Saudi Arabia

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. 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 Speech: 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.

The government detained a number of individuals for crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. On February 27, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged the government to uphold the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly and review convictions of activists, religious leaders, and journalists.

ALQST reported that authorities arrested Hezam al-Ahmari on February 10 for filming and publishing a video complaining about the opening of a nightclub in his neighborhood in Jeddah. It said he was charged with “inciting public opinion,” under Article 6 of the cybercrimes law.

In March the PPO stated it ordered the arrest of “three people who exploited social media to interpret God’s will amid the coronavirus.” The arrestees, including Quran reciter Khaled al-Shahri, preacher Ibrahim al-Duwaish, and health worker Khaled Abdullah, tweeted or appeared in a video claiming the spread of novel coronavirus was a “punishment from Allah (God),” according to Prisoners of Conscience.

On April 8, the PPO announced that the dissemination of misinformation related to COVID-19 would be punishable under the cybercrimes law, adding that the PPO’s Social Media Monitoring Unit would track offensive and illegal social media content and report violations to authorities. Several persons were reportedly arrested and charged for “rumor mongering” and “disrupting order” for comments related to COVID-19. The PPO stated it ordered “the arrest of a person who appeared in a video mocking the COVID-19 crisis and giving misleading information about the current situation.”

On April 1, Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities arrested a number of social media personalities, including Rakan al-Assiri, Mohammed al-Fawzan, Majed al-Ghamdi, and Mohammed al-Jedaie, over old tweets and videos expressing personal views, while Ministry of Interior spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Talal al-Shalhoub stated they were arrested for breaking COVID-19 curfew restrictions.

Freedom of 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. A 2011 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 substantial fines 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. Some privately owned satellite television networks, headquartered outside the country, maintained local offices and operated under a system of self-censorship.

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). NGOs, academics, and the press claimed the government targeted 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.

On July 19, writer and journalist Saleh al-Shehi died in the hospital two months after his early release from prison due to poor health. Al-Shehi had served more than two years of a five-year sentence for insulting, defaming, and offending the royal court and its staff after accusing the royal court of corruption. Local media reported COVID-19 as the cause of death. According to the GCHR, his health deteriorated while in prison. Reporters without Borders, the GCHR, and ALQST called for an independent international inquiry into al-Shehi’s death.

On July 21, ALQST reported that in late April authorities arrested journalist Aql al-Bahili, writer Abdulaziz al-Dukhail, and activist Sultan al-Ajmi, among other journalists and intellectuals, for tweeting condolences following the death of reformer and rights activist Abdullah al-Hamid (see section 1.a.).

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government reportedly penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines and directly or indirectly censored 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 online and print material it considered blasphemous, extremist, racist, offensive, or inciting chaos, violence, sectarianism, or harm to the public order, as well as criticism of the royal family or its allies among the Gulf Arab states.

On April 6, local media reported that the governor of Asir Province, Prince Turki bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, ordered the suspension of two episodes of a drama series deemed offensive to the population of Asir.

Online self-censorship was pervasive, as social media users were extremely cautious about what they post, share, or “like” due to the threat of harassment or prosecution under broadly worded antiterrorism and other laws. The government closely monitored and often targeted users who expressed support for liberal ideals, minority rights, or political reform, in addition to those who exposed human rights violations. Questioning religious doctrine was strictly taboo, particularly content related to the Prophet Muhammed. Twitter users were fearful of expressing support for outspoken activists who were detained or received prison sentences. Such pressures reportedly led many users to join social media networks that offer more privacy, such as Snapchat and Path.

In some cases, however, individuals criticized specific government bodies or actions publicly without repercussions.

Libel/Slander Laws: 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. 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.

Multiple rights groups reported that at least six individuals who had anonymous Twitter accounts critical of the government were arrested subsequent to a breach of Twitter user data.

Access to the internet is legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers (ISPs). The government required ISPs 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 private channels, including official complaint processes.

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 sexual 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 ISPs to block banned sites can result in a substantial fine.

Several voice-over-internet-protocol call services, including WhatsApp, remained blocked and only accessible using a virtual private network.

Authorities blocked websites of some news and advocacy groups deemed critical of the government, including London-based al-Araby al-Jadeed, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, and the global advocacy organization Avaaz. Authorities also blocked the website of the Islamic Umma Party, which operated underground because political parties are illegal (see section 3).

The government 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 April the government blocked access to the websites of the Turkish official news agency, Anadolu Agency and the Turkish public broadcaster TRT’s Arabic edition. 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).

On April 14, local media reported that Umm al-Qura University suspended a staff member and a student following their circulation of “deviant ideologies” on Twitter.

In 2016 King Salman issued royal decrees creating the General Entertainment Authority 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 General Entertainment Authority sponsored events dedicated to film, comics, music, and dance; however, programs were scaled down due to COVID-19 restrictions.

