Saudi Arabia, its image in need of polishing in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, has opened itself up to foreign scrutiny of its notoriously poor human rights record. Members of Congress now make regularly scheduled stops in the kingdom; in February 2008, the Saudis welcomed a second two-week fact-finding mission of the UN special rapporteur on violence against women. The scrutiny tends to be tightly managed: A visit to the government’s Human Rights Commission or the National Society for Human Rights, an NGO, is de rigueur. Visitors might also tour a “reeducation” center for Saudi Arabian citizens formerly detained at Guantánamo Bay or another for those suspected of involvement in domestic or international terrorism. They might hear about the government’s planned $1.9 billion judicial reform program or meet businesswomen who have achieved success against the odds. The visitors program is a deft response to the persistent foreign criticism that intensified after September 11. To date, however, these initiatives have not altered the reality of arbitrary arrests, unfair justice and systematic violation of women’s human rights.

Saudi officials frequently explain these ongoing abuses by saying that progress cannot be rushed, as it is predicated on building social consensus. It is an argument that foreign governments have been quick to adopt: The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s March 2008 human rights report on Saudi Arabia says that reform “will need to be acceptable to the Saudi government, its citizens and powerful religious leaders.” But those who explore the views of citizens who are not showcased by the visitors program will find the official blandishments unconvincing.

In December 2006, a Human Rights Watch delegation embarked upon the first-ever fact-finding trip to Saudi Arabia by an international human rights organization. We returned in May 2007 and March 2008 for further talks with the government and confirmation of facts. During those visits we interviewed hundreds of officials, lawyers, current and former detainees, activists, foreign workers and ordinary citizens about human rights conditions in Saudi Arabia. We documented systemic and severe human rights violations in the adult and juvenile justice systems, curtailing of women’s rights stemming from the male guardianship system and abuses against female domestic workers. Equally important, we heard again and again from Saudi Arabians inside and outside government who wanted reforms but felt that the space for it was disappearing. Some spoke of a brief opening widened by US pressure after September 11, but told us it was quickly closing, despite the verbal emphasis King ‘Abdallah places on reform.


Is Saudi Arabia backsliding on human rights, and backtracking on reform, since ‘Abdallah acceded to the throne in August 2005? Evidence collected by Human Rights Watch suggests the answer is yes.

Saudi public relations emissaries have certainly done a good job highlighting the “terrorist reeducation” programs, which have been praised in the West, and even replicated by the United States in Iraq. The fact remains, however, that these programs are directed at 1,500 to 2,000 men being held indefinitely in special intelligence prisons without charge or trial, but on mere suspicion of wrongdoing. The detainees, suspected of anything from criticizing the regime to material involvement in the Iraq insurgency, are required to attend the classes of clerics and psychologists who teach a “proper” understanding of jihad and treatment of non-Muslims. Graduating from the “reeducation” program is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for release. The program is, in essence, a cover for the same arbitrary arrests for which the kingdom has rightly been pilloried in the past.

Without doubt, the status of Saudi Arabian women has improved over the past few years, but the advancement is not due to government policy. In 2005, the Council of Ministers passed a resolution aimed at expanding employment opportunities for women, but it has never been implemented. In practice, a woman must receive the consent of her male guardian—her father, husband or brother, or even a son—in order to work outside the home. If a father refuses to agree to a daughter’s marriage, even if the reason is that he does not want to lose the daughter’s contribution to family income, the government offers her no support. If she cannot afford a private chauffeur and her male relatives feel indisposed to drive her to and from work, she cannot work because she is not allowed to drive. The tentacles of male guardianship reach even further: In practice, though not by law, hospitals often require a guardian’s consent before a woman can obtain medical treatment. Universities, too, require such consent at times for a woman’s enrollment or change of courses. Even opening a bank account can present a woman with no consenting male guardian with insurmountable problems. The police and, especially, the religious judges, often will not accept a complaint from a woman or take a statement from her without a guardian present. A woman with a physically abusive guardian can therefore become entirely trapped.

Rolling Out the Red Carpet

Foreign governments have done next to nothing to achieve redress of these realities. Instead, they have pushed for new business deals in a kingdom flush with revenue from consecutive years of record oil prices. While the US, Britain and France publicly welcome Saudi claims of commitment to reform, they rarely publicly criticize the pace or substance of the government’s efforts.

And the criticism is more and more rare. Gone are the days of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s ballyhooed speech at the American University in Cairo in June 2005, when she protested the jailing of three prominent Saudi Arabian reform advocates. In January 2007, as well, Spanish Justice Minister Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar canceled an appearance at the Imam Muhammad University because female journalists were barred entry. More common of late, however, are comments like that of British official Kim Howells, who publicly embraced the “shared values” of the British and Saudi governments during King ‘Abdallah’s state visit to London in October 2007. France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, too, rolled out the red carpet for the Saudi king and kept mum about human rights abuses in the kingdom.

The US, which produces the most detailed government reports about human rights, considers Saudi Arabia in the worst offender category for trafficking in persons and denying religious freedom. Year after year, Washington nonetheless fails to impose the sanctions legally prescribed for such offenders. Instead, in July 2007 the Bush administration announced plans to sell $20 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf monarchies. Two months later, Britain concluded $8.8 billion in arms sales to the kingdom after then Prime Minister Tony Blair had dropped an inquiry into corruption stemming from an earlier British-Saudi arms deal.

