Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law does not contain provisions for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the free movement of male citizens within the country, but it severely restricted the movement of female citizens. While 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, courts 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. In 2013 the ministry stated it had issued only 1.5 million NICs since 2002 to women. In December 2015 the ministry announced it began issuing NICs to widows and divorcees in possession of a death or divorce certificate. In August local media reported more than three million women over the age of 15 still did not possess a NIC. The 2015 population of women who were 15 or above was approximately 7.5 million, according to the General Authority for Statistics.
The government prohibited women from driving motor vehicles by refusing to issue licenses to them. In June authorities reportedly detained a woman for driving.
Foreign Travel: There are severe restrictions on foreign travel, including for women and members of minority groups. No one may leave the country without an exit visa and a passport. Women, minors (men younger than 21), and other dependents or foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a male guardian’s consent to travel abroad. According to Ministry of Interior regulations, a male guardian must apply for and collect a passport for women and minors. In October media reported that the Ministry of Justice reached an agreement with the General Directorate of Passports to remove the requirement for a deed of support document for widows and their children and to allow them to apply for passports with the directorate directly. 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; if a wife’s guardian is deceased, a court may grant the permission. In June media reported that authorities granted 50 women permission to travel without a male guardian; five of the women were married to non-Saudi citizens. Government entities can ban the travel of citizens and noncitizens without trial, and male family members can “blacklist” women and minor children, prohibiting their travel.
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 continued to impose international travel bans as part of criminal sentences. The government reportedly confiscated passports on occasion 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 financial and real estate disputes.
During the year the government banned several individuals engaged in human rights activism or political activities from foreign travel, in addition to hundreds of other travel bans promulgated by the courts. These included ACPRA members Eissa al-Hamid, Abdulaziz al-Shobaily, and Omar al-Sa’id as well as journalist Alaa Brinji.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
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 or UNHCR-managed refugee and asylum matters. The government permitted UNHCR-recognized refugees to stay in the country temporarily pending identification of a durable outcome, 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 not to grant 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 did, however, grant six-month visas to Syrian and Yemeni nationals, and a royal decree allowed pro forma extensions of these visas. There was a nondeportation policy for Syrians and Yemenis. In May the Royal Court approved residency permits for Yemeni nationals who were in the country illegally prior to the beginning of coalition operations in Yemen. In the past year, the country normalized the status of 592,809 Yemenis, in addition to 1.5 million properly documented Yemenis, many of whom would be characterized as refugees but for the Saudi Arabian government’s practice of avoiding using that term, bringing the total population of Yemenis living in Saudi Arabia to approximately two million. The government waived the costs and fees for visas, work permits, and permanent residency status applications for 2,570,972 Syrians who entered the country since 2011 because of the security situation in Syria. These included Syrians who entered the country without proper documentation who later normalized their status as well as individuals and families on visitor visas who were transiting to other countries.
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers were generally unable to work legally. In February the Ministry of Labor and Social Development announced it would start allowing employers to apply online for an automatic work permit to be issued free of charge to Syrians and Yemenis who possessed a temporary visa and obtained a visitor card (“za’ir”) from the Ministry of Interior. The renewable permits were 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.
Access to Basic Services: The government reserves access to education, health care, public housing, courts and judicial procedures, legal services, and other social services to citizens only. A royal decree issued in 2012 permits all Syrians in Saudi Arabia free access to the educational system, and a separate decree issued in 2015 gives Yemenis in Saudi Arabia free access to schools. In 2015-16 the government enrolled and funded 141,406 Syrian students and 285,644 Yemeni students in local schools and provided college scholarships to 7,950 Syrians and 3,880 Yemenis. 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 following a needs assessment. Since 2015 the government provided free health care to 47,000 Yemenis and paid for treatment of more than 3,426 injured Yemenis located in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Sudan.
The country had a significant 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 may be born stateless if they were born to an unmarried citizen mother who is not legally affiliated with the citizen father, 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 nationals to pass their nationality to their children, except in certain circumstances such as where fathers 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 they were not already granted citizenship at birth under certain circumstances). Daughters 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.
In 2013 the government clarified regulations governing the status of non-Saudi men married to Saudi women. Foreign male spouses of female citizens are entitled to permanent residency in the country without needing a sponsor, and they receive free government education and medical benefits. These spouses are also counted in the quota of Saudis employed in private companies under the “nitaqaat,” or labor quota system, which improves their employment prospects. Female citizens must also be between the ages of 30 and 55 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 than if they do not. 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, and there was anecdotal evidence that these 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 October the government issued a 17-point charter with additional regulations on marriage to non-Saudi citizens. Under the charter, a male citizen must earn 3,000 riyals ($800) per month and must own or rent an apartment or house before he can marry a non-citizen woman. The charter also states that, for female citizens, the age difference between them and any prospective non-Saudi spouse cannot exceed 10 years. On December 16, media reported that the government instituted a new policy requiring prospective foreign spouses to undergo a medical examination and drug testing prior to marriage to Saudi citizens.
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]). 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. In 2014 the General Directorate of Passports began to issue special identity 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.
There were also some Baloch, West Africans, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma, but only a portion of these communities was stateless. For example, many Rohingya had expired passports that their home government refused to renew. UNHCR estimated there were between 250,000 and 500,000 Rohingya in the country. During the year some of these individuals benefited from a program to correct their residency status; the government issued approximately 200,000 four-year residency permits by year’s end. 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.