The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is both head of state and head of government. The 1992 Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government, and it provides that the Quran and Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) serve as the country’s constitution. It specifies that the rulers of the country shall be male descendants of the founder, King Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud). In 2015 the country held its most recent municipal elections on a nonparty basis for two-thirds of the 3,159 seats in the 284 municipal councils around the country. Independent polling station observers did not identify significant irregularities with the elections.
The State Security Presidency (SSP), the National Guard, and the Ministries of Defense and Interior, all of which report to the king, are responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The SSP includes the General Directorate of Investigation (Mabahith), Special Security Forces, and Special Emergency Forces; police are under the Ministry of Interior. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces.
Through royal decrees the government instituted significant reforms to male guardianship provisions that had long required women to obtain permission from a close male relative for a range of activities, including applying for passports and traveling abroad, registering the birth of a child, registering a marriage or divorce, obtaining status as a “head of household,” and seeking legal guardianship of children. Other new regulations expanded women’s economic empowerment by banning gender discrimination in the workplace and opening new employment opportunities for women.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture of prisoners and detainees by government agents; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; criminalization of libel, censorship, and site blocking; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and movement; severe restrictions of religious freedom; citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections; trafficking in persons; violence and official discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were implemented; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and prohibition of trade unions.
In several cases the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity. Following the high-profile October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, a court sentenced five officials to death and three officials to prison on December 23. The court ruled that guilt could not be established in the case of three other defendants.
In September state-owned oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked by drones and missiles. Houthi militants in Yemen claimed responsibility, but the Saudi government concluded Iran was responsible for the attack. Houthi militants were also responsible for numerous other attacks on civilian infrastructure inside Saudi Arabia, including airports, schools, hospitals, and oil facilities. Saudi Arabia continued air operations in Yemen throughout the year as leader of a coalition formed in 2015 to counter the 2014 Houthi takeover of government institutions and facilities. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen reportedly resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure on multiple occasions. The pace of airstrikes declined in the fall, as the warring parties pursued a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT) investigated allegations of civilian casualties, but the Saudi government did not prosecute any cases based on JIAT findings.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law does not provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage; it establishes an absolute monarchy led by the Al Saud family as the political system. The Allegiance Council, composed of up to 34 senior princes appointed by the king, is formally responsible for selecting a king and crown prince upon the death or incapacitation of either. Only select members of the ruling family have a voice in the choice of leaders, the composition of the government, or changes to the political system.
The law provides citizens the right to communicate with public authorities on any matter and establishes the government on the principle of consultation (shura). The king and senior officials, including ministers and regional governors, are required to be available through majlis, open-door meetings where in theory any male citizen or noncitizen may express an opinion or a grievance without an appointment.
Most government ministries and agencies had women’s sections to interact with female citizens and noncitizens, and at least two regional governorates hired female employees to receive women’s petitions and arrange meetings for women with complaints for, or requests of, the governor.