Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, which reports to the king, is responsible for investigating whether security force actions were justifiable and pursuing prosecutions. Capital punishment may be imposed for a range of nonviolent offenses, including apostasy, sorcery, and adultery, although in practice death sentences for such offenses were rare and usually reduced on appeal.
On December 30, media reported that at least three of the individuals convicted in connection with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, including Salah al-Tubaigy, Mustafa al-Madani, and Mansour Abahussein, were seen living in luxury villas in a government compound near Riyadh. There was no further action on the case during the year.
In September 2020 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.
In January the Saudi Human Rights Commission (HRC) announced a moratorium on the death penalty for drug-related offenses, but as of November the government had not published the relevant changes.
Discretionary (ta’zir) death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors are forbidden, and minors’ prison sentences are capped at 10 years under an April 2020 royal decree. (The 2018 Juvenile Law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18 based on the Hijri calendar.) Minor offenders, however, who are convicted in qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudud, crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law, still face the death penalty.
On February 8, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported prosecutors were seeking 10-year prison sentences, rather than the death penalty originally sought, for four men convicted of crimes committed as minors: Ahmad al-Faraj, Ali al-Batti, Ali al-Faraj, and Mohammed al-Faraj. They were arrested in 2017 and 2018 on protest-related charges.
On June 15, the government executed Mustafa Hashem al-Darwish, a 26-year-old Shia citizen convicted of terrorism charges. According to human rights organizations, he was detained in 2015 for alleged participation in riots between 2011 and 2012. The official charge sheet did not specify the dates his alleged crimes took place, making it unclear whether he had turned 18 by that time. Government officials claimed he was executed for other crimes committed as an adult but provided no further information.
On November 10, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence conviction against Abdullah al-Huwaiti, arrested at age 14 and sentenced to death three years later on murder and armed robbery charges. Although no longer at risk of imminent execution, al-Huwaiti could still be sentenced to death at a later stage, since the case remained open, according to the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR).
On October 27 and November 16, authorities released Shia prisoners Ali al-Nimr and Abdullah al-Zaher following completion of their 10-year prison sentences. Al-Nimr and al-Zaher, along with Dawood al-Marhoun who remained imprisoned, were arrested in 2012 as minors when they participated in political protests in 2011. In February all three had their death sentences commuted to 10 years in prison with credit for time served.
On November 10, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence conviction against Abdullah al-Huwaiti, arrested at age 14 and sentenced to death three years later on murder and armed robbery charges.
On November 11, the ESOHR said at least four individuals accused of crimes committed as minors continued to face the possibility of capital punishment, including Sajjad al-Yassin, Jalal al-Labbad, Yusuf al-Manasif, and Hasan Zaki al-Faraj.
There were reports of disappearances carried out by or on behalf of government authorities.
According to the human rights organization al-Qst (ALQST) and Prisoners of Conscience, the whereabouts of physician and internet activist Lina al-Sharif were unknown since her arrest in May. The groups claimed al-Sharif was arrested for comments on social media regarding national politics and human rights issues.
There were no updates during the year regarding the whereabouts of several members of the royal family detained in March 2020, including the former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef Al Saud, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and Prince Nayef bin Ahmed Al Saud, a former head of army intelligence. The government did not announce their detentions, but Reuters reported that the princes were accused of “contact with foreign powers to carry out a coup d’etat.” In June NBC News reported the former crown prince was being held at a government compound in Riyadh, but there was no subsequent confirmation. According to the report, he had lost significant weight, could no longer walk unaided due to serious injuries from beatings, and was deprived of pain medication needed for previous injuries.
There was also no information during the year regarding the whereabouts of Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al Saud, former head of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, also detained by security forces in March 2020.
On April 5, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years’ imprisonment, followed by a 20-year travel ban, on terrorism financing and facilitation charges. After his arrest in 2018, al-Sadhan was detained incommunicado for two years before being allowed to speak with his family. Legal proceedings against him began on March 3 in a process that Amnesty International said was marred by rights violations. Al-Sadhan reportedly tweeted comments critical of the government and sympathetic to ISIS, which family members claimed were satirical in nature. Family members alleged that al-Sadhan was physically abused during his detention and that he was unable to present a proper legal defense during his trial.
