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, National Guard, and Ministries of Defense and Interior, all of which report to the king, are responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The State Security Presidency 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. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Saudi Arabia continued air operations in Yemen throughout the year as leader of a coalition formed to counter the 2014 Houthi takeover of Yemeni government institutions and facilities. Houthi militants conducted missile, rocket, drone, and artillery attacks aimed at Saudi territory on an almost weekly basis. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen reportedly resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure on multiple occasions. In June the UN secretary-general noted a “sustained, significant decrease in killing and maiming due to air strikes” and delisted the Saudi-led coalition from the list of parties responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict. The Joint Incident Assessment Team, an independent investigative body, reviewed allegations of civilian casualties against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and referred incidents for potential action. (See the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen).
During the year a royal decree abolished discretionary (ta’zir) death penalty sentences for crimes committed by minors, although the death penalty can still be applied to minors in instances specified by Islamic law (including for murder when the victim’s family seeks the death penalty). The decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years. The Supreme Court instructed courts to end flogging as a discretionary sentence and replace it with prison sentences or fines, which could eliminate flogging in most cases. Authorities continued to expand women’s rights, including a court ruling that a woman living independently did not constitute a criminal act and the Ministry of Education’s decision to drop the requirement that women studying abroad on a government scholarship be accompanied by a male guardian.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees by government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including threats of violence or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and engaging in harassment and intimidation against Saudi dissidents living abroad; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to choose their government peacefully through free and fair elections; violence and discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were implemented; trafficking in persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association, including prohibition of trade unions and collective bargaining.
In several cases the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity. In September the Public Prosecutor’s Office announced a final verdict in the murder trial of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018. All five defendants previously sentenced to death for their roles had their sentences commuted to a maximum of 20 years in prison, following a pardon from the Khashoggi family. Three others had their prison sentences upheld. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions called the verdicts a “parody of justice” and stated high-level officials “who organized and embraced the execution of Jamal Khashoggi have walked free from the start.”
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense under sharia law with a wide range of penalties, from flogging to execution. The law does not recognize spousal rape as a crime. The government enforced the law based on its interpretation of sharia, and, in some cases, courts punished victims as well as perpetrators for illegal “mixing of genders,” even when there was no conviction for rape. Victims also had to prove that the rape was committed, and a woman’s testimony in court was not always accepted.
Due to these legal and social obstacles, authorities brought few cases to trial. Statistics on incidents of, and prosecutions, convictions, or punishments for rape were not available. Most rape cases were likely unreported because victims faced societal and familial reprisal, including diminished marriage opportunities, criminal sanctions up to imprisonment, or accusations of adultery or sexual relations outside of marriage, which are punishable under sharia.
The law against domestic violence defines domestic abuse broadly and criminalizes domestic abuse with penalties of one month to one year of imprisonment or a fine, unless a court provides a harsher sentence.
Researchers stated it was difficult to gauge the magnitude of domestic abuse, which they believed to be widespread. Recent studies varied widely, finding the rate of domestic abuse to be anywhere between 15 to 60 percent. The National Family Safety Program, a quasi-governmental organization under the Ministry of National Guard, is charged with spreading awareness of and combatting domestic violence, including child abuse, and continued to report abuse cases.
Officials stated the government did not clearly define domestic violence and procedures concerning cases, including thresholds for investigation or prosecution, and thus enforcement varied from one government body to another. Some women’s rights advocates were critical of investigations of domestic violence, claiming investigators were hesitant to enter a home without permission from the male head of household, who may also be the perpetrator of violence. Activists reported the situation had improved in recent years, with greater awareness of resources for domestic violence victims, such as the domestic violence hotline managed by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development. They also noted, in the previous two years, increased willingness from authorities to investigate and prosecute domestic violence perpetrators, but they expressed concern that some police departments continued to neglect domestic violence cases.
On May 4, a Riyadh police spokesperson stated security authorities arrested and referred to the PPO a man for allegedly abusing his two sisters, adding that all legal measures were taken against him.
On June 19, Public Prosecutor Saud al-Mu’jab ordered the arrest of a man for physically abusing his wife and locking her up along with their three children in al-Baha Province.