On February 20, Mecca regional authorities tweeted that the governor had ordered the arrest of female rapper Ayasel al-Bishi, calling the music video of her song “Bint Mecca” (Girl from Mecca) offensive to the customs and traditions of the holy city. Al-Bishi’s Twitter account was suspended, and the video was removed from YouTube. Local media reported that the PPO questioned al-Bishi over filming without a permit and then released her.

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.

In May security authorities arrested Egyptian national Hossam Magdy after he allegedly threatened to protest in front of his country’s embassy to demand a seat on a repatriation flight.

The law provided for limited freedom of association, but the government strictly restricted this right. The law provides a comprehensive legal framework to govern the establishment, operation, and supervision of associations and foundations. The government prohibited the establishment of political parties. All associations must be licensed by the Ministry of Human Resources 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. The government also harassed and detained Saudi-based family members and associates of Saudi citizens living abroad who were outspoken critics of the government (see sections 1.b., Disappearances and 1.f., Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence, for more details).

In September, Abdullah al-Maliki, an Islamic intellectual who defended the banned association ACPRA, was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Government-chartered associations limited membership only to citizens.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.

d. Freedom of Movement

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 no longer requires 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). On July 14, a court ruled in favor of a woman, whose trial lasted three years, after being charged with absenteeism, or taghayyub, under a law that allows guardians to report the unapproved absence of anyone under their guardianship. The court ruled that living independently did not constitute a criminal act subject to “discretionary” punishment (see section 6, Women).

Authorities respected the right of citizens to change residence or workplace, provided they held a national identification card.

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. Royal Decree 134/M of August 2019 stipulates that citizens of either gender older than 21 can obtain and renew a passport and travel abroad without guardian permission.

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.

The Washington Post alleged the government increased the use of travel bans as part of a broader effort to suppress dissent within the royal family and business elite. Media estimated that thousands of Saudis were placed under travel restrictions, including relatives of citizens detained in the government’s anticorruption campaign as well as relatives of detained clerics and human rights activists. 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. Fitaihi was sentenced December 8 to six years in prison; as of year’s end he was out of prison pending appeal.

Not applicable.

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.

On April 4 and July 5, the government announced free three-month extensions of residency permits of all expatriates inside the country as well as the visas of visitors whose visa validity expired during the period of COVID-19-related suspension of flights. On April 6, the General Directorate of Passports announced electronic renewal of visitor identification cards for Yemeni citizens until May 14 in accordance with royal directives.

In an August report, HRW alleged that “thousands of Ethiopian migrants are now languishing in squalid detention centers in Saudi Arabia or remain stranded at the border” after being pushed out of Yemen by Houthi forces and COVID-19 travel restrictions with their home countries. Multiple media sources claimed the detainees faced overcrowding, abuse, and poor sanitation at immigration detention facilities in Jizan Province, without the ability to legally challenge their detention, according to HRW. On September 15, the International Organization for Migration expressed alarm at reports of the deteriorating situation and called for urgent action.

Media published purported mobile cell phone images received from migrants held inside immigration detention centers in Jizan, showing dozens of emaciated men lying in rows inside small rooms with barred windows. There were claims that one migrant died of heatstroke, a 16-year-old killed himself, and others lacked adequate food and water.

On November 20, HRW reported that two Uyghur men–Hemdullah Abduweli (or Aimidoula Waili on his Chinese passport) and Nurmemet Rozi (or Nuermaimaiti on his Chinese passport)–were arrested and potentially faced deportation to China. Both were residents in Turkey. Abduweli had been in hiding since February. In a November interview with Middle East Eye, Abduweli claimed that the Chinese government wanted him deported back to China.

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.

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. 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. On March 30, King Salman ordered free coronavirus treatment for all citizens and residents, regardless of residency status, in all government and private health facilities. In November the government announced all citizens and residents would be provided the COVID-19 vaccine at no cost.

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. If the government did not authorize the marriage of a citizen father and a noncitizen mother prior to birth of the children, they may also be considered stateless. 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 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 to marry a non-Saudi woman. The extent to which those strictures were enforced was unclear; there was anecdotal evidence they were not uniformly enforced. Children of Saudi women 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.

Baloch, West African, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma resident in Saudi Arabia were stateless. Some Rohingya had expired passports that their home government refused to renew; others 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 280,000 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. In January the government granted more than 190,000 free, four-year residency permits to Rohingya who were sponsored by companies, institutions, and members of their community.

There were reports of growing anti-Rohingya sentiment related to the perception that the Burmese community in Mecca was spreading COVID-19. On May 4, the government began demolitions of 114 buildings in al-Nakasah, in the municipality of Mecca–an impoverished area inhabited primarily by Rohingya residents. The decision garnered praise on social media, with some social media users referring to Rohingya as “garbage” and accusing them of spreading COVID-19.

There also were between 300,000 and 400,000 Palestinian residents not registered as refugees.

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