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Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

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. For the first time, women were allowed to vote and run as candidates in these municipal elections.

Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced renditions; forced disappearances; and torture of prisoners and detainees by government agents. There were also reports of 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.

Government agents carried out the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2. King Salman pledged to hold all individuals involved accountable, regardless of position or rank. Several officials were removed from their positions, and on November 15, the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) announced the indictment of 11 suspects. The PPO announced it would seek the death penalty for five of the suspects charged with murder and added that an additional 10 suspects were under further investigation. At year’s end the PPO had not named the suspects nor the roles allegedly played by them in the killing, nor had they provided a detailed explanation of the direction and progress of the investigation. In other cases the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity.

The country continued air operations in Yemen as leader of a military coalition formed in 2015 to counter the 2014 forceful takeover of the Republic of Yemen’s government institutions and facilities by Houthi militias and security forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure on a number of occasions, and the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, reported that some coalition airstrikes caused disproportionate collateral damage. Houthi-aligned militias carried out cross-border raids into Saudi territory and fired missiles and artillery into Saudi Arabia throughout the year, killing and injuring Saudi civilians. The coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team, established by the Saudi government and based in Riyadh, investigated allegations of civilian casualties, published recommendations, and in some cases promised to provide compensation to affected families, although no prosecutions occurred.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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 legal definition of terrorism, according to the 2017 counterterrorism law, 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 counterterrorism 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 charged a number of individuals with crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year.

From May 15 to year’s end, authorities arrested at least 30 prominent women activists and their male supporters and imposed travel bans on others, in connection with their advocacy for lifting the ban on women driving. Those arrested included some of the women who first defied the driving ban in 1990, as well as others who expressed solidarity with detained activists. At least 12 persons remained in detention “after sufficient evidence was made available and for their confessions of charges attributed to them.” In a June 2 statement, the public prosecutor stated the detainees had admitted to communicating and cooperating with individuals and organizations opposed to the kingdom, recruiting persons to get secret information to hurt the country’s interests, and offering material and emotional support to hostile elements abroad. State-linked media labelled those arrested as traitors and “agents of embassies.” The detained included Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Hatoon al-Fassi, Loujain al-Hathloul, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, and Nouf Abdulaziz al-Jerawi, among others.

In August authorities arrested Mecca Grand Mosque Imam Sheikh Salih al-Talib. In his last Friday sermon on July 13, Al-Talib discussed the duty in Islam to speak out against evil in public. Al-Talib was the first imam of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina to be detained.

In September the SCC opened trials against clerics, academics, and media persons for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, including prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari. The three were arrested in September 2017, and the public prosecutor was reportedly seeking the death penalty against them. The public prosecutor brought 37 charges against al-Odah, the vast majority of which alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatari government, in addition to his public support for imprisoned dissidents. None referred to specific acts of violence or incitement to acts of violence, according to a HRW statement on September 12. The 30 charges against al-Omari included “forming a youth organization to carry out the objectives of a terrorist group inside the Kingdom.”

Press and Media Freedom: 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 Information. 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 Information has formal responsibility for implementing the law, the Ministry of Interior, the CPVPV, and sharia court judges considered these issues regularly and exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law. It was unclear which process accords with the law.

On July 12, authorities arrested influential religious scholar and Sahwa (Awakening) movement figure Safar al-Hawali, four of his sons, and his brother after al-Hawali reportedly published a book criticizing the Saudi royal family and the country’s foreign policy.

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 Information 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 February 19, the Ministry of Culture and Information banned writer Muhammad al-Suhaimi from writing and taking part in any media activity, and referred him to an investigation committee for criticizing the Muslim call to prayer (adhan) and calling for reducing the number of mosques. Speaking to the MBC TV channel, al-Suhaimi had criticized the volume of the call to prayer, calling it a nuisance.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists, writers, and bloggers to arrest, imprisonment, and harassment during the year.

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 dominate social media trend lists and effectively silence 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.

On February 8, the SCC sentenced prominent newspaper columnist Saleh al-Shehi to five years in prison, followed by a five-year travel ban, for insulting the royal court and its employees. Al-Shehi was reportedly arrested on January 3 after a televised appearance on the privately owned Rotana Khalejia channel in which he accused the royal court of being “one of the institutions that reinforced corruption” in the country, citing examples such as granting plots of land to citizens based on personal connections.

