At A Glance
Population, July 2006 est. 27,601,038 (including 5,576,076 non-citizens)
GDP Per Capita (PPP), 2006 est. $13,800
Human Development Index Rank, UNDP, 2006 76 (out of 177 countries)
Freedom House Rating, 2006 Not Free
Political Rights 7
Civil Liberties 7
Freedom of the Press Rank, Freedom House, 2006 172 (out of 194 countries)
Corruption Index Rank, Transparency International, 2007 79 (out of 180 countries)
Gender Empowerment Rank, UNDP, 2004 77 (out of 78 countries)
UPDATES AND FORTHCOMING EVENTS 2
STATE INSTITUTIONS/ SEPARATION OF POWERS 3
EXECUTIVE BRANCH 3
LEGISLATIVE BRANCH 5
LOCAL GOVERNMENT 9
PERSONAL LIBERTIES 10
LEGISLATION REGULATING THE EXERCISE OF RIGHTS 10
RECENT GOVERNMENT INITIATIVES AFFECTING RIGHTS 13
POLITICAL FORCES 15
POLITICAL PARTIES 15
CIVIL SOCIETY 15
ELECTION RESULTS 17
CONSTITUTIONAL REVISION 18
RATIFICATION OF INTERNATIONAL CONVENTIONS 20
Updates and Forthcoming Events
• Saudi Information Minister Iyad Madani announced on January 30, 2008 a ban on all live broadcasts on Saudi public television. The announcement came two days after some viewers phoned in with critical comments about senior Saudi government officials, including the King, to a live program on the state-owned al-Ikhbariya news channel. The station’s director, Muhammad al-Tunsi, was dismissed. Click here for more information.
• The Interior Ministry confirmed on December 31, 2007 that Saudi blogger Ahmad al-Farhan was detained for questioning. Al-Farhan, who used his blog to criticize corruption and call for political reform, was arrested on December 10 “for violating rules not related to state security,” according to the ministry spokesman. Saudi authorities also blocked access to the leading blog publishing service, Blogger.com. The Saudi government’s official “internet blacklist” contains more than 400,000 websites, including political, religious, and pornographic sites. Click here for more information.
• President of the National Society for Human Rights Bandar al-Hajjar announced on January 5, 2008 that Saudi Arabia is moving toward incorporating a human rights curriculum into its higher education system. During the past year, the organization has established a human rights library in Riyadh and a data center for human rights research.
• The Saudi Shura Council approved on December 31, 2007 a draft civil society law that will regulate civil society organizations in Saudi Arabia. The law—the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia—calls for the establishment of a “National Authority for Civil Society Organizations” to supervise the activities of NGOs. The draft law is currently under discussion in cabinet. Click here an Arabic summary of the draft law.
State Institutions/ Separation of Powers
• The Quran and the Sunna constitute the effective constitution of Saudi Arabia. The Basic law (Nizam), a series of laws issued by King Fahd in 1992, serves as an informal constitution. The government-appointed clergy act as the nominal arbiters of constitutional matters, but the king retains absolute authority to determine the outcome of constitutional disputes.
• The king is the head of state. He:
– Rules by decree in accordance with Islamic law (Sharia) and with the consensus of senior princes and religious officials.
– Performs legislative and executive functions.
– Acts as the ultimate source of judicial power. Through a royal order he can introduce new laws, amend existing laws or reinterpret them.
– Is the commander in chief of the armed forces. Appoints officers and revokes their duties.
– Is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
– Approves and amends international treaties, agreements and regulations by decree.
– Approves all decisions of the Council of Ministers.
• There are no institutional checks on royal authority. The king is somewhat constrained by Islamic law—the importance of attaining consensus among royal family members, and the tradition of consultation—but in practice there is little accountability and he has wide-ranging discretion.
• Crown Prince Abdullah acceded to the throne in August 2005 following the death of King Fahd, who occupied the throne between 1982 and 2005. Crown Prince Abdullah had acted as de facto regent since King Fahd’s stroke in 1995.
• The prime minister:
– Is the head of the Council of Ministers.
– Can veto any decision of the Council of Ministers.