The government made efforts to combat domestic violence. On March 14, the HRC branch in the Northern Borders Province held a workshop on domestic violence that included participants from government ministries as well as from civil society organizations. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development administered government-supported family-protection shelters. Women reported that remaining in the shelters was not always voluntary.
Women reported that domestic abuse in the form of incest was common but seldom reported to authorities due to fears over societal repercussions, according to local sources.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The official government interpretation of sharia prohibits the practice; however, some studies indicated up to 18 percent of women reported having undergone some type of FGM/C.
Sexual Harassment: The extent of sexual harassment was difficult to measure, with little media reporting and no official government data. No statistics were available on the incidence of sexual harassment due to past reluctance to report violations.
The 2018 sexual harassment law, passed by the Council of Ministers, carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and a substantial fine. On August 30, the HRC explained that a legal punishment against sexual harassment is irreversible, even if the victim renounced his or her own rights or did not file a legal complaint.
In May 2019 the PPO issued a statement on its Twitter page explaining the legal definition of harassment, noting that the law provides for penalties of up to two years in prison and substantial fines. Local media reported a number of incidents of harassment during the year. On February 29, the PPO ordered the arrest of a number of individuals who appeared in a video harassing girls outside a mall in Jeddah and filed a criminal lawsuit against the individuals.
Reproductive Rights: Married couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health, and to have access to the information and means to do so is generally free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Premarital sex is illegal under Sharia law, however, and hospitals and health centers may report extramarital pregnancies to police. Sterilization for health reasons was allowed and required spousal consent and a hospital committee’s approval. Sterilization is not a common procedure in the country, and young, healthy women reportedly had a harder time receiving approval for the procedure than older women with health problems.
Although no legal barriers prevent access to contraception, lack of awareness, cultural and religious beliefs, and social pressure for large families likely affected many women, especially those in rural areas.
Almost all women had access to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth; however, some women in rural areas had to travel to the closest medical facility to receive treatment, while others in rural communities received health services from Ministry of Health-sponsored mobile health clinics.
Government and quasi-government agencies provided social, medical, and psychological care to survivors of sexual violence.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: Women continued to face discrimination under law and custom. Regulations issued in 2019 and during the year, however, granted women many of the same rights enjoyed by men pertaining to travel abroad, civil status, and employment.
In August 2019 most restrictions under the guardianship system, which had required women to have permission from close male relatives to conduct certain actions, were eliminated. There were reports, however, that government and nongovernment entities, primarily in rural areas, continued to require women to obtain guardian permission prior to providing services.
Amendments to the Civil Status Regulation, which entered into effect in September 2019, grant women older than 18 the right to perform several actions pertaining to civil status that were previously limited to men. These include registering the birth of a child; registering the death of a spouse or close relative; registering a marriage or divorce (whether initiated by the husband or wife); and being designated “head of household,” thereby allowing women to serve as the guardian of their minor children. Women can also obtain from the Civil Status Administration a “family registry,” which is official documentation of a family’s vital records that verifies the relationship between parents and children. This reform allows mothers to perform administrative transactions for their children, such as registering them for school or obtaining services at a hospital.
On July 14, a court ruled in favor of Maryam al-Otaibi after her family filed a complaint that she was living and traveling in Riyadh. She was charged with absenteeism, or taghayyub, under a law that allows guardians to report unauthorized absence of anyone under their guardianship, which could lead to the arrest, detention, or forcible return of the individual. The court ruled that living independently did not constitute a criminal act subject to discretionary punishment, adding that al-Otaibi was “a sane adult who has the right to decide where she wants to live,” according to court documents.
Women may legally own property and are entitled to financial support from their guardian. They can make their own determinations concerning hospital care. In 2018 the Ministry of Commerce and Investment announced women no longer need their male guardian’s permission to start a business. Women still require a guardian’s permission to exit prisons after completing their terms.