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 Information 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 June 2017 the PPO stated that producing and promoting “rumors that affect the public order” was a crime under the anti-cybercrimes law and punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine of three million riyals ($800,000), or both. On June 13, 2018, the PPO warned against sending, producing, or storing any material that stirs up tribalism and fanaticism, and harms public order, which is also punishable by the above penalties.

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 anti-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.” In 2014 the law was amended to include social media and social networks.

On May 30, the SCC in Riyadh sentenced academic and media professional Mohammed al-Hudaif to five years in prison, followed by a five-year travel and social media ban, and ordered his Twitter account shut down. Al-Hudaif was convicted of “insulting neighboring states” following a comment he wrote about the visit of the former Egyptian justice minister, Ahmed al-Zind, to the UAE. The government deemed Hudaif’s tweet insulting to both the Egyptian and Emirati authorities. He was convicted of destroying national cohesion, publishing writings hostile to state policy, and communicating with members of bodies hostile to the state (the Muslim Brotherhood), according to Al-Qst rights group.

On September 3, the public prosecutor warned that producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes, and disrupts public order, religious values and public morals through social media would be considered a cybercrime punishable by a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of three million riyals ($800,000).

National Security: Authorities used the anti-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.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The Ministry of Information 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, and 82 percent of the population used the internet in 2017, according to International Telecommunication Union data.

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. On May 27, 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 anti-cybercrimes law, criminalize defamation on the internet, 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. Activists complained of monitoring or attempted monitoring of their communications on web-based communications 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.

On February 12, the SCC in the western city of Tabuk held the first hearing for student and activist Noha al-Balawi. Al-Balawi was detained on January 23 after posting a video online in which she criticized the country’s potential normalization of ties with Israel. According to the United Kingdom-based Saudi rights group Al-Qst, Balawi was charged under anti-cybercrime laws and faced up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million riyals ($800,000). On February 22, authorities reportedly released al-Balawi, according to online activists and media sources.

On February 27, the SCC convicted computer engineer Essam Koshak of posting tweets that “infringe on public order and religious values” and sentenced him to four years in prison followed by a four-year ban on travel and social media usage. According to multiple NGOs, Koshak tweeted in support of the 2017 social media campaign #EndMaleGuardianship, organized by HRW. According to court documents and trial observations, the prosecution charged Koshak with creating the #EndMaleGuardianship social media campaign and, in so doing, undermining public order and “violating freedom of expression.”

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).

The CITC claimed that Facebook removed materials that the CITC deemed offensive but that Twitter ignored all CITC requests. 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 September 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. Other video-calling apps, including WhatsApp and Viber, however, reported services were still blocked.

The government continued blocking Qatari websites such as al-Jazeera, an action it began in May 2017, due to a dispute between Qatar and a group of countries that included Saudi Arabia.

In June 2017 Ministry of Information spokesperson Hani al-Ghofaily stated that writing for blocked websites, providing them with materials to publish, or promoting alternative addresses to access them is a crime under the anti-cybercrimes law.

The government reportedly collected information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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. In 2016 King Salman issued royal decrees creating the General Authority for Entertainment (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. On June 2, 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. On April 18, the country’s first cinema in more than 35 years opened after a ban was lifted in 2017. AMC Entertainment was granted the first license to operate cinemas in the country and was expected to open more theaters over the next five years, according to state media.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law does not provide for freedom of assembly and association, which the government severely limited.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

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.

On March 27, security forces arrested 32 citizens and referred them to the public prosecutor for illegally gathering in front of Taif governorate headquarters to protest the removal of unlicensed housing structures built on government land, according to the Ministry of Interior.

CPVPV and other security officers also restricted mixed gender gatherings of unrelated men and women in public and private spaces (see section 1.f.).

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provided for limited freedom of association, however, the government strictly limited this right. In 2016 a law came into effect known as the Law on Associations and Foundations (Civil Society Organizations Law), which for the first time provided 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 January 25, the SCC sentenced Mohammad al-Otaiby and Abdullah al-Attawi, founding members of the Union for Human Rights (known in Arabic as “al-Ittihad”) to 14 and seven years in prison, respectively, for “participating in setting up an organization and announcing it before getting an authorization,” “spreading chaos, inciting public opinion and publishing statements harmful to the kingdom and its institutions,” and “publishing information about their interrogations despite signing pledges to refrain from doing so,” according to media and NGO reporting.

