilities.
Foreign Travel: There are restrictions on foreign travel. Many foreign workers require an exit visa and a valid passport to depart the country. Saudi citizens of both genders younger than 21, other dependents, or foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a guardian’s consent to travel abroad. On June 20, Okaz reported that married Saudi men younger than 21 no longer require guardian consent to travel abroad. According to Ministry of Interior regulations, a noncitizen wife needs permission from her husband to travel, unless both partners sign a prenuptial agreement permitting the noncitizen wife to travel without the husband’s permission. Government entities can ban the travel of citizens and noncitizens without trial, and male family members can “blacklist” women and minor children by reporting them as “disobedient,” prohibiting their travel.
On August 1, the government published Royal Decree 134/M, which stipulates that citizens of either gender older than 21 can obtain and renew a passport and travel abroad without guardian permission. The travel regulations entered into effect on August 20. On October 14, local media reported that as many as 14,000 adult women had obtained their passports since August without seeking the consent of their legal guardian.
Employers or sponsors controlled the departure of foreign workers and residents from the country; employers or sponsors were responsible for processing residence permits and exit visas on their behalf. Sponsors frequently held their employees’ passports against the desires of the employees, despite a law specifically prohibiting this practice. Foreign workers typically provided sponsors with their residence permit before traveling in exchange for their passport to ensure the worker’s return to their employer after their travel.
The government reportedly confiscated passports for political reasons and revoked the rights of some citizens to travel, often without providing them notification or opportunity to contest the restriction. Most travel bans reportedly involved individuals in court cases relating to corruption, state security concerns, or labor, financial, and real estate disputes. Many relatives of citizens detained in relation to the government’s anticorruption campaign as well as relatives of detained clerics and human rights activists were also reportedly under travel bans.
The government seized the U.S. passports of the wife and children of dual U.S.-Saudi citizen Walid Fitaihi, barring them from leaving the kingdom and freezing their assets following Fitaihi’s detention in 2017. While the international travel ban for family members had been lifted at times during Fitaihi’s detention, it was reinstated following Fitaihi’s release on bond and subsequent charging in July.
Access to Asylum: The law provides that the “state will grant political asylum if public interest so dictates.” There are no regulations implementing this provision. Generally, there is not a codified asylum system for those fleeing persecution, and the country is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The government permitted refugees recognized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to stay in the country temporarily, pending identification of a durable solution, including third-country resettlement or voluntary repatriation. The government generally did not grant asylum or accept refugees for resettlement from third countries. Government policy is to refuse refugee status to persons in the country illegally, including those who have overstayed a pilgrimage visa. The government strongly encouraged persons without residency to leave, and it threatened or imposed deportation. Access to naturalization was difficult for refugees.
The government granted six-month visas to Syrian and Yemeni citizens, and a royal decree allowed pro forma extensions of these visas. On January 8 and July 11, the General Directorate of Passports announced renewal of visitor identification cards for Yemeni citizens in accordance with royal directives. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported, however, that during the year more than 30,000 Yemenis were deported due to their immigration status (see section 7.e., Acceptable Conditions of Work). In April 2018 then foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir stated that, since the start of the Syrian conflict, the country had taken in approximately two and one-half million Syrians and treated them as its own citizens, providing them with free health care, work, and education. He added that the country’s universities and schools had more than 140,000 Syrian students.
The IOM reported that as of August an estimated 300,000 Ethiopians had returned to Ethiopia since the government launched a campaign titled “A Nation without Violations” in 2017. HRW reported that a number of these migrants came to Saudi Arabia after experiencing persecution by the Ethiopian government and that deportations may have returned individuals to potentially harmful circumstances. HRW also noted migrants had faced abusive prison conditions in Saudi Arabia.
The government did not recognize the right of Saudi citizens to petition for access to asylum or refugee status in foreign countries. In several cases the government prosecuted and penalized Saudi citizens who sought asylum in foreign countries, according to multiple sources (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association). In January an 18-year-old Saudi citizen, citing fear for her life, was granted refugee status in Canada after fleeing from her family to Bangkok. Rahaf Mohammed claimed the Saudi embassy in Bangkok tried to force her to return to Saudi Arabia.