In July representatives of the family of Princess Basmah bint Saud reportedly filed an appeal to the Special Procedures experts at the UN Human Rights Council requesting their intervention to demand that authorities provide proof that she was alive. Detained since 2019, media and rights groups reported the princess had health problems, including heart issues and osteoporosis. On May 29, Forbes reported she had a brief telephone call with a relative.
The law prohibits torture and makes officers who are responsible for criminal investigations liable for any abuse of authority. Sharia, as interpreted in the country, prohibits judges from accepting confessions obtained under duress. Statutory law states that public investigators shall not subject accused persons to coercive measures to influence their testimony. There were, however, reports by human rights organizations, the United Nations, and independent third parties of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
Officials from the Ministry of Interior, Public Prosecutor’s Office, and HRC, which is responsible for coordinating with other government entities to investigate and respond to alleged human rights violations (see section 5), claimed that rules prohibiting torture prevented such practices from occurring in the penal system, but human rights organizations, the United Nations, and independent third parties said there were reports of torture and mistreatment of detainees by law enforcement officers. Amnesty International assessed in August that the Specialized Criminal Court “routinely condemns defendants to lengthy prison terms and even death sentences following convictions based on ‘confessions’ extracted through torture.” It alleged that Mustafa al-Darwish’s June execution resulted from confessions obtained by torture (see section 1.a.). Amnesty International reported that former detainees in Mabahith-run facilities alleged abuse, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and long periods of solitary confinement for nonviolent detainees.
On January 15, three UN special rapporteurs sent a letter to the government regarding Ali Hassan al-Rabea, expressing concern at the alleged use of torture and mistreatment to extract confessions and other evidence. In December 2020 the Supreme Court sentenced al-Rabea to death in a final ruling, not subject to appeal. As of year’s end, the sentence was pending King Salman’s approval. Al-Rabea was arrested in 2013, charged with participating in demonstrations, chanting antigovernment slogans, and possessing weapons. The primary evidence reportedly presented against him was the confession allegedly made after being subjected to torture and mistreatment.
In July HRW reported anonymous accounts from prison guards alleging torture of political detainees, including of prominent activists Loujain al-Hathloul and Mohammed al-Rabea. They alleged women’s rights activists and others were subjected to electric shocks, beatings, whippings, and sexual abuse. In February, following her sentencing and conditional release, al-Hathloul’s family reported that an appeals court rejected a lawsuit regarding her claims of torture. In December 2020 the Riyadh Criminal Court had previously dismissed her claim, citing a lack of evidence.
On July 28, the Washington Post reported that former interior ministry official Salem al-Muzaini was whipped, starved, beaten with iron bars, and subjected to electric shocks while held at two Saudi prisons and the Ritz-Carlton hotel from September 2017 until January 2018. He was originally detained in Dubai in 2017 and transferred to Saudi Arabia. Following his release in 2018, al-Muzaini allegedly disappeared in August 2020 after visiting a senior Saudi security official. Al-Muzaini was married to Hissah al-Muzaini, the daughter of Saad al-Jabri, a former high-ranking intelligence official who fled the country in 2016 (see sections 1.e. and 1.f.).
Courts continued to sentence individuals to corporal punishment. In March the Supreme Court clarified that the April 2020 royal decree that effectively eliminated flogging in most cases could be applied retroactively to sentences predating the decree. While flogging may no longer be used as a discretionary ta’zir sentence, it can still be used for three hudud crimes: drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery.
In March local media reported that the appeals court in Jeddah issued a final decision to overturn a sentence of 5,000 lashes for an individual convicted on drug trafficking charges. Reportedly the man instead received five years in prison, a five-year travel ban, and a large fine.
No additional information was available whether the remainder of the discretionary flogging element of activist Raif Badawi’s sentence had been dropped. Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in prison, and a 10-year travel ban in 2014 for insulting Islam, among other charges. He received 50 lashes in 2015, but further floggings were delayed due to health concerns.
Impunity was a problem in the security forces. Activists questioned the impartiality of procedures to investigate detainees’ complaints of torture and maltreatment. The Ministry of Interior stated it installed surveillance cameras to record interrogations of suspects in some criminal investigation offices, police stations, and prisons where such interrogations occur. The government provided human rights training to security forces, but HRW continued to highlight concerns regarding abuse and deplorable conditions in detention centers.
