Corporate report

Saudi Arabia - Country of Concern

Published 12 March 2015

Saudi Arabia continued to make incremental improvements on human rights in 2014, as the government carried on implementing its reform programme, led by His Majesty, King Abdullah. But we continued to have concerns over the human rights situation, particularly in relation to the use of the death penalty, access to justice, women’s rights, and restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion or belief. There was some progress in women’s rights and the death penalty, but significant institutional change in Saudi Arabia is needed to protect the human rights of its residents, especially with regards to the guardianship system and restrictions on freedom of religion or belief.

There were significant changes in the justice sector. On 10 September, the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, visited Saudi Arabia and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Saudi Arabian Minister of Justice, Dr Muhammed Abdul-Kareem al-Issa. This should act as a mechanism for dialogue on human rights issues and an exchange of expertise on justice and legal matters. It follows up on the work undertaken by Dr al-Issa to implement a largescale reform programme aimed at judicial modernisation in Saudi Arabia.

On 31 January, the Saudi Arabian government published the full text of its new counter-terrorism and terrorism financing legislation, outlining the procedures and punishments to be applied. Later, on 7 March, the Ministry of Interior issued a decree creating Saudi Arabia’s first list of proscribed organisations. Amongst the groups included were Al Qaeda and its affiliates (including the Al Nusra Front, Al Qaeda-Iraq, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), Saudi Hezbollah, certain Houthi groups in Yemen and the Muslim Brotherhood. Groups and individuals who are engaged in civil and political debate and call for reform were concerned that this legislation would be used against them. We have followed this issue closely since its inception, and have noted that many human rights activists have been sentenced in the Specialised Criminal Court, designed for security and terrorism cases. We are concerned that the legislation was invoked during the trial of Waleed Abu al-Khair, a prominent human rights activist. We have not seen evidence that it is being used routinely to target individuals engaging in civil and political debate, but we will continue to follow this issue closely.

Elections

Political participation in Saudi Arabia is limited; there are no political parties and the majority of government bodies are fully appointed by the King. The next elections will be for the Municipal Councils, expected to be held in 2015, in which half the membership will be elected and half appointed. These elections will be the first in which women will be allowed to vote and stand as candidates. The UK will continue to encourage further democratic representation, and we will offer our assistance to Saudi Arabia to prepare for the elections.

Human Rights Defenders

There were a number of arrests and prosecutions of human rights defenders (HRDs) in 2014, primarily under the law requiring all non-governmental organisations to register. To date, no fully independent organisation working on civil and political rights has registered successfully. The anti-cyber crime law has also been used to convict social activists.

In April, Waleed Abu al-Khair was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, a 15-year travel ban, and a fine of 200,000 Saudi Riyals (approximately £35,000) for criticising the judiciary. This followed his arrest, prosecution, and subsequent three-month imprisonment, for a very similar charge in October 2013. In May, Raif Badawi, a human rights activist and blogger, who received the Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 Press Freedom prize, was sentenced to ten years in prison, 1,000 lashes, a ten-year travel ban, and a fine of one million Saudi riyals (approximately £176,000). The UK condemns the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment in all circumstances. In October 2014, Suad Al Shammari, who founded Saudi Liberal Network with Badawi, was arrested for insulting Islam and endangering public order.

It should also be noted that some HRDs or their families have asked that the UK government does not involve itself in such cases because they believe it undermines their credibility in the country, and may prove counterproductive.

Access to Justice and the Rule of Law

In March, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, signed a MoU with her Saudi counterpart to help modernise the Ministry of the Interior, which draws on UK expertise in the wider security and policing arena. This will complement work going on between the College of Policing and a range of Saudi security bodies.

The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Justice continued to implement its reform programme, led by Dr al-Issa. This reform programme has led to the opening of the Family Court, the first specialised court in Saudi Arabia, and there are plans to build a further 22 new courts in 10 cities at a cost of US$320 million. In addition, a significant amount of money has already been spent on new court houses, technology, and judicial training. The Appeal Court and new Supreme Court have increased access to justice. A new arbitration department has been formed to reduce the number of trial cases. Nevertheless, the legal system continues to suffer from long delays in bringing defendants to court and a lack of codification of case law. We have raised our concerns about this, but there are signs that trials are becoming more transparent, with access sometimes given to media and the diplomatic community. However, this is still at the discretion of the individual judge. We also expect people to be brought to trial more quickly as the number of judges increases.

To assist in the justice sector, the UK National Offender Management Service, through their commercial arm, Just Solutions international, submitted a bid for a contract to conduct a training needs analysis across all the learning and development programmes within the Saudi Arabian Prison Service.