In 2013 and 2014, the few local NGOs that had operated without a license ceased operating after authorities ordered them disbanded. While ACPRA maintained a presence on social media networks such as Twitter, the government severely curtailed its operations and closed down its website. On February 28, the SCC sentenced lawyer and ACPRA member Issa al-Nukheifi to six years in prison (three years under the anti-cybercrimes law and three years under ta’zir, or “discretionary” sentencing), followed by a six-year ban on social media and travel outside of the country, based on charges of “infringing on the public order and religious values,” “communicating with members of ACPRA,” “opposing Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen,” and related charges. Al-Nukheifi was detained in 2016 and charged in August 2017 under provisions of both the 2014 Counterterrorism Law and the 2008 Anti-Cybercrimes Law.

Government-chartered associations limited membership only to citizens.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

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 a HRW report.

In April 2017 King Salman issued a royal decree ordering all government agencies to review their guardianship laws and to provide, within three months, their understanding of the legal basis for withholding services to women. The stated goal was to avoid denying government services to women who do not present a male guardian’s consent except when law or regulations explicitly require it. At year’s end the results of the government’s review of its guardianship laws had not been announced.

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.

On June 24, 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 and the high cost of driver’s education for women, which was four to five times as expensive as men’s fees. As a result, there were waiting lists for driving classes.

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. Females of any age, males 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. 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. 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. In December the General Directorate of Passports announced that divorced Saudi women older than 21 who possess a NIC with at least three months’ validity may travel to other Gulf Cooperation Council member states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) without the consent of a male 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.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

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 a HRW report.

In April 2017 King Salman issued a royal decree ordering all government agencies to review their guardianship laws and to provide, within three months, their understanding of the legal basis for withholding services to women. The stated goal was to avoid denying government services to women who do not present a male guardian’s consent except when law or regulations explicitly require it. At year’s end the results of the government’s review of its guardianship laws had not been announced.

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.

On June 24, 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 and the high cost of driver’s education for women, which was four to five times as expensive as men’s fees. As a result, there were waiting lists for driving classes.

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. Females of any age, males 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. 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. 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. In December the General Directorate of Passports announced that divorced Saudi women older than 21 who possess a NIC with at least three months’ validity may travel to other Gulf Cooperation Council member states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) without the consent of a male 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.

STATELESS PERSONS

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 nationals 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 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 included in the quota of Saudis employed in private companies under the nitaqaat, or 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.

There were also some Baloch, West Africans, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma, but only a small portion of these communities was stateless. Many Rohingya had expired passports that their home government refused to renew, or had entered the country with fraudulent travel documents. 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. 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 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The law provides that “the State shall protect human rights in accordance with Islamic sharia.” The government restricted the activities of domestic and international human rights organizations. The government did not allow international human rights NGOs to be based in the country and restricted access to the country for visits. International human rights and humanitarian NGOs reported that the government was at times unresponsive to requests for information and did not establish a clear mechanism for communication with NGOs on both domestic human rights issues and issues relating to the conflict in Yemen. There were no transparent standards governing visits by international NGO representatives. The HRC stated that the government welcomed visits by legitimate, unbiased human rights groups but added the government could not act on the “hundreds of requests” it received, in part because it was cumbersome to decide which domestic agencies would be their interlocutor.

The government often cooperated with and sometimes accepted the recommendations of the NSHR, the sole government-licensed domestic human rights organization. The NSHR accepted requests for assistance and complaints about government actions affecting human rights.

The government viewed unlicensed local human rights groups with suspicion, frequently blocking their websites and charging their founders with founding and operating unlicensed organizations.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The HRC is part of the government and requires the permission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before meeting with diplomats, academics, or researchers with international human rights organizations. The HRC president has ministerial status and reports to the king. The well-resourced HRC was effective in highlighting problems and registering and responding to the complaints it received, but its capacity to effect change was more limited. The HRC worked directly with the Royal Diwan and the cabinet, with a committee composed of representatives of the Consultative Council and the Ministries of Labor and Social Development and Interior, and with Consultative Council committees for the judiciary, Islamic affairs, and human rights.

During the year the HRC and NSHR were more outspoken in areas deemed less politically sensitive, including child abuse, child marriage, prison conditions, and cases of individuals detained beyond their prescribed prison sentences. They avoided topics such as protests or cases of political activists or reformers that would require directly confronting government authorities. The HRC board’s 18 full-time members included four women and at least three Shia; they received and responded to complaints submitted by their constituencies, including problems related to persons with disabilities, religious freedom, and women’s rights. The Consultative Council’s Human Rights Committee also actively followed cases and included women and Shia among its members; a woman served as chairperson of the committee.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future