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers were generally unable to work legally, although Syrian and Yemeni citizens who possessed a temporary visa could obtain a visitor card from the Ministry of Interior, which reportedly allows these persons to work. The renewable permits are valid for up to six months and tied to the validity period of their temporary visas; men between the ages of 18 and 60 were eligible to apply. In 2017 the General Directorate of Passports allowed Yemeni men to convert their visitor identification card to a residency permit if their Yemeni passport and visitor identification card were valid.
Access to Basic Services: The government provides preferential access to education, health care, public housing, and other social services to citizens and certain legal residents. A royal decree issued in 2012 permitted all Syrians in Saudi Arabia free access to the educational system and a separate decree issued in 2015 gave Yemenis in Saudi Arabia free access to schools. The Ministry of Education modified these decisions in February 2018, announcing that Syrian and Yemeni students holding visitor identification cards were no longer allowed to enroll in public schools and universities and would have to enroll in private ones at their own expense. The UNHCR office in Riyadh provided a subsistence allowance covering basic services to a limited number of vulnerable families, based on a needs assessment. Authorities worked with UNHCR to provide medical treatment, also following a needs assessment.
The country had a number of habitual residents who were legally stateless, but data on the stateless population were incomplete and scarce.
Citizenship is legally derived only from the father. Children born to an unmarried citizen mother who is not legally affiliated with the citizen father may be considered stateless, even if the father recognized the child as his, or if the government did not authorize the marriage of a citizen father and a noncitizen mother prior to birth of the children. The nationality laws do not allow Saudi women married to foreign citizens to pass their nationality to their children, except in certain circumstances, such as fathers who are unknown, stateless, of unknown nationality, or do not establish filiation. Sons of citizen mothers and noncitizen fathers may apply for citizenship once they turn 18 (if not already granted citizenship at birth under certain circumstances); daughters in such cases can obtain citizenship only through marriage to a Saudi man. A child may lose legal identification and accompanying rights if authorities withdraw identification documents from a parent (possible when a naturalized parent denaturalizes voluntarily or loses citizenship through other acts). Since there is no codified personal status law, judges make decisions regarding family matters based on their own interpretations of Islamic law.
Foreign male spouses of female citizens can obtain permanent residency in the country without needing a sponsor, and they can receive free government education and medical benefits, although in general they cannot apply for citizenship on the basis of their marriage and residence. These spouses are also included in the quota of Saudis employed in private companies under the labor quota system, which improves their employment prospects. Female citizens must be between the ages of 30 and 50 in order to marry a non-Saudi man. Non-Saudi wives of Saudi men receive more rights if they have children resulting from their marriage with a Saudi man. Male citizens must be between the ages of 40 and 65 in order to marry a non-Saudi woman. The extent to which those strictures were enforced was unclear; there was anecdotal evidence that they were not uniformly enforced. Children of Saudi women who are married to foreign spouses receive permanent residency, but their residency status is revocable in the event of the death of the Saudi mother.
In past years UNHCR unofficially estimated there were 70,000 stateless persons in the country, almost all of whom were native-born residents known locally as Bidoon (an Arabic word that means “without” [citizenship]). Updated information on stateless persons was not available. Bidoon are persons whose ancestors failed to obtain nationality, such as descendants of nomadic tribes not counted among the native tribes during the reign of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz; descendants of foreign-born fathers who arrived before there were laws regulating citizenship; and rural migrants whose parents failed to register their births. As noncitizens, Bidoon are unable to obtain passports. The government sometimes denied them employment and educational opportunities, and their marginalized status made them among the poorest residents of the country. In recent years the Ministry of Education encouraged them to attend school. The government issues Bidoon five-year residency permits to facilitate their social integration in government-provided health care and other services, putting them on similar footing with sponsored foreign workers. The General Directorate of Passports issued special identification cards to Bidoon similar to residency permits issued to foreigners in the country, but with features entitling their holders to additional government services similar to those available to citizens.