The law provides that no entity may restrict a person’s actions or imprison a person, except under the provisions of the law. The law of criminal procedure provides that authorities may not detain a person for more than 24 hours, but the Ministry of Interior and the State Security Presidency, to which the majority of forces with arrest powers reported, maintained and exercised broad authority to arrest and detain persons indefinitely without judicial oversight, notification of charges, or effective access to legal counsel or family, according to human rights groups.
The law provides that judges are independent and not subject to any authority other than the provisions of sharia and the laws in force. Although public allegations of interference with judicial independence were rare, the judiciary reportedly was subject to influence, particularly in the case of legal decisions rendered by specialized judicial bodies, such as the Specialized Criminal Court, which rarely acquitted suspects. The Specialized Criminal Court and the Public Prosecutor’s Office were not independent entities, as they reportedly were required to coordinate their decisions with executive authorities, including the king and crown prince. Human rights activists claimed that the court’s judges received implicit instructions to issue harsh sentences against human rights activists, reformers, journalists, and dissidents not engaged in violent activities. Activists also reported that judicial and prosecutorial authorities ignored due process-related complaints, including lack of access by lawyers to their clients at critical stages of the judicial process, particularly during the pretrial investigation phase.
On March 8, local media reported that the Supreme Court eliminated the use of oaths (al-qisama) as evidence in murder or manslaughter cases. Under Islamic law, the victim’s family is allowed to take up to 50 oaths to officially confirm that the suspect was guilty if there was no direct evidence or if eyewitness testimony was invalid under Islamic law, as in the case of child witnesses.
Defendants are able to appeal their sentences. The law requires a five-judge appellate court to affirm a death sentence, which a five-judge panel of the Supreme Court must then unanimously affirm. Appellate courts may recommend changes to a sentence, including increasing the severity of a lesser sentence (up to the death penalty), if the trial court convicted the defendant of a crime for which capital punishment is permitted.
Defendants possess the right to seek commutation of a death sentence for some crimes and may receive a royal pardon under specific circumstances (see section 1.d.). In some prescribed cases (qisas), the families of the deceased may accept compensation from the family of the person convicted in an unlawful death, sparing the convicted from execution.
On August 3, Amnesty International assessed that trials before the Specialized Criminal Court were “intrinsically unfair, with defendants subjected to flawed procedures that violate both Saudi and international laws.” Amnesty accused authorities of using the court to crack down on freedom of expression through the prosecution, sentencing, and resentencing processes, as well as bans on public speaking, human rights work, use of social media, and travel. Among others, Amnesty cited the trial and conviction of activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who was sentenced to eight years in prison and an eight-year travel ban in February for charges related to her peaceful activism and participation in antigovernment protests.
On August 16, the court of appeals increased the sentence of activist Khalid al-Omair from seven to nine years without explanation, according to ALQST.
The law prohibits unlawful intrusions into the privacy of persons, their homes, places of work, and vehicles. Criminal investigation officers are required to maintain records of all searches conducted; these records should contain the name of the officer conducting the search, the text of the search warrant (or an explanation of the urgency that necessitated the search without a warrant), and the names and signatures of the persons who were present at the time of search. While the law also provides for the privacy of all mail, telegrams, telephone conversations, and other means of communication, the government did not respect the privacy of correspondence or communications and used the considerable latitude provided by the law to monitor activities legally and intervene where it deemed necessary. Authorities targeted family members of activists and critics of the government.
In June dissident Abdullah al-Odah, son of prominent detained cleric Salman al-Odah (see section 1.d., Pretrial Detention), alleged that 17 of his family members were banned from travel and that his uncle, Khalid al-Odah, was arrested for tweeting about the cleric’s arrest.
There were reports from human rights activists of governmental monitoring or blocking of mobile phone or internet usage. (See section 1.e., Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion, for reporting regarding the government’s purported use of Pegasus software to monitor activists and their families and friends.) The government strictly monitored politically related activities and took punitive actions, including arrest and detention, against persons engaged in certain political activities, such as calling for a constitutional monarchy or publicly criticizing senior members of the royal family by name (see section 2.a.). Customs officials reportedly routinely opened mail and shipments to search for contraband. Informants allegedly reported “seditious ideas,” “antigovernment activity,” or “behavior contrary to Islam” in their neighborhoods.
