Saudi Arabia: Human Rights Watch report on reforms under King Abdullah


King Abdullah should do more to transform his reforms - largely symbolic so fa r - into institutional guarantees, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. By turning promises into law the monarch can secure lasting gains for his citizens, Human Rights Watch said.

The 52-page report, "Looser Rein, Uncertain Gain," assesses five years of Saudi reforms under King Abdullah from a human rights perspective. It finds that reform has manifested itself chiefly in greater tolerance for diverse opinions and an expanded public role for women, but that royal initiatives have been largely symbolic, with only modest concrete gains or institutional protection for rights.

"Should King Abdullah's enthusiasm for reform wane, or successors tread more conservative paths, his legacy would be merely a brief respite of fresh air, but not one of institutional reform," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

It is to King Abdullah's credit that his government has looked inward, taken stock of deficits, and embarked on steps to address them following the September 11, 2001 attacks on US targets, and other attacks on Western and Saudi targets inside the kingdom in 2003 and 2004.

King Abdullah has promoted the idea of modernizing Saudi Arabia's state apparatus, making it more efficient and somewhat more transparent; encouraged a public re-evaluation, to some degree, of the subservient status of women and religious minorities; allowed greater debate and discussion in the media; and promoted judicial fairness. Yet these steps, while creating a more welcoming atmosphere toward change, have not been accompanied by legislation and codification, enforcement, and accountability, Human Rights Watch said.

The country's new freedoms are, for the most part, neither extensive nor firmly grounded, Human Rights Watch said. They have put the religious establishment on the defensive, but in their limited nature suggest the elite is still floating trial balloons, undecided about the type of government and society it wants to steer toward.

Accompanying the reform has been a contentious debate about its pace and scope, Human Rights Watch said. Liberal reformers have called for a constitution, an elected parliament, equality for women and religious minorities, and unfettered freedom of expression. Conservatives - usually clerics, or others who use religious language - have defended the status quo to maintain their influence on the judiciary, education, Islamic affairs, and policing public morality.

Opposition to reforms also has come from the security establishment, which enforces bans on political parties, public rallies, and organized strikes, and undermines attempts to hold its agencies accountable for rights violations.

King Abdullah should initiate legislation to eradicate discrimination against women and religious minorities and institute protections for free speech, Human Rights Watch said. A significant first step would be to create a criminal code, which the country lacks, and to make certain that it includes human rights protections.

The report says that the most concrete, yet modest, gains for women under Abdullah have included a 2008 change in policy to allow women to stay in hotels without male guardians, and a change in the 2005 Labor Law allowing women to work in all fields "suitable to their nature." Women can now study law at university, but cannot yet practice as lawyers in courts.

Systematic discrimination against women persists, though, Human Rights Watch said. Under the Saudi guardianship system, women still have the legal status of minors, unable to make basic decisions without a male guardian's consent, including decisions about marriage, education, employment, certain types of health care, or travel. The government has failed to deliver on its promise to abolish this guardianship system.

"Women are increasingly entering the work force," Wilcke said, "But they still can't work without their male relatives' consent."

There have been no institutional changes to guarantee freedom of expression, though officials have tolerated more public criticism of the government, Human Rights Watch said. The Saudi press has exposed abusive behavior by the religious police and given prominent voice to subjects that were formerly taboo, like domestic violence. Yet red lines remain. The government continues to control the appointment of editors and to punish those who criticize royals, government policies, or senior clerics.

The government initiated judicial reform in 2007, with legislation requiring creation of specialized courts and budgeting billions of riyals for judicial training. The planned commercial, labor, family, criminal, and traffic courts have yet to come into being, though. And the performance of some of the hurriedly trained new judges has drawn criticism, even from more seasoned Saudi judges.

Furthermore, the country still lacks a penal code, allowing judges near total discretion to decide what behavior constitutes a criminal offense. For example, judges have continued to jail and sentence people for "witchcraft."

There have been no institutional gains in religious tolerance, Human Rights Watch said. In 2003, the king began a National Dialogue series to bring Saudis of varied opinions together to discuss sensitive issues, including religious extremism and tolerance. In 2008, the Muslim World League, with the king's encouragement, began an Interfaith Dialogue Initiative in Mecca and took it to Spain, the UN, and Switzerland. Neither of these dialogues has addressed the need to improve the rights of religious minorities inside the kingdom.

"While the king greets rabbis in Madrid, local officials still arrest Saudi Shia for praying together at home," Wilcke said.

Migrant workers, who constitute around one third of the population, continue to suffer under the yoke of a "sponsorship" system, which ties their immigration status to the sponsoring employer. A 2007 labor regulation allowed migrants to transfer employment to a new employer after one year, but only if the prior employer consents. And in 2010, the government raised that period to two years. Migrants cannot leave the country without the sponsor's consent.

In the 1980s, Saudi society experienced reactionary steps affecting the enjoyment of rights with government support. That period serves as a reminder that political will is necessary to bring about significant legislative and institutional change so that future governments will not easily be able to reverse the country's limited gains, Human Rights Watch said.

"The government's oft-repeated explanation that the Saudi government is more progressive than its people should not serve as an excuse for inaction," said Wilcke. "The government's role is to lead its people and to ensure the protection of the rights of all Saudis, not just those in the conservative corner."

Human Rights Watch's Recommendations to King Abdullah

Enact legislation that:

  • Abolishes the male guardianship system for women and positively affirms and entrenches women's equality, including in labor issues;
  • Abolishes the sponsorship system for migrant workers, in particular the requirement for employer consent to transfer employment and to obtain an exit visa;
  • Codifies penal and personal status law, in accordance with international human rights law that requires the law to be predictable and non-arbitrary;
  • Protects women and girls against gender-based violence, including early marriage;
  • Regulates the establishment of civil society organizations, in accordance with international human rights law; and
  • Extends equal labor protections to domestic workers.


  • Women's equal rights, including in driving and in employment, by directing all concerned bodies that adult women no longer require a male guardian's consent;
  • Provisions for a fair trial in the Law of Criminal Procedure, and the Law of Lawyers, including the recently passed provisions for free legal advice to criminal defendants;
  • Women's access to justice and courts, by guaranteeing women's right to appear in person and by providing free legal advice;
  • Freedom of worship for the Shia, especially in areas with a high Shia population, including freedom in the building and upkeep of mosques and husseiniyyas (Shia religious centers), printing, importing, and distribution of religious material, and the holding of public religious celebrations; and
  • Equality of the Shia in employment and access to institutions of higher learning, including in the security services, high ministerial positions, local, provincial and the Shura Council, and military academies.

Hold accountable:

  • Security agents who order arbitrary arrests or detentions, including for protected expression, and ill-treatment of persons in their custody;
  • Judges who ignore Saudi law and international human rights law regarding due process rights and the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion;
  • Government officials who discriminate on the basis of gender, religion, national or social origin; and
  • Employers who confiscate passports of migrant workers, fail to pay their salaries, forcibly confine migrant domestic workers, or otherwise violate Saudi law.