Very small numbers of Baloch, West African, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma resident in Saudi Arabia were stateless. Some Rohingya had expired passports that their home government had refused to renew, or they had entered the country with fraudulent travel documents. Many of them had been held in detention for years following their entry into the country under fake passports. UNHCR estimated there were between 250,000 and 500,000 Rohingya in the country. Some of these individuals benefited from a prior program to correct their residency status; in 2014 the government issued nearly 200,000 four-year residency permits to Rohingya who entered the country prior to 2008. Rohingya who arrived in the country after 2008 were not eligible for residency permits, although NGOs reported that Rohingya, including those without legal residency, were generally not subject to deportation prior to 2018. Upon the expiration of Rohingya residency permits in 2018, media reported more than 100 Rohingya faced deportation to Bangladesh at year’s end, and hundreds more were in detention at Shumaisi Detention Center near Mecca. In January the activist group Free Rohingya Coalition said Saudi Arabia continued to deport dozens of Rohingya to Bangladesh and was planning to deport 250 more. On January 26, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, criticized Saudi Arabia for mistreatment of the Rohingya. In April a report indicated that nearly 650 Rohingya refugees at Shumaisi detention center in Jeddah went on a hunger strike, resulting in a number of deaths. Only an estimated 2,000 individuals of Rohingya origin had Saudi citizenship.
There also were between 300,000 and 400,000 Palestinian residents not registered as refugees.
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.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense under sharia with a wide range of penalties, from flogging to execution. The law does not recognize spousal rape as a crime. The government enforced the law based on its interpretation of sharia, and courts often punished victims as well as perpetrators for illegal “mixing of genders,” even when there was no conviction for rape. Victims also had to prove that the rape was committed, and a woman’s testimony in court was not always accepted.
Due to these legal and social obstacles, authorities brought few cases to trial. Statistics on incidents of, and prosecutions, convictions, or punishments for rape were not available, but press reports and observers indicated rape was a serious problem. Moreover, most rape cases were likely unreported because victims faced societal and familial reprisal, including diminished marriage opportunities, criminal sanction up to imprisonment, or accusations of adultery or sexual relations outside of marriage, which are punishable under sharia.
The law against domestic violence provides a framework for the government to prevent and protect victims of violence in the home. The law defines domestic abuse broadly and criminalizes domestic abuse with penalties of one month to one year of imprisonment or a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 riyals ($1,330 to $13,300), unless a court provides a harsher sentence.
Researchers stated it was difficult to gauge the magnitude of the problem, which they believed to be widespread. The National Family Safety Program, a quasi-governmental organization under the Ministry of National Guard, is charged with spreading awareness of and combatting domestic violence, including child abuse, and continued to report abuse cases.
Officials stated the government did not clearly define domestic violence and procedures concerning cases, including thresholds for investigation or prosecution, and thus enforcement varied from one government body to another. Some women’s rights advocates were critical of investigations of domestic violence, claiming investigators were hesitant to enter a home without permission from the male head of household, who may also be the perpetrator of violence. Some activists also claimed that authorities often did not investigate or prosecute cases involving domestic violence, instead encouraging victims and perpetrators to reconcile in order to keep families intact, regardless of reported abuse. There were reports of police or judges returning women directly to their abusers, most of whom were the women’s legal guardians.
On January 15, the PPO ordered an investigation into a video posted on social media in which a young woman alleged abuse by her father and described her escape from her family’s home. No updates were available by year’s end.
The government made efforts to combat domestic violence. On November 24, the HRC held a symposium on ending violence against women that had participation from government ministries as well as from academia, media, and foreign missions. During the year the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue held workshops and distributed educational materials on peaceful conflict resolution between spouses and within families. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development administered government-supported family-protection shelters. Women reported that remaining in the shelters was not always voluntary.
The HRC received complaints of domestic abuse and referred them to other government offices. The HRC advised complainants and offered legal assistance to some female litigants. The organization provided services for children of female complainants and litigants and distributed publications supporting women’s rights in education, health care, development, and the workplace.
Women reported that domestic abuse in the form of incest was common but seldom reported to authorities due to fears over societal repercussions, according to local sources.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C was not a common practice in the country. The official government interpretation of sharia prohibits the practice.