Use of encrypted communications by private citizens was banned, and authorities frequently attempted to identify and detain anonymous or pseudonymous users and writers who made critical or controversial remarks. Government authorities regularly surveilled websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails, and text messages. Media outlets reported that authorities gained access to critics’ and activists’ Twitter and other social media accounts and in some cases questioned, detained, or prosecuted individuals for comments made online. The counterterrorism law allows the government to access a terrorism suspect’s private communications and banking information in a manner inconsistent with the legal protections provided by the law of criminal procedure.
The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is charged with monitoring and regulating public interaction between members of the opposite sex, although in practice CPVPV authorities were greatly curtailed compared with past years.
Saudi Arabia continued to conduct military operations in support of the UN-recognized government of Yemen against the Houthi militants.
The United Nations, NGOs, media outlets, as well as humanitarian and international organizations, reported what they characterized as disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by all parties to the continuing conflict, causing civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure from shelling and airstrikes. The UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts (GEE) concluded in September that the government of Yemen, Houthis, the Saudi-led coalition, and the Southern Transitional Council were “responsible for human rights violations including arbitrary deprivation of life, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, gender-based violence, including sexual violence, torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, the recruitment and use in hostilities of children, the denial of fair trial rights, violations of fundamental freedoms, and economic, social and cultural rights.” Additionally, the GEE specifically noted, “individuals in the [Saudi-led] coalition, in particular from Saudi Arabia, may have conducted airstrikes in violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution, acts that may amount to war crimes.”
In 2016 the government of Saudi Arabia and other governments participating in the Saudi-led coalition established the Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT), which consisted of military and civilian personnel from coalition countries, to investigate claims of civilian casualties linked to coalition air strikes or other coalition operations inside Yemen and coalition adherence to international humanitarian law. The JIAT held press conferences to explain the results of its investigations to the public. The GEE’s September report expressed concerns regarding the Saudi-led coalition’s investigation and prosecution efforts. The GEE also stated the JIAT did not provide detailed case summary information or supporting evidence.
On numerous occasions, Saudi civilians were injured and killed and civilian objects and critical infrastructure were damaged or destroyed by missile, rocket, drone, artillery, and maritime cross-border attacks by Houthi militants in Yemen aimed at Saudi territory.
Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen reportedly resulted in civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure on multiple occasions. A report by the NGO Mwatana for Human Rights alleged that all parties to the conflict, including the Saudi-led coalition, “likely violated prohibitions under international humanitarian law and international humanitarian law “ by depriving civilians of objects essential to their survival by targeting farms, water facilities, and artisanal fishing boats and equipment that destroyed, damaged or rendered useless objects essential to survival, namely agricultural areas, irrigation works, livestock, foodstuff, water infrastructure, fishing boats, and fishing equipment. According to the UN’s Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, Saudi-led coalition airstrikes accounted for 55 civilian casualty allegations in the first nine months of the year. Casualties linked to airstrikes were down 75 percent compared with the same period in 2020. The nonprofit organization Yemen Data Project, affiliated with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, assessed civilian casualties linked to airstrikes in the first half of the year were the lowest of any six-month period since the start of the conflict. 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. During the last three months of the year, the Saudi-led coalition increased airstrikes in and around more-populated areas in response to increased Houthi cross-border attacks and Houthi ground offensive operations in Ma’rib and Shabwah, which resulted in an increase in civilian casualties.
Mwatana for Human Rights alleged that groups aligned with the Saudi-led coalition were responsible for the disappearance of seven civilians in Yemen from September 2020 to September 2021.
Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses 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 often cooperated with and sometimes accepted the recommendations of the NSHR, the sole government-licensed domestic human rights civil society organization. The NSHR accepted requests for assistance and complaints regarding government actions affecting human rights. The government blocked websites of unlicensed local human rights groups and charged their founders with founding and operating unlicensed organizations (see 2.b., Freedom of Association).