– Appoints and removes deputy prime ministers, ministers, and other members of the Council of Ministers by royal order.
– Has the right to dissolve and reorganize the Council of Ministers.
• The Council of Ministers authority is defined by the 1958 Law of the Council of Ministers, which was subsequently amended in 1961, 1964, 1971, and 1975. Most of these amendments solidify the king’s authority.
• The Council of Ministers:
– Consists of the king, the crown prince, three royal advisers who hold official positions as ministers of state, five other ministers of state, and the heads of the twenty ministries. The commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, the governors of Medina, Mecca, Riyadh, and the Eastern Province, as well as the governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) and the head of the General Petroleum and Mineral Organization (Petromin) hold ministerial rank and are members of the Council of Ministers.
– Has responsibility for drafting and overseeing the implementation of internal, external, financial, economic, education and defense policies, and general affairs of state.
– Has authority in financial matters, approving the annual budget and development plan.
– Can propose legislation, and approve draft laws, concessions and international agreements, which come into effect when they are ratified by the king. In practice, the king often passes and amends laws without first submitting them to the Council of Ministers.
– Imposes taxes and decides on the sale, lease and disposal of government property.
• The deliberations of the Council of Ministers take place behind closed doors. Its decisions are made public except for those which are considered to be secret by the Council.
• The term in office of the Council of Ministers runs for up to four years, during which it can be reformed by a royal order.
• Saudi Arabia’s defense forces consist of the armed forces, which report to the defense minister, and the National Guard. The National Guard is responsible for internal security, including the protection of the royal family and the prevention of military coups. While Abdullah was Crown Prince the National Guard served as a counterweight to the regular army and as his basis of support.
• Reforms Under Discussion
– Saudi King Abdullah issued a royal decree on October 8, 2007 outlining regulations to implement the October 2006 succession law aimed at ensuring a smooth transition of power. The succession law created a committee, to be comprised of sons and grandsons of Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the Kingdom’s founder, to select crown princes, thus future kings. The new rules will not apply to succession after King Abdullah, who has already chosen Prince Sultan al-Saud to follow him. Succession in the past has been decided by a small group of powerful royals; the new procedures aim to broaden the process.
• Saudi Arabia lacks a standard legislature. It only has a Consultative Council.
• The Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) was established by royal decree under the 1992 Consultative Council Law.
• The Consultative Council:
– Consists of 150 members selected by the king. They cannot include princes or serving ministers. Members serve for four-year terms. When a new Consultative Council is formed, at least half of those appointed must be new members.
– Can be restructured and dissolved by the king.
– Has historically acted mainly in an advisory capacity, debating, rejecting and amending government-proposed legislation.
– Was given the power to initiate legislation by a 2003 royal decree. The decree also amended the Council’s charter so that in the event of disagreement it would have the opportunity to respond to the government’s arguments, leaving the king as final arbiter and decision-maker.
– Adopts its decisions by an absolute majority. Its decisions are then transmitted back to the Council of Ministers which also has to decide on the same issues. In case of agreement between the two councils, the law is promulgated on the king’s consent. In case of disagreement the king is free to make a decision.
– Pronounces the general plan of economic and social development, laws, regulations, concessions, international treaties and agreements and annual reports submitted by ministries and other government agencies.
– Can hold ministries accountable in relation to their spending, but has no role in shaping the budget.
– Is required to operate on a special budget approved by the King, following rules set forth by a royal order.
• Reforms Under Discussion
– In October 2003, the Saudi press reported that the government would conduct elections for one third of the members of the Consultative Council within three years. Discussion about possible, at least partial, elections to the council has resumed after the fourth expansion of the council membership to 150 in April 2005. The government has issued no official pronouncements on the subject.
• Saudi Arabia’s legal system is based primarily on the principles of the Sharia. The Judiciary issues its rulings on the basis of what is stated in the Quran and in the Sunna. Sharia laws are supplemented by laws legislated by the government.
• The king is responsible for the implementation of judicial rulings.
• The Justice Ministry disciplines judges.
• The judiciary is subject to the influence of the royal family. Provincial governors (most of whom are members of the royal family) have the authority to exercise leniency and reduce a judge’s sentence.