Sexual Harassment: The extent of sexual harassment was difficult to measure, with little media reporting and no official government data. On August 28, local media reported a 4 percent drop in harassment cases during the year but did not specify the number of harassment cases or cite sources for the data. Otherwise, no statistics were available on the incidence of sexual harassment due to past reluctance to report violations.
In May 2018 the Council of Ministers passed the sexual harassment law, which carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 300,000 riyals ($80,000).
On May 11, the public prosecution issued a statement on its Twitter page explaining the legal definition of harassment, noting that the law provides for penalties of up to two years in prison and fines of up to 100,000 riyals ($26,700).
Local media reported at least five incidents of harassment in the first half of the year. On June 7, the PPO filed an objection to the preliminary sentence issued against a man arrested in May for sexually harassing a female driver. The PPO requested that the initial sentence of 10 months’ imprisonment and 5,000-riyal fine ($1,330) be increased to the maximum penalty under the sexual harassment law.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: Women continued to face discrimination under law and custom. New regulations issued during the year, however, granted women many of the same rights enjoyed by men pertaining to travel abroad, civil status, and employment.
The restrictions under the guardianship system, which require women to have permission from close male relatives to conduct certain actions, were loosened during the year.
The new amendments to the Civil Status Regulation, which entered into effect on September 4, grant women older than 18 the right to perform several actions pertaining to civil status that were previously limited to men. These include registering the birth of a child; registering the death of a spouse or close relative; registering a marriage or divorce (whether initiated by the husband or wife); and being designated “head of household,” thereby allowing women to serve as the guardian of their minor children. Women can also obtain from the Civil Status Administration a “family registry,” which is official documentation of a family’s vital records that verifies the relationship between parents and children. This move allows mothers to perform administrative transactions for their children, such as registering them for school or obtaining services at a hospital.
Women may legally own property and are entitled to financial support from their guardian. They can make their own determinations concerning hospital care. Women can work without their guardian’s permission, but some employers required women to have such permission, even though the law prohibits the practice. In February 2018 the Ministry of Commerce and Investment announced women no longer need their male guardian’s permission to start a business. Women still require a guardian’s permission to exit prisons after completing their terms.
In July 2018 two men were arrested in Mecca for setting fire to a female motorist’s car. The motorist, Salma al-Sherif, subsequently posted a widely circulated video on social media documenting the incident, claiming that her car was deliberately set alight by men “opposed to women drivers,” and that she had been repeatedly threatened and harassed by young men from her village of Samad in Mecca Province. In October 2018 the Mecca Criminal Court acquitted the two defendants for lack of sufficient evidence. During the year al-Sherif successfully appealed the verdict; on July 21, the Mecca Criminal Court sentenced the defendants to 11 months’ imprisonment and 240 lashes. The court awarded al-Sherif 50,000 riyals ($13,300) in restitution.
The law prohibits women from directly transmitting citizenship to their children, particularly if the children’s father is a noncitizen (see section 2.d. and section 6, Children). The country’s interpretation of sharia prohibits women from marrying non-Muslims, but men may marry Christians and Jews. Women require government permission to marry noncitizens; men must obtain government permission if they intend to marry citizens from countries other than Gulf Cooperation Council-member states (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates). Regulations prohibit men from marrying women from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Chad, and Burma. The government additionally requires Saudi men wishing to marry a second wife who is a foreigner to submit documentation attesting to the fact that his first wife was disabled, had a chronic disease, or was sterile.
Societal pressures restricted women from using some public facilities. Some but not all businesses still required or pressured women to sit in separate, specially designated family sections in public places. In a June 2 press conference, Jeddah Mayor Saleh al-Turki gave his support for ending gender segregation in Jeddah’s restaurants and markets. Turki’s comments prompted at least several Jeddah restaurants and coffee shops to dismantle barriers separating family and male-only seating areas. In December the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs ended the requirement for restaurants throughout the country to provide separate sections for males and families.
Cultural norms selectively enforced by state institutions require women to wear an abaya (a loose-fitting, full-length cloak) in public. In September the chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, Ahmed al-Khateeb, stated abayas would not be mandatory for foreign tourists but modest dress covering shoulders and knees was mandatory.