The government did not allow international human rights NGOs to be based in the country and restricted their access to the country for visits; there were no transparent standards governing visits by international NGO representatives. International human rights and humanitarian NGOs reported 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.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In March the Guardian reported that a senior Saudi official in Geneva was accused of threatening to “take care of” UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard during her investigation into the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post later reported the unnamed official was Saudi Human Rights Commission president Awad al-Awad. He stated publicly that he had been present at the meeting but denied making any threatening remarks.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The government had mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse, but their effectiveness was limited. 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 HRC worked directly with the Royal Court and the Council of Ministers, with a committee composed of representatives of the Shura Council and the Ministries of Labor and Social Development and Interior, and with the Shura 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, and trafficking in persons. While they avoided topics such as protests or cases of political activists that would require directly confronting government authorities, they inquired into complaints of mistreatment by some high-profile political prisoners. The 18 full-time members of the HRC board included nine women and at least three Shia members; they received and responded to individual complaints, including those related to persons with disabilities, religious freedom, and women’s rights.
The Shura Council’s Human Rights Committee also actively followed cases and included women and Shia among its members.
The HRC and NSHR maintained records of complaints and outcomes, but privacy laws protect information concerning individual cases, and information was not publicly available. On June 29, the HRC stated it handled 4,593 complaints in 2020, a 9 percent increase over 2019.
The Board of Grievances, a high-level administrative judicial body that hears cases against government entities and reports directly to the king, is the primary mechanism to seek redress for claims of abuse. During the year the Board of Grievances held hearings and adjudicated claims of wrongdoing, but there were no reported prosecutions of security force members for human rights violations. Military and security courts investigated an unknown number of abuses of authority and security force killings. The HRC, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, provided materials and training to police, other security forces, the Ministry of Defense, and the CPVPV on protecting human rights.
Citizens may report abuses by security forces at any police station or to the HRC or NSHR. The Public Prosecutor’s Office announced in July the launch of the Ma’akom system, which allows citizens and residents to submit complaints directly regarding illegal detention or violations of detainee rights, using the online platform Absher, a hotline telephone number, or in person (see Administration in section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions).
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense under sharia 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. Survivors must prove that a 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 survivors 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. There were reports that domestic abuse in the form of incest occurred but was seldom reported to authorities due to fears of societal repercussions, according to local sources.
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 among women to be anywhere between 15 to 60 percent. In July, referencing a Ministry of Health report, local media reported authorities were investigating more than 2,700 domestic violence cases, in which 75 percent of the alleged survivors were female. 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 survivors, such as the domestic violence hotline managed by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development. They also noted a continued increase in authorities’ willingness to investigate and prosecute domestic violence perpetrators, but they expressed concern that some police departments continued to neglect domestic violence cases.
On January 27, Prisoners of Conscience reported that a woman known only as Manal was arrested after publishing details on the disappearance and death of her 26-year-old sister, Qamar, allegedly at the hands of their two brothers. Manal stated on Twitter that her two brothers killed Qamar for setting up a public Snapchat account. Authorities in al-Kharj stated they arrested two individuals in connection with the murder on January 21. As of November, Manal’s whereabouts were unknown.
The government made some efforts to reduce domestic violence. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development administered government-supported family-protection shelters, although women reported that remaining in the shelters was not always voluntary. On March 29, the HRC and the Mawaddah Charitable Association signed a memorandum of understanding to increase coordination and antidomestic violence awareness efforts. It would establish an independent body to research domestic violence, propose changes to the legal framework, and develop specialized centers for survivors, local media reported. No additional information on implementation of the memorandum was available as of December.
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 reluctance to report violations.
On January 12, the Council of Ministers approved an amendment to the antiharassment law that allows for the public release of names of those convicted for harassment, as a deterrent and to prevent offenders’ employment in certain jobs. The law criminalizing sexual harassment carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a substantial fine. The HRC stated 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.
Local media reported a number of incidents of harassment during the year. In March the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrest of a man seen in a video insulting and assaulting two young women in the streets of Riyadh and filed a criminal suit against him. On February 22, local media reported that former shura council member Iqbal Dandari won a case against a man for cyberharassment. Details regarding the case were unknown. On September 26, local media reported a number of sexual harassment incidents during National Day celebrations. Security authorities arrested and referred to the Public Prosecutor’s Office three Saudi citizens in Medina, a Saudi and an Egyptian resident in Riyadh, and a Saudi citizen in Taif for harassing women.