The law prohibits women from directly transmitting citizenship to their children, particularly if the children’s father is a noncitizen (see section 2.d. and section 6, Children). The country’s interpretation of sharia prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims, but Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women. Women require government permission to marry noncitizens; men must obtain government permission if they intend to marry citizens from countries other than Gulf Cooperation Council-member states (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates). Regulations prohibit men from marrying women from Bangladesh, Burma, Chad, and Pakistan. The government additionally requires Saudi men wishing to marry a second wife who is a foreigner to submit documentation attesting to the fact that his first wife was disabled, had a chronic disease, or was sterile.
Societal pressures restricted women from using some public facilities. Some but not all businesses still required or pressured women to sit in separate, specially designated family sections in public places.
Cultural norms selectively enforced by state institutions require women to wear an abaya (a loose-fitting, full-length cloak) in public. Female foreigners were only required to dress modestly.
In July a Saudi woman was barred from entering a private park in Hail because park employees believed she was not dressed modestly. In a video posted to social media, the woman said she called police who came to the scene and told her the park owner could decide whether to allow her to enter.
Women also faced discrimination in courts, where in some cases the testimony of a woman equals half that of a man. All judges are male, and women faced restrictions on their practice of law (see section 1.e., Denial of Fair Public Trial). In divorce proceedings women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce, but men may divorce without giving cause, citing “irreconcilable differences.” In doing so, men must pay immediately an amount of money agreed at the time of the marriage that serves as a one-time alimony payment. Men may be forced, however, to make subsequent alimony payments by court order. The Ministry of Justice reported it compelled 7,883 fathers to pay alimony in 2018. The government began implementing an identification system based on fingerprints, designed to provide women more access to courts, even if they chose to cover their faces with the niqab covering.
In February, Justice Minister Sheikh Walid al-Samaani issued a decision binding both spouses to appear in court to complete their divorce, ending the so-called secret divorce, whereby men could divorce their wives without the woman’s consent or knowledge. In February the Ministry of Justice also canceled an article in the marriage law that gave a husband the right to force his wife to return to her home against her will.
Women faced discrimination under family law. For example, a woman needs a guardian’s permission to marry or must seek a court order in the case of adhl (male guardians refusing to approve the marriage of women under their charge). In such adhl cases, the judge assumes the role of the guardian and may approve the marriage. During the year courts executed marriage contracts for women whose male guardians refused to approve their marriage, according to informed judicial sources quoted by local media. On February 7, local media reported that courts considered an average of 750 cases annually.
In February local media reported that a male guardian can be imprisoned for up to one year and fined for forcing a woman under his charge to marry against her will. In January media reported that the Personal Status Court in Dammam issued an unprecedented ruling granting a woman in her fifties the right to marry without her guardian’s approval after her son, who was her male guardian, refused to approve her marriage. On May 30, however, the Judicial Committee at the Shoura Council rejected a proposal to allow women to contract their marriage without requiring the permission of a male guardian.
Courts routinely award custody of children when they attain a specified age (seven years for boys and nine years for girls) to the divorced husband or the deceased husband’s family. In numerous cases, former husbands prevented divorced noncitizen women from visiting their children. In 2018 Justice Minister Sheikh Walid al-Samaani directed all courts to drop the requirement for divorced women to file a lawsuit to gain custody of their children. Provided there were no disputes between the parents, mothers may simply submit a request to the relevant court, without the need for legal action.
On February 16, the Ministry of Justice added an article to the regulations of legal proceedings ordering that resolution of custody, alimony and visitation issues in divorce cases be resolved prior to the finalization of a divorce and within 30 days of the initial hearing.
Sharia-based inheritance laws discriminate against women, giving daughters half the inheritance awarded to their brothers.
According to recent surveys, women constituted 52 percent of public education and higher education students. Segregated education through university level was standard. The only exceptions to segregation in higher education were medical schools at the undergraduate level and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a graduate-level research university, where women worked jointly with men, were not required to wear an abaya, and have long driven cars on campus. Other universities, such as al-Faisal University in Riyadh, offered partially segregated classes with students receiving instruction from the same teacher and able to participate together in class discussion, but with the women and men physically separated by dividers.
Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from the father, and both the father and mother may register a birth. There were cases of authorities denying public services to children of citizen parents, including education and health care, because the government failed to register the birth entirely or had not registered it immediately, sometimes because the father failed to report the birth or did not receive authorization to marry a foreigner. Children of women who were married to foreign spouses receive permanent residency, but their residency status is revocable in the event of the death of the Saudi mother (see section 2.d., Stateless Persons).
Child Abuse: Abuse of children occurred. The National Family Safety Program operated a child helpline dedicated to assisting children in matters ranging from bullying to abuse, providing counseling, tracking, and referrals to social services. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development had 17 social protection units across the country providing social protection to children younger than 18 as well as other vulnerable populations suffering domestic violence and abuse.
In April the spokesperson of Asir Province police said a man was arrested for abusing his 15-year-old daughter, which reportedly led her to take her own life.
In September the ministry’s Domestic Violence Center announced that authorities opened an investigation based on a video, which went viral on social media, showing a father beating his two-year-old son. The Family Protection Unit managed to locate the toddler, and the father was referred to authorities to take legal action against him in line with the child protection law.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: In March the Ministry of Justice set the minimum age for marriage at 18 and stipulated that girls and boys younger than 18 can only marry with court approval. According to local media, the court would ensure several conditions are met before approving a marriage contract for a bride or groom younger than 18, including assessing their psychosocial development and hearing statements from the potential bride, groom, and guardians to determine consent. Previously, marriage officials had the authority to endorse marriage contracts; this reform ended their authority in cases where the potential bride and groom are younger than 18. The HRC and NSHR monitored cases of child marriages, which they reported were rare or at least rarely reported, and took steps to prevent consummation of the marriage. The application for a marriage license must record the bride’s age, and registration of the marriage is a legal prerequisite for consummation.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The cybercrimes law stipulates that punishment for such crimes, including the preparation, publication, and promotion of material for pornographic sites, may be no less than two-and-one-half years’ imprisonment or a substantial fine if the crime includes the exploitation of minors. The law does not define a minimum age for consensual sex. On January 14, the Riyadh Criminal Court sentenced a man to 40 days in prison and 70 lashes, to be administered in two rounds, for sexually harassing a 12-year-old boy online.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
There were no known data on Jewish citizens and no statistics available concerning the religious denominations of foreigners.
Cases of government-employed imams using anti-Jewish language in their sermons were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. The law requires government-employed imams to deliver all sermons in mosques in the country. Sermons are vetted and cleared by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. During the year the ministry issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons.
Some NGOs reported that anti-Semitic material remained in school textbooks and online in private web postings and that some journalists, academics, and clerics made anti-Israel comments that sometimes strayed into anti-Semitism, including at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Speaking on the sidelines of the November G20 Summit, Education Minister Hamad Al al-Sheikh claimed the ministry revised school curricula to remove extremist ideas and promote the concept of moderation and tolerance.
Saudi Council of Senior Scholars member and Muslim World League secretary general Mohammed al-Issa condemned anti-Semitism and intolerant speech. On January 23, al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim leaders to visit the Auschwitz death camp to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation. The visit was part of a joint enterprise between the Muslim World League and the American Jewish Committee. On February 20, King Salman received a delegation from the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue that included Israeli rabbi David Rosen, becoming the first Israeli rabbi to meet with a Saudi king in recent history.
On September 5, shortly after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to normalize ties with Israel, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Abdulrahman al-Sudais, said in a televised sermon that Muslims should avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” towards Jews and emphasized that the Prophet Muhammad was good to his Jewish neighbors.
In April, Umm Haroun, a Ramadan television series that aired on the state-controlled MBC network, centered around the story of a Jewish midwife in an unspecified multireligious Gulf state. Experts said the series was a sign of shifting discourse on Jews and Israel.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law does not prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, the judicial system, or the provision of other state services or other areas. The law does not require public accessibility to buildings, information, and communications. Newer commercial buildings often included such access, as did some newer government buildings. On July 19, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs ordered all stores and shopping malls to install ramps for persons with disabilities.