In June a Saudi woman was barred by male security guards from entering an upscale shopping mall in Riyadh because she was not wearing an abaya. In a video posted to social media, the woman said the guards told her she was not dressed modestly.
Women also faced discrimination in courts, where in some cases, the testimony of a woman equals half that of a man. All judges are male, and women faced restrictions on their practice of law (see section 3, Participation of Women and Minorities, regarding the appointment of women as public prosecution investigators). In divorce proceedings women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce, but men may divorce without giving cause, citing “irreconcilable differences.” In doing so, men must pay immediately an amount of money agreed at the time of the marriage that serves as a one-time alimony payment. Men may be forced, however, to make subsequent alimony payments by court order. The Ministry of Justice reported that it compelled 7,883 fathers to pay alimony in 2018. The government began implementing an identification system based on fingerprints, designed to provide women more access to courts, even if they chose to cover their faces with the niqab covering.
Women faced discrimination under family law. For example, a woman needs a guardian’s permission to marry or must seek a court order in the case of adhl (male guardians refusing to approve the marriage of women under their charge). In such adhl cases, the judge assumes the role of the guardian and may approve the marriage. During the year courts executed marriage contracts for women whose male custodians refused to approve their marriage, according to informed judicial sources quoted by local media. Courts considered as many as 321 adhl cases between September 2018 and February 5.
Courts routinely award custody of children when they attain a specified age (seven years for boys and nine years for girls) to the divorced husband or the deceased husband’s family. In numerous cases former husbands prevented divorced noncitizen women from visiting their children. In March 2018 Justice Minister Sheikh Walid Al-Samaani directed all courts to drop the requirement for divorced women to file a lawsuit in order to gain custody of their children. Provided there were no disputes between the parents, mothers may simply submit a request to the relevant court, without the need for legal action.
Inheritance laws also discriminate against women, since daughters receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers.
According to recent surveys, women constituted 52 percent of public education and higher education students. Segregated education through university level was standard. The only exceptions to segregation in higher education were medical schools at the undergraduate level and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a graduate-level research university, where women worked jointly with men, were not required to wear an abaya, and drove cars on campus. Other universities, such as al-Faisal University in Riyadh, offered partially segregated classes with students receiving instruction from the same teacher and able to participate together in class discussion, but with the women and men physically separated by dividers. In August Minister of Education Hamad Al al-Sheikh announced the assignment of female teachers to educate boys in public elementary schools for the first time.
Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from the father, and both the father and mother may register a birth. There were cases of authorities denying public services to children of citizen parents, including education and health care, because the government failed to register the birth entirely or had not registered it immediately, sometimes because the father failed to report the birth or did not receive authorization to marry a foreigner. Children of women who were married to foreign spouses receive permanent residency, but their residency status is revocable in the event of the death of the Saudi mother (see section 2.d., Stateless Persons).
Child Abuse: Abuse of children occurred. The National Family Safety Program operated a Child Helpline dedicated to assisting children in matters ranging from bullying to abuse, providing counseling, tracking, and referrals to social services. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development had 17 Social Protection Units across the country providing social protection to children younger than 18 as well as other vulnerable populations suffering domestic violence and abuse.
Early and Forced Marriage: The law does not specify a minimum age for marriage, although Ministry of Justice guidelines referred marriage applications to sharia courts to determine the validity of a marriage when the bride was younger than 16. Families sometimes arranged such marriages to settle family debts without the consent of the child. The HRC and NSHR monitored cases of child marriages, which they reported were rare or at least rarely reported, and took steps to prevent consummation of the marriage. Media reports quoted judges as saying the majority of child marriage cases in the country involved Syrian girls, followed by smaller numbers of Egyptians and Yemenis. There were media reports that some men who traveled abroad to find brides sought to marry minors. The application for a marriage license must record the bride’s age, and registration of the marriage is a legal prerequisite for consummation. The government reportedly instructed marriage registrars not to register marriages involving children.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The cybercrimes law stipulates that punishment for such crimes, including the preparation, publication, and promotion of material for pornographic sites, may be no less than two and one-half years’ imprisonment or a fine of 1.5 million riyals ($400,000) if the crime includes the exploitation of minors. The law does not define a minimum age for consensual sex.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
There was no known data on Jewish citizens and no statistics available concerning the religious denominations of foreigners.