In April the HRC launched a specialized group for confidential support of victims of sexual harassment and their families with psychological counseling and educational, social, and legal guidance.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Premarital sex is illegal under sharia law, and hospitals and health centers may report extramarital pregnancies to police. Access to most contraceptives required a prescription, but condoms were available at pharmacies and supermarkets for over-the-counter purchase. According to 2020 estimates by the UN Population Fund, 15 percent of all women and 23 percent of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 used a modern method of contraception.
In some cases women may be discouraged from making certain reproductive health decisions due to cultural and religious beliefs, social pressure, and lack of awareness of their rights.
Almost all women had access to skilled health attendants during pregnancy and childbirth. The most recent UN Population Fund estimates reported that skilled health personnel attended 99 percent of births between 2010 and 2019. While some women in rural areas had to travel to the closest medical facility to receive treatment, others received health services from Ministry of Health-sponsored mobile health clinics. According to the government, women are entitled to medical assistance during pregnancy and delivery; the right to decide the details of their deliveries; and obtain maternity care in a language she understands and is appropriate to her cultural and religious beliefs. Adult women also have the right to consent to any medical procedures.
Governmental and quasi-governmental agencies provided medical care to sexual violence survivors as well as psychological and social support. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development’s Center for Protection Against Abuse runs a 24-hour hotline and shelters across the country with access to medical care for victims of sexual violence, while the quasi-governmental National Family Safety Program agency provided medical support to sexual abuse victims. (See sections 2.g. and 6, Children, for issues related to legal status for children born outside of marriage.)
Discrimination: Women continued to face discrimination under law and custom. A series of regulations issued from 2019 through year’s end, however, granted women many of the same rights enjoyed by men pertaining to travel abroad, civil status, and employment.
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.
Women older than 18 have the right to perform several actions pertaining to civil status that were previously limited to men. These included 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.
In June judicial authorities amended the absenteeism law, or taghayyub, to allow all unmarried, divorced, or widowed women to live alone without the consent of a male guardian. The amendment followed a July 2020 court decision in which a court ruled in favor of Maryam al-Otaibi, a Saudi woman who lived independently in Riyadh, despite prosecutors’ attempt to convict her for absenteeism. Under the previous absenteeism law, guardians could report the unauthorized absence of anyone under their guardianship, which could lead to the arrest, detention, or forcible return of the individual.
In advance of Hajj in July, authorities ended the male guardian requirement for women to participate in the annual pilgrimage.
Adult women may legally own property and are entitled to financial support from their husbands or ex-husbands. They can make their own determinations concerning hospital care and no longer need a male guardian’s permission to start a business.
By law women have equal rights to employment. On January 14, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development banned employee discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, age, or disability, citing reforms to human resources laws. Commenting on a job advertisement that contained gender discriminatory language, the ministry stated it violated the labor law, stressing that citizens have equal employment rights without any form of discrimination, including gender.
On February 21, the Ministry of Defense began allowing women to serve in the army, air defense, navy, strategic missile force, and armed forces medical services as enlisted personnel, but not as officers. In November data from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development’s National Labor Observatory showed women constituted 60 percent of Saudi youth who joined the local employment market during the first nine months of the year.
Women no longer require a guardian’s permission to exit prisons after completing their terms.
The law permits women to transmit citizenship to their children under certain circumstances (see section 2.g. 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.
Few 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, like males, were only required to dress “modestly.”
Women faced discrimination in courts, where in some cases the testimony of a woman equals one-half that of a man. Women have begun practicing law, but all judges are male. 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 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 2020 the Justice Ministry ended the so-called secret divorce, whereby men could divorce their wives without the woman’s consent or knowledge. The ministry 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.
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 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. According to local media in 2020, courts considered an average of 750 marriage contract cases annually.
In February the crown prince announced forthcoming legal reforms that would impact the personal status law and expand protections for women. On October 24, Minister of Justice Walid al-Samaani stated the personal status draft law would address a woman’s agreement to marriage, preserving her and her children’s financial and alimony rights, as well as other issues related to divorce requests. Additional details regarding these reforms were not made public by year’s end.
Courts routinely awarded 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 some cases former husbands reportedly prevented divorced noncitizen women from visiting their children.