The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Vocational rehabilitation projects and social care programs increasingly brought persons with disabilities into the mainstream. Children with disabilities could attend government-supported schools. In June 2019 the Ministry of Education stated it had taken measures to integrate disabled students, including special education programs in regular schools, training faculty members who work with students with disabilities, and providing technological instruments for students with disabilities free of charge.
Persons with disabilities could generally participate in civic affairs, and there were no legal restrictions preventing persons with disabilities from voting in municipal council elections. Persons with disabilities were elected and appointed to municipal councils in 2015, and two individuals with disabilities served on the consultative Shoura Council, which was reconstituted in 2016.
Although racial discrimination is illegal, societal discrimination against members of national, racial, and ethnic minorities was a problem. Descendants of former slaves in the country, who have African lineage, faced discrimination in both employment and society. There was formal and informal discrimination, especially racial discrimination, against foreign workers from Africa and Asia. There was also discrimination based on tribal or nontribal lineage. A tolerance campaign by the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue sought to address discrimination, and it provided training during the year to combat discrimination against national, racial, or ethnic groups.
On September 3, a video widely circulated on social media showed black Saudi model Ziad al-Mesfer being assaulted by a group of young men on a street in Riyadh, with some hurling racial slurs during the attack. The video sparked an online debate, with many defending al-Mesfer’s right to dress as he chooses and calling on authorities to hold the attackers accountable. Others said his choice of dress and modeling activities went against customs and traditions.
The government continued its multiyear Tatweer project to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods to promote tolerance and remove content disparaging religions other than Islam.
Local sources claimed that Saudi citizens received preferential access to COVID-19 testing and treatment, with some foreign residents reportedly being refused admittance to hospitals during periods of high rates of infection.
Under sharia, as interpreted in the country, consensual same-sex sexual conduct is punishable by death or flogging, depending on the perceived seriousness of the case. It is illegal for men “to behave like women” or to wear women’s clothes, and vice versa. Due to social conventions and potential persecution, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) organizations did not operate openly, nor were there LGBTI rights advocacy events of any kind. There were reports of official and societal discrimination, physical violence, and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, access to education, and health care. Stigma or intimidation limited reports of incidents of abuse. Saudi clerics condemned homosexuality during government-approved Friday sermons at some mosques, most notably at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on August 14.
There were no government efforts to address discrimination. In 2016 newspapers quoted PPO officials as stating the bureau would seek death sentences for anyone using social media to solicit homosexual acts. There were no reports, however, that the PPO sought death sentences in LGBTI cases during the year (see section 1.a.).
During the year local newspapers featured opinion pieces condemning homosexuality and calling on authorities to punish harshly individuals engaging in same-sex relations.
A conversation about homosexuality in a comedy series broadcast on MBC during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan sparked controversy. In a scene from the series, Exit 7, a man and his teenage daughter discussed the topic of homosexuality, with the daughter defending the rights of the LGBTI community.
On April 8, authorities arrested Mohamad al-Bokari, a Yemeni blogger living in Riyadh, for posting a video on social media calling for equal rights, including for gay men. On July 20, a court sentenced him to 10 months in prison and a fine, followed by deportation to Yemen, according to HRW. HRW reported that al-Bokari was charged with violating public morality by promoting homosexuality online and “imitating women.” A source in contact with al-Bokari told HRW that before his trial he was held in solitary confinement for six weeks in al-Malaz Prison in Riyadh, where he was subjected to torture, including beatings and a forced anal exam, an internationally discredited practice used to seek “proof” of homosexual conduct.
There were no reports of societal violence or discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS. By law the government deported foreign workers who tested positive for HIV/AIDS upon arrival or who tested positive when hospitalized for other reasons. There was no indication that HIV-positive foreigners failed to receive antiretroviral treatment or that authorities isolated them during the year. The Ministry of Health’s HIV/AIDS program worked to counter stigma and discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
Social, legal, economic, and political discrimination against the country’s Shia minority continued. HRW claimed that some state clerics and institutions “incited hatred and discrimination against religious minorities, including the country’s Shia Muslim minority.”
To address the problem, the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard included antidiscrimination training in courses offered by the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue for police and other law enforcement officers.