– The Judicial Law of 1975:
– Vests the authority of the Judiciary in the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) which is empowered to appoint, promote and transfer judges.
– Declares the judiciary independent. Judges are to be subject only to the dictates of Sharia and the law.
– Requires trials to be held publicly.
– The Statute on Imprisonment and Detention of 28 May 1978: bans torture.
– The Statute of Principles of Arrest, Temporary Confinement and Preventive Detention, was issued on 11 November 1983. It:
– Is the main law regulating this area of the criminal justice system. Includes most detailed legislation on the rules of arrest and detention.
– Prohibits arbitrary arrest. Authorities are not supposed to detain suspects for longer than three days before charging them.
– The Law of Procedure Before Sharia Courts of September 2001:
– Grants defendants the right to legal representation.
– Outlines the process by which pleas, evidence and experts are heard by the court.
– The Code of Law Practice of January 2002:
– Outlines the requirements necessary to become an attorney and defines the duties and rights of lawyers, including the right of attorney-client privilege.
– The Criminal Procedure Law of May 2002:
– Protects a defendant’s rights with regard to interrogation, investigation, and incarceration.
– Outlines a series of regulations that justice and law enforcement authorities must follow during all stages of the judicial process, from arrest and interrogation, to trial and execution verdicts.
– Prohibits torture, protects the rights of suspects to obtain legal council and limits arbitrary detention to five days.
– Criminal laws are vague and open to wide interpretation by judges. For example charges of “sabotage” and “corruption on earth” are not clearly defined even though they carry the death penalty.
– Has not been observed in practice:
– The system lacks safeguards and procedures to guarantee a fair trial. Hearings are often held in camera; there are summary court sessions in political cases and in cases of people charged with crimes punishable by death, amputation or flogging. Trials are normally held without counsel.
– In criminal cases detention is often extended in order to extract a confession and then proceed to trial. In the majority of political cases detainees are pressured to give information about their political beliefs and activities, and about other people working with them. They are usually made aware that their release is conditional on their repenting of their previous activities and on their signing an undertaking to cease these activities.
– Arbitrary arrest, particularly of suspected political and religious opponents of the government, is practiced. It is facilitated by the wide powers of arrest enjoyed by numerous bodies acting without judicial authority. These bodies include al-Shurta (the public security police), al-Mabahith al Amma (General Investigations) and religious police known as al-Mutawaeen or Hay’at al-amr bilmaruf wan nahi an al-munkar, (the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice). The first two are accountable to the Minister of the Interior. Al-Mutawaeen, which is mandated to ensure strict adherence to established codes of conduct, is in theory a semi-autonomous agency, but in practice works closely with the police and the governors of the localities. It is required to hand suspects over to the public security police after questioning.
– There are four tiers of Sharia Courts, which hear cases involving criminal, family, personal injury, and property matters. Sharia courts fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice, which was established in 1970.
– Limited or Summary Courts are empowered to hear civil and criminal cases in which the maximum penalty is limited. Cases handled in the summary courts can be appealed to the appeals court. Civil claims are often first filed with the Amarah, which will attempt to resolve the dispute by settlement. If a settlement is not possible, the case will be submitted to the courts.
– The general courts are the courts of first instance for all matters falling outside the jurisdiction of the Limited Courts. The jurisdiction of the General Courts extends to cases involving crime, tort action, personal and family law, and real estate. Cases handled in the general courts can be appealed to the Appeals Court.
– The Appeals Court is comprised of three departments: the penal suits, the personal status suits, and all other types of suits. The Appeals Court is presided by the chief justice and a panel of several qadis (judges). For most matters, the Court of Appeals represents the final court of appeal.
– The Grievance Board settles commercial disputes and grievances, tax disputes and contractual affairs. It also reviews complaints of improper behavior brought against both government officials and qadis. The President of the Board is appointed by the king. It is not a Sharia court, following a reorganization in 1982 which made it directly responsible to the king.