Death Penalty

The death penalty continued to be used in Saudi Arabia, and in 2014 there were 86 executions, an increase on the previous year, when there were 78. Those executed were mainly for murder, drug-related offences, and armed robbery, though at least one person was executed for “sorcery”. The majority of these executions were carried out in prisons, but some were carried out in public. The principle of the death penalty is enshrined in Saudi Arabia’s Sharia law; we therefore assess that abolition of the death penalty is not likely in the near future. However, fewer death penalty sentences were passed in 2014. We currently focus our efforts on encouraging Saudi Arabia to apply the EU minimum standards for capital punishment and on reducing the number of death sentences and executions.

The Saudi Arabian government continues to encourage the families of victims to show clemency by waiving their right to have the perpetrators executed. In July, King Abdullah personally intervened to prevent 12 people from being executed by asking victims’ families to agree not to enforce this right.

Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment

Corporal punishment continued to be used in Saudi Arabia under Sharia law. Most recently, an amputation was carried out in Makkah in December.

Freedom of Religion or Belief

We continue to be concerned about the restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in Saudi Arabia which reflect widely-held conservative social values. Non-Muslims are not permitted to worship openly or establish places of worship in Saudi Arabia. The UK government has made clear to the Saudi authorities our strong support for this right. In February 2014, then Foreign & Commonwealth (FCO) Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Warsi, raised the importance of religious tolerance in meetings with the Governor and the Mayor of Makkah, the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques, and the Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. We continue to work with those in Saudi society who advocate peaceful reform.

Women’s Rights

Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are principally affected by the guardianship system, under which their freedom to participate in society is greatly restricted. Women need the consent of a male relative to travel, work and study. However, there were some incremental improvements in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia in 2014.

For example, the number of women in employment increased significantly. For example, there were over 400,000 women employed in the private sector by the end of 2014, compared with 183,000 in 2013. However, there remained a number of obstacles to equality of employment of men and women, and in December the Saudi Arabian government stated that over one million women were unemployed.

In March, during her visit to Saudi Arabia, Mrs May met a group of women active in the Majlis Ash-Shura (advisory council), business, and academia to discuss the role of women in Saudi society.

Six of the 30 female members of the Majlis Ash-Shura, who were appointed in early 2013, were chosen as deputy chairs of Shura committees (foreign affairs; administration and human resources; education and scientific research; culture, media, tourism and antiquities; human rights and monitoring authorities; and social, family and youth) in December.

Saudi Arabia fully participated in Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative efforts. At the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in June in London, Head of the Saudi delegation and President of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, Dr Bandar Al Aiban, signed a Statement of Action. All signatories to the statement endorsed a commitment to hold to account those responsible for acts of rape and sexual violence in conflict, as well as a commitment to providing support to the victims of these crimes and to those affected by sexual violence in conflict.

Saudi Arabia remains the only country where women are not permitted to drive and we continue to raise this issue with the Saudi government. In December, two Saudi Arabian women, Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Amoudi, were arrested for attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates. They held valid Emirati driving licences. We are concerned by their detention and that the hearing of their court cases will be in the Specialised Criminal Court. We continue to follow their cases closely.

Other Issues

Migrant workers

Following the expiry on 4 November 2013 of the amnesty for illegal workers to regularise their status or leave the country, the Saudi authorities focused on illegal, unregistered migrants in 2014. On 20 March, the Ministry of Interior reported that they had deported 370,000 illegal migrants to their countries of origin, while another 18,000 people were in detention centres awaiting deportation. These deportations continued throughout the year.

We believe that recent legal reforms for migrant workers, including the requirement of employers to keep more accurate labour records, will improve the basic rights of migrant employees in Saudi Arabia. As part of these reforms, legislation has been put in place which requires workers to be paid at least monthly, to have access to their own identity documents, and for domestic workers to have at least nine hours’ rest per day and one day off per week. In addition, fines and sponsorship bans were imposed for employers in Saudi Arabia failing to pay their domestic workers on time.

We welcome any improvement in the legal position of migrant workers, and continue to follow the situation closely.

This publication is part of the 2014 Human Rights and Democracy Report.

Give your comments and questions about the report

Submit a question or comment on the report here

Invite others to read and comment on the report

We want to encourage discussion of this report and our human rights work, so if you have a blog or website, please add a link from your site through to the sections you are interested in.

Keep up-to-date with FCO’s human rights work

You can follow us on our human rights Twitter channel @FCOHumanRights, and subscribe to receive our human rights news via email. You can also find detailed information on our human rights work on other areas of this website. In addition, you can also listen to or subscribe to our human rights podcasts via RSS or iTunes.

For the countries of concern featured in this report, we will provide updates every quarter so you can follow human rights developments in these countries, and see what actions the UK is taking. These updates will appear on GOV.UK.