Sharia-based inheritance laws discriminate against women, giving daughters one-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 the university level was standard. Some private universities, such as -Faisal University, 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. A few other government universities offered coeducation in selected programs, largely in the sciences. Private international and national schools may offer coeducation at any grade; most private international schools are coeducational, while most private national schools are segregated. Primary public schools offered mixed-gender education up to the third grade.
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.
Birth Registration: Citizenship generally 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.g., Stateless Persons). On June 25, the social security administration announced children from foreign fathers and Saudi mothers will be allowed to benefit from their mother’s pension, as long as she is widowed or divorced. In January the HRC stated that a child born in the country to unknown parents would be considered a Saudi citizen.
Child Abuse: Abuse of children occurred. The National Family Safety Program operated a 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. Child abuse is a crime punishable by one year’s imprisonment, a maximum fine of 50,000 riyals ($13,300), or both.
On January 30, local media reported that the family protection unit in Jizan investigated the case of a 15-year-old girl abused by her father, stating that legal actions would be taken against him. There were no updates as of November.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 18; those younger than that age may marry only with court approval. According to local media, the court ensures 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. 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 such marriages. 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. In February a woman was arrested for sexually abusing a girl in Riyadh. The woman allegedly filmed herself and the girl and posted the footage on social media. In the same month, Mecca police arrested a man for sexually harassing a child. He reportedly posted a video of the harassment on social media.
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-Semitic language in their sermons were generally rare but occurred more frequently during the May conflict in Gaza. The law requires government-employed imams to deliver all sermons in mosques in the country. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs vets all sermons. 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.
On January 30, a Washington Post article cited expert assessments that anti-Semitic references and language in Saudi textbooks had been removed or tempered, including calls to “fight the Jews.” Nonetheless, some concerns remained regarding anti-Semitic themes in textbooks; for example, a textbook’s passage refers to a Quranic text that suggests God changed a group of Israelites into “monkeys.”
A report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) stated that the October Riyadh International Book Fair included exhibitors selling more than two dozen notoriously anti-Semitic books. The ADL noted that the presence of these anti-Semitic books at the largest book fair in the country “seem[s] at odds with some positive Saudi trends.”
In January a group of Israeli drivers traveled to Saudi Arabia to compete in the Dakar Rally, despite a ban on Israeli travelers to the country. On February 2, the English-language newspaper Arab News ran an op-ed by two Israeli writers, Hay Eyta Cohen Yanarocak and Jonathan Spyer, believed to be the first time a Saudi newspaper knowingly published Israeli writers.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law mandates the state to “protect human rights in accordance with Islamic law,” which the Authority for Persons with Disabilities notes includes justice, equity, and antidiscrimination on any grounds, including disability. On January 14, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development banned workplace discrimination, including on the basis of disability (see section 6, Women). On April 21, the ministry announced that all private and government institutions were obliged to meet certain accessibility requirements within six months; accommodations were implemented at some government buildings, retail establishments, and sidewalks. Local media reported that the ministry had formed expert committees to oversee the implementation of accessibility requirements that would follow the building code and accessibility standards developed by the King Salman Center for Disability Research. Newer commercial buildings often included such access, as did some newer government buildings.
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. The Ministry of Education took measures to integrate students with disabilities, 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. On September 29, the education minister stated students with disabilities would have equal educational opportunities to help them integrate into the labor market, adding that the ministry had prepared a teaching and training strategy to ensure students with disabilities students received proper education and training.
Persons with disabilities were elected and appointed to municipal councils in 2015, and two individuals with disabilities served on the consultative Shura Council, which was reconstituted in 2016.
There were no reports of societal violence or discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS. By law the government deported foreign workers who tested positive for HIV or 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 or AIDS.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
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, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) organizations did not operate openly, nor were there LGBTQI+ 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. Clerics condemned homosexuality during government-approved Friday sermons at some mosques.
During the year local newspapers featured opinion pieces condemning homosexuality and calling on authorities to punish harshly individuals engaging in same-sex relations.
On October 24, local media reported that Northern Borders Province police arrested and referred for prosecution five men who appeared in public in women’s clothing. The men filmed themselves and posted the video on social media in an apparent attempt to attract more social media followers. A police spokesman described their conduct as “inconsistent with the public morals of society.”
Observers at the December MDLBeast Soundstorm music festival reported that it included the public display of LGBTQI+ culture.
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.