• Council and Committees
– In addition to the Sharia courts, there are numerous commissions and tribunals that adjudicate different matters. There is a number of judicial and quasi-judicial institutions with specialized jurisdictions such as commercial or labor law. Some of these specialized tribunals fall outside the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. They include the Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the Supreme Commission on Labor Disputes, the Commission on Impeachment of Ministers, and separate councils for civil servants and military personnel. Appeals are permitted from all these bodies to the Grievance Board which is also independent of the Ministry of Justice.
– The Supreme Judicial Council supervises the work of the courts, reviews all legal decisions referred to it by the minister of justice, expresses legal opinions on judicial questions, and approves all sentences of death, amputation (of fingers and hands as punishment for theft), and stoning (for adultery). It is a body of eleven members chosen from the leading ulema (religious scholars) of the country. The chief of the Supreme Judicial Council is appointed by the king from among the country’s most senior ulema. In addition to its administrative authority, it also serves in a limited capacity as a final court of appeal for the Sharia Courts. It is composed of two departments, the Permanent Commission and the General Commission.
– The Conflicts of Jurisdiction Committee resolves jurisdictional disputes involving a Sharia Court and another tribunal or committee. It is composed of two members of the Supreme Judicial Council and one member of the tribunal or committee in question.
– The Council of Senior Islamic Scholars is an autonomous body of 20 senior religious jurists, including the Minister of Justice. It establishes the legal principles to guide lower-court judges in deciding cases. It is an advisory body to the king and cabinet.
• Reforms Under Discussion
– The Saudi King announced a comprehensive overhaul of the Kingdom’s legal system on October 3, 2007. The King issued a number of new laws regulating the judiciary and the Board of Grievances and allocated seven billion Saudi riyals (approx. $2 billion) for the planned reforms. The new rules, which emphasize the independence of judges, set up a supreme court whose main functions will be to oversee the implementation sharia as well as laws issued by the king, commercial courts, labor courts, personal status courts, and a fund for training judges. The Board of Grievances will continue to handle administrative disputes involving government departments. Currently, justice in Saudi Arabia is administered by a system of religious courts, and judges have wide discretion to issue rulings according to their own interpretation of Islamic sharia. Click here for the royal decree in Arabic.
– Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice will no longer be allowed to interrogate those it arrests for behavior deemed un-Islamic, under an interior ministry decree published on May 25 2006. According to the decree, “the role of the commission will end after it arrests the culprit or culprits and hands them over to police, who will then decide whether to refer them to the public prosecutor.” Commission members (mutawa’in) have until now enjoyed unchallenged powers to arrest, detain, and interrogate those suspected of “moral infractions.”
• The 1992 Law of Provinces regulates the relationship between central government agencies and regional governors.
• The kingdom is divided into 13 provinces, each of which is ruled by a governor. The provincial government oversees the local offices of the central government and municipal officials. In some of the provinces there is a public majlis where citizens can voice their grievances.
• Governors and members of provincial councils are appointed by the king. Local administrators are appointed by the minister of interior. Most governors are also members of the house of al-Saud.
• In 2003, the king approved the creation of consultative councils at the municipal level. Half of the officials in these bodies are to be elected by popular vote.
• The councils have a narrow mandate, which deals principally with the provision of services. Central areas of public policy, such as the allocation of public land (a matter important to curb corruption and abuse of office) remain in the hands of the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs. Duties of municipalities include planning of cities and villages (including roads and facilities), managing services to provide public health and cleanliness, and cultivating and improving rural areas.
• The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs was established in 1975 and oversees all areas of municipal governance.
• The Basic Law does not include explicit guarantees of basic rights such as freedoms of belief, expression, assembly, or political participation. It does prohibit the government agencies from arbitrarily arresting citizens and from violating their privacy.
• Freedom of expression is restricted by prohibitions of criticism of the government, Islam and the ruling family. The U.S. State Department’s 2004 International Religious Freedom Report lists Saudi Arabia among the countries that violate or restrict the religious freedom of their citizens, for the first time designating it a “country of particular concern” (CPC).
• Public expression of non-Islamic religious beliefs is illegal, though private worship is permitted.
• Shi’i Muslims (estimates indicate that they make up between 8% to 20% of the population) face numerous restrictions on the public practice of their religion and encounter discrimination in all areas of public sector employment and are subject to abuse by government security services.
