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Saudi Arabia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state, the religion of which is Islam.  The Basic Law defines the country’s constitution as the Quran and the Sunna and states the “decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.”  The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion.  Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland.  Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize.  The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority.  The law deems children born to Muslim fathers as Muslim.

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and Sunna.  All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects.  In several areas, including commercial and financial matters and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts.  Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the King.  By law, these fatwas must be based on the Quran and Sunna.  The Basic Law also states that governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality, according to sharia.

The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions.  The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters.  The CSS is headed by the Grand Mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i).  There are no Shia members.  Scholars are chosen at the King’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The counterterrorism law criminalizes, among other things, “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.”  It criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  The law also bans publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.

According to the Basic Law of Governance, “The Judiciary is an independent authority.  The decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.  The courts shall apply rules of the Islamic sharia in cases that are brought before them, according to the Holy Quran and the Sunna, and according to laws which are decreed by the ruler in agreement with the Holy Quran and the Sunna.”  In the absence of a comprehensively codified criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely.  Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision.  Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.

In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff.  In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation that a Muslim male would receive.  In some circumstances, other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount that a Muslim male would receive.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia.  The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints.  There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC.  During the year, the commission had approximately 26 members from various parts of the country, including four Shia members.

The law permits death as punishment for blasphemy against Islam.  Courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy since 1992.  Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences.  Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

In 2020, as the result of a Supreme Court decision, the government ended flogging as a ta’zir (discretionary) criminal sentence and replaced it with prison sentences or fines.  As a result, flogging may no longer be used against those convicted of blasphemy, public immodesty, sitting alone with a person of the opposite sex, and a range of other crimes.  However, judicial officials have stated that flogging still may be included in sentences for three hudood offenses (crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law):  drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery.

In 2020, a royal decree abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors.  The juvenile law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18, based on the Hijri (Islamic lunar) calendar.  Minor offenders, however, who are convicted of qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudood offenses could still face the death penalty.  The royal decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.

The country is the location of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites.  The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina.  Muslims visit these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year.  The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims.  The King employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities.  Citing reasons of public safety and logistics, the government establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.  Saudi authorities continued to limit access to Mecca and Medina, including for the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, due to ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

The MOIA vets, employs, and supervises Sunni Muslim clerics.  Those who preach at government-owned mosques are government employees who receive a monthly stipend.  The MOIA permits only government-employed clerics to deliver sermons and vets the sermons in advance.

The MOIA must approve clerics traveling abroad to proselytize and they operate under MOIA supervision.  The stated purpose of this regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the actual or apparent interference by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence.  Private schools must also follow the official, government-approved religious curriculum.  Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students may receive a course on Islamic civilization or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses entail one hour of instruction per week.  The government permits private international schools to teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency charged with monitoring social behavior and reporting violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities.  The CPVPV provides counseling and reports individuals suspected of violating the law to police.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the King’s behalf.  According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Muhammad.”  CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges.

A royal 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.”

Social media users who post or share content considered to attack religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Cyber Crimes Law.  Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order, public morals, or religious values may also be subject to a fine up to three million riyals ($800,000).

The government requires noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.”  Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicate other religious designations, such as “Christian.”

The law does not allow for political parties or similar associations.  The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future