Cases of government-employed imams using anti-Jewish language in their sermons were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. The law requires government-employed imams to deliver all sermons in mosques in the country. Sermons are vetted and cleared by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. During the year the ministry issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons.
Some NGOs reported that anti-Semitic material remained in school textbooks and online in private web postings and that some journalists, academics, and clerics made anti-Israel comments that sometimes strayed into anti-Semitism. Saudi Council of Senior Scholars member and Muslim World League secretary-general Mohammed al-Issa condemned anti-Semitism and intolerant speech.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law does not prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, the judicial system, or the provision of other state services or other areas. The law does not require public accessibility to buildings, information, and communications. Newer commercial buildings often included such access, as did some newer government buildings. Children with disabilities could attend government-supported schools.
Persons with disabilities could generally participate in civic affairs, and there were no legal restrictions preventing persons with disabilities from voting in municipal council elections. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Vocational rehabilitation projects and social care programs increasingly brought persons with disabilities into the mainstream. Persons with disabilities were elected and appointed to municipal councils in 2015, and two individuals with disabilities served on the consultative Shura Council, which was reconstituted in 2016.
Although racial discrimination is illegal, societal discrimination against members of national, racial, and ethnic minorities was a problem. There was also discrimination based on tribal or nontribal lineage. Descendants of former slaves in the country, who have African lineage, faced discrimination in both employment and society. There was formal and informal discrimination, especially racial discrimination, against foreign workers from Africa and Asia. In August an advertisement on social media seeking female participants for a military parade requested that applicants be of “white” or “medium white” skin tone. Event organizers said they had already recruited a similar number of women of darker skin tones. A tolerance campaign by the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue sought to address discrimination, and it provided training during the year to combat discrimination against national, racial, or ethnic groups.
The government’s multi-year Tatweer project to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods to promote tolerance and remove content disparaging religions other than Islam began in 2007. In November 2018 the Anti-Defamation League issued a report asserting that Saudi textbooks still contained anti-Semitic language and hate speech against other minority religions.
Under sharia as interpreted in the country, consensual same-sex sexual conduct is punishable by death or flogging, depending on the perceived seriousness of the case. It is illegal for men “to behave like women” or to wear women’s clothes, and vice versa. Due to social conventions and potential persecution, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) organizations did not operate openly, nor were there LGBTI rights advocacy events of any kind. There were reports of official and societal discrimination, physical violence, and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, access to education, and health care. Stigma or intimidation acted to limit reports of incidents of abuse.
There were no government efforts to address discrimination. In 2016 newspapers quoted PPO officials as stating the bureau would seek death sentences for anyone using social media to solicit homosexual acts. There were no reports, however, that the PPO sought death sentences in LGBTI cases during the year (see section 1.a.).
During the year local newspapers featured opinion pieces condemning homosexuality and calling on authorities to harshly punish individuals engaging in same-sex relations.
In September, two Saudi male journalists fled the country, claiming authorities revealed their romantic relationship to relatives in retaliation for contacts they had with foreign media. The journalists sought asylum in Australia.
There were no reports of societal violence or discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS. By law the government deported foreign workers who tested positive for HIV/AIDS upon arrival or who tested positive when hospitalized for other reasons. There was no indication that HIV-positive foreigners failed to receive antiretroviral treatment or that authorities isolated them during the year. The Ministry of Health’s HIV/AIDS program worked to counter stigma and discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS.
Social, legal, economic, and political discrimination against the country’s Shia minority continued. HRW claimed that some state clerics and institutions “incited hatred and discrimination against religious minorities, including the country’s Shia Muslim minority.”
To address the problem, the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard included antidiscrimination training in courses offered by the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue for police and other law enforcement officers (see section 6, Other Societal Violence and Discrimination).