• The New York-based organization Human Rights Watch provides a comprehensive overview of human rights developments in Saudi Arabia. After its first significant fact-finding mission in the county that began on November 27, 2006, HRW reported numerous cases of unfair trials, prisoner abuses, labor abuses, restrictions on women’s legal identity, and cases of children’s detention. Click here for details.
Legislation Regulating the Exercise of Rights
• Electoral Law, Municipal Law
– The electoral law for municipal elections was formulated in 1977 but has not been put to use until municipal elections were held between February and April 2005.
– The language of the law is gender-neutral but women were not allowed to vote. The justification for their exclusion was the logistical problems related to the lack of photo identification cards for women and the difficulty of staffing separate voting centers for them.
• Law on Associations
– The Basic Law (Nizam) does not provide for freedom of association.
– Public demonstrations pertaining to political issues are prohibited.
– Trade unions, syndicates, collective bargaining and strikes are prohibited, with limited provisions for companies with over 100 workers (see Labor Laws). The government does license professional associations such as the Saudi Chemists Association and the Saudi Pharmacists Society.
– Governmental permission is required to form professional groups and associations, which must be non-political.
• Media Laws
– The 1982 Royal Decree on Press Publications guarantees freedom of expression within the framework of Islamic and national objectives and values. All criticism of the royal family and the religious authorities is forbidden.
– Article 39 of the Basic Law states that: “Mass media, publication facilities and other means of expression shall function in a manner that is courteous and fair and shall abide by State laws. They shall play their part in educating the masses and boosting national unity. All that may give rise to mischief and discord, or may compromise the security of the State and its public image, or may offend against man’s dignity and rights shall be banned.”
– The King announced the creation of an independent journalists’ organization in early 2003. The Saudi Journalists Association attracted some criticism because its founding documents were promulgated by the government, and the Information Ministry must approve all candidates for the board.
– The Ministry of Information regulates radio and television broadcasts.
– All Saudi newspapers and periodicals are created by royal decree as there are no licensing procedures.
– Newspapers are privately-owned but receive state subsidies. Their publishers and editors are appointed or at least approved by the government.
– The government owns the Saudi Press Agency which is controlled by the information ministry and expresses government views.
– The foreign press is systematically censored, with articles and pictures blacked out.
– Internet access is filtered to block Web sites deemed offensive to Islam or a threat to state security.
– A special CPJ report (“Princes, Clerics, and Censors”) released on May 9, 2006 finds that independent reporting on politics remains nearly absent from the Saudi press. According to the report, the country’s conservative religious establishment acts as a powerful lobbying force against enterprising coverage of social, cultural, and religious matters and government officials dismiss editors, suspend or blacklist dissident writers, order news blackouts on controversial topics, and admonish independent columnists over their writings to deter criticism or to appease religious constituencies.
– According to the annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, Saudi Arabia ranks 148 of 169 countries. The index runs from 1 (most press freedom) to 169 (least press freedom).
• Personal Status Law
– In October 2000, the Saudi government signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, with reservations concerning clauses that conflict with Islamic law. As a result, despite the signing of the Convention, Saudi laws systematically discriminates against women.
– Legal matters pertaining to personal status are usually the purview of Islamic courts that use Sharia as the basis for decisions. The Council of Senior Ulema issues the final interpretation of Islamic law in Saudi Arabia with the consent of the king.
– An unmarried woman is the ward of her father, a married woman is the ward of her husband and a widowed woman is the ward of her sons. Women cannot obtain a passport or an exit visa or be admitted to a hospital without the permission of their guardian.
– Women are segregated from men in public; prohibited from driving; unable to travel without a male relative; and required to wear the abaya outside the home.
– A man may receive a divorce upon request, while a woman must win a legal decision to separate.
– A man’s testimony is equal to that of two women in court.
– Women were only issued identity cards in 2001. To qualify for an identity card, a woman must have the written consent of her guardian and, if employed, a letter from her employer.
– In recent years, women have gained some economic rights, such as the right to establish companies and charitable institutions.
• Reforms Under Discussion
– The general committee on municipal elections has stated that women should be able to vote in the next municipal elections, scheduled to take place in four years.
– A new regulation for issuing women’s ID cards was approved on April 12, 2005 and will be publicized soon. Civil status departments in the Kingdom can now issue ID cards to women without a male guardian’s consent. A woman with a valid ID can verify the identity of another woman in order for that woman to get her ID card.
– Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal announced plans to appoint women to the Foreign Ministry for the first time in 2005.
• Labor Law
– The Labor and Workmen Law of 1969 does not set a legal minimum wage. Labor regulations establish a 48-hour workweek at regular pay and allow employers to require up to 12 additional hours of overtime at time-and-a-half pay. Labor law provides for a 24-hour rest period.
– In April 2002 a new law was issued, permitting Saudi workers to establish labor committees in companies with 100 or more employees. The committee members are chosen by the workers and approved by the Ministry. The committee may make recommendations to company management to improve work conditions, increase productivity, improve health and safety, and recommend training programs. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs may send a representative to attend committee meetings. The ministry may dissolve a labor committee if it violates regulations or threatens public security. Foreign workers may not serve on the committee; however, committee regulations provide that the committee should represent their views.
– Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, estimated to represent a third of the country’s population, are not protected under labor law and are routinely exploited. Many women migrants are employed as household domestic workers, and are especially at risk for human rights abuses due to their isolation in private homes and their exclusion from many employment protections. Wages are set by employers and vary according to the type of work performed and the nationality of the worker.
Recent Government Initiatives Affecting Rights
• The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice announced on June 10, 2007 the creation of a “department of rules and regulations” to ensure the activities of commission members comply with the law. Eighteen commission members (mutawa‘in) were detained and questioned June 3. The governmental National Society for Human Rights criticized the behavior of the religious police in May in its first report (Arabic text). In May 2006, the interior ministry issued a decree stating that “the role of the commission will end after it arrests the culprit or culprits and hands them over to police, who will then decide whether to refer them to the public prosecutor.” Mutawa‘in had until recently enjoyed unchallenged powers to arrest, detain, and interrogate those suspected of moral infractions.
• King Abdullah decreed the establishment of a government human rights agency on September 12, 2005 to “protect human rights and spread awareness about them … in keeping with the provisions of Islamic law.” The organization is chaired by former government official Khalid al-Sudairi, who will hold ministerial rank; the 18 board members will be appointed by the King.
• In March 2004, the Saudi government gave a green light for the establishment of the National Human Rights Association to review complaints about human rights violations and monitor the Kingdom’s compliance with international human rights agreements.
• In August 2003, Crown Prince Abdullah announced the establishment of the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue to promote public exchange of ideas. Four rounds of talks have taken place, covering standards of education, the emergence of extremism, the role of women and youth. Debates have taken place behind closed doors but with women present.
• In 2003, the government permitted the first visit of an international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, but this was not repeated in 2004.
• The government views its interpretation of Islamic law as the only necessary guide to protect human rights.
• In 2003, the government publicly acknowledged human rights abuses by security forces and began a training program in interpersonal skills for Mutawwa’in. The President of the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice acknowledged publicly that mistakes had been made and that the Mutawwa’in who overstepped their authority were subject to disciplinary measures. During the year Mutawwa’in abuses had attracted greater public attention then in the past.
• In March 2004, King Fahd approved the establishment of the first independent human rights organization, the National Society for Human Rights. It was formed following a human rights conference in October entitled “Human Rights in Peace and War.” The conference concluded with the issuing of the Riyadh Declaration.
• Political parties are prohibited.
• The main private sector umbrella organization is the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry, an influential organization that helps mediate between Saudi companies and the state.
• Saudi reformers are a loose network, in which a core group of members have in recent years initiated petitions and sought to attract the signatures of like-minded people. The petition-writers for the most part favor gradual political transformation within the framework of the monarchy and the state’s Islamic character.
• In January 2003, Crown Prince Abdullah issued a call for “self-reform and the promotion of political participation” across the Middle East. Later that month, 104 Saudi Arabian citizens sent a charter entitled “Vision for the Present and the Future of the Homeland” to Crown Prince Abdullah. The charter urged comprehensive reforms including guarantees of freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and requested release or fair trials for political prisoners. A second petition followed in September 2003. “In Defense of the Nation” criticized the slow pace of reform and the absence of popular participation in decision-making. Signed by 306 academics, writers, and businesspeople, including fifty women, it advocated popular election of the Consultative Council. Islamist reformers who had signed the “Vision” refused to join the second petition because its tone was viewed as too liberal and anti-Islamic.
• In December 2003, Islamists, liberals and Shi’a joined in calling for the implementation of the reforms outlined in the “Vision” and for the opening of a constitutional process.
• Saudi reform activists Matrouk al-Faleh, Ali al-Dimeeni, and Abdullah al-Hamed received prison sentences ranging from six to nine years on May 15, 2005. They were convicted on charges of sowing dissent, distributing political leaflets, using the media to incite opposition against the government, and causing political unrest, after they circulated a petition in January 2004 calling for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Ten other activists who were arrested along with them in March 2004 were later released after signing pledges not to circulate reform petitions or speak to the media. Upon assuming power in August 2005, King Abdullah issued a pardon for the three activists mention above, for their lawyer and another activist as well as for the Libyans allegedly involved in an attempt to assassinate him.
• There are two prominent political opposition movements, both of which operate from outside of Saudi Arabia: the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) and the Movement for Islamic Reform in Saudi Arabia (MIRA). The CDLR was established in 1993 by a group of Islamist academics and clerics to push for the range of human rights that they asserted are recognized by Islam, including political participation. It was quickly disbanded by the government and in 1994 two founders, Mohamed al-Massari and Saad al-Faqih, relocated to Britain and started a campaign calling for the ousting of the Saudi royal family. The two founders split in 1996 after a falling out. MIRA, headed by Saad al Faqih, is the more active of the two and is generally characterized as a militant Islamist movement. MIRA’s stated aim is regime change, whereby the royal family is replaced by an elected leadership and where there exists an independent judiciary and a new constitution with the stamp of Islamic law. MIRA and its leader Saad al Faqih have been added to the UNSC 1267 list of terrorist individuals and organizations. In December 2004 the United States declared that it had frozen their assets and submitted their names to the United Nations.
• Official clerics are those appointed by the government to positions in the religious hierarchy, including the mufti and members of the Committee of Senior Religious Scholars or of the Higher Judicial Council, and are expected to ratify and provide legitimacy to the regime’s policies. Informal or unofficial clerics derive their influence from their popular following and openly criticize the government and the ruling family. While the first constitute a key source of legitimacy for the ruling family, the second enjoy widespread popularity and play a major role in shaping public opinion.
• Municipal elections have taken place in three rounds for half of the members of 178 municipal councils. The other half will be appointed by the government. Elections for the Riyadh province took place on February 10, for the 4 southern provinces and the eastern province on March 3, and for the rest of the country on April 21.
• Because candidates ran as individuals, not as members of parties, election results are difficult to interpret. But it appears that Shi’a won most of the seats in Eastern Province. Candidates who had clerical support most of the seats on the municipal council in other areas. Click here for detailed results.
• Revisions of the Basic Law are carried out by decree.
• There is widespread public perception of corruption within the royal family, facilitated by the lack of transparency in government accounts. The royal family is perceived to abuse government funds, property rights and contracts. Royal influence is also thought to abuse civil and criminal justice procedure. Royal family members are seen to interfere or profiteer in contract awards, the allocation of money from oil sales, the profits from state-financed corporations and contracts for the delivery of arms imports and military services.
• The national budget does not include a precise breakdown of sources of state revenue and expenditure. Royal allocations are not published and public expenditures are not subject to independent oversight.
• Transparency International Corruption Perception Index 2007 ranks Saudi Arabia 79th out of 180 countries.
Ratification of International Conventions
• International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR): not ratified
• International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR): not ratified
• The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT): September 23, 1997
• The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD): September 23, 1997
• The Convention of on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW): October 7, 2000
• The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC): January 26, 1996