The US, Britain, France and Germany have opportunities to help ordinary Saudi Arabians realize their human rights. It is necessary for these states to offer public support for substantive reform—particularly mechanisms for increasing accountability and transparency—as well as for those officials best able to deliver reform.

Criminal Injustice

One of the areas most urgently in need of accountability and transparency is the criminal justice system. In perhaps the only country in the world without a written penal code, nationals and foreigners alike routinely face arrest, interrogation, and punishments of imprisonment and flogging for vague offenses such as “disobedience to the ruler” or ”insulting Islam.” The Saudi authorities arrested activists like professor ‘Abdallah al-Hamid, former judge Sulayman al-Rashoudi and blogger Fu’ad al-Farhan when they protested against the detention without trial of security detainees. Instead of trials to determine the guilt or innocence of these detainees, the Saudi Ministry of Interior offers “reeducation.” In March, al-Hamid started a six-month jail sentence for encouraging a peaceful demonstration, and al-Rashoudi has been detained without trial since February 2, 2007, the day before he planned to sue the Ministry of Interior. Farhan, who lobbied for the release of al-Rashoudi and his associates, was in solitary confinement from December 10, 2007 without charge or trial until his release in April 2008.

Human Rights Watch’s investigation into more than 60 criminal cases revealed that ordinary criminal defendants, including children, usually did not have access to legal counsel or other means of preparing their defense. Many only learned of their trial dates from their prison guards the night before. Statements extracted under torture were stamped with the defendant’s fingerprint, meaning they could not be challenged in court. Judges gave defendants only little time to speak, and often prohibited cross-examination of prosecution witnesses or the presentation of defense witnesses. Court documents record judges sentencing defendants while simultaneously expressing doubt as to their guilt.

The absence of a penal code also has grave consequences for children. Saudi justice officials told us that pre-teen children can be sentenced to death on murder charges as long as they exhibit physical signs of puberty—a subjective notion that takes no account of mental or emotional maturity. In 2007, Saudi Arabia executed three people for crimes committed while younger than 18, including a 15-year-old boy who was only 13 at the time of his alleged crime. Critics who are intent on sparing children’s lives and conforming with Saudi Arabia’s international obligations prohibiting the juvenile death penalty say that Islamic legal interpretations exist which prohibit the execution of offenders under the age of 18.

The juvenile detention system houses boys as young as 12 and girls and women as old as 30. Detention center staff can hold both indefinitely for “guidance”even if they have been found innocent or completed their sentence. Saudi officials routinely arrest and detain foreign children trafficked for begging, and often deport them to conflict zones like Somalia or Chad without tracing their families or ensuring that return is safe for the child.

Enforcing 12 years as the age of criminal responsibility and ensuring that children have lawyers during interrogation and trial could drastically cut the number of children in juvenile detention, where many are held for the undefined offense of “mixing” between the sexes, or unspecified “moral offenses.” So would providing training and sentencing guidelines for juvenile court judges who lack information on special procedures for children in conflict with the law, and regularly issue sentences of flogging. A reduction in the number of child detainees would help in addressing abuses in overcrowded juvenile detention centers, where pre-trial and convicted children are routinely held together and can be subjected to unnecessary forced isolation when they have treatable diseases. And abolishing the juvenile death penalty takes neither time nor money.

Female domestic workers, primarily from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines, are another large group, at least 1.5 million strong, who suffer disproportionately from injustices in courts. Employers often take advantage of gaps in labor laws and restrictive immigration policies to exploit these women. Each year, embassies and Saudi authorities receive thousands of complaints of employers taking domestic workers’ passports, withholding wages, depriving them of sufficient food and locking them in the house around the clock, sometimes in tiny spaces such as storage rooms and bathrooms. Many employers demand these women work for 16 or more hours a day, with no days off. These conditions are considered the norm and do not generally lead to court trials.

There are hundreds of even more severe cases each year in which the employer has withheld payment for years, physically or sexually attacked the domestic worker or kept the domestic worker in virtual slavery. Many cases never go to trial, as workers are unable to contact their embassies, are unfamiliar with the legal system, or have been threatened with spurious countercharges of theft, witchcraft or adultery. In such cases, some domestic workers have been punished with imprisonment or lashings despite being victims themselves. In the rare cases where employers are tried for serious crimes, usually with legal assistance from the worker’s embassy, courts have not normally been able to convict the offender or give fair restitution to the worker. In a particularly egregious case in 2008, the court dropped charges against the abusive employer of an Indonesian woman named Nour Miyati despite extensive forensic evidence and the employer’s confession.

Instead of fixing such elemental problems in the criminal and juvenile justice systems, the $1.9 million earmarked for judicial reform will go chiefly toward the construction of new courts for traffic, commercial, labor, personal status and criminal matters, as well as 11 new courts of appeal and a new supreme court. The creation of specialized courts is welcome if it reduces judges’ caseloads, leads to greater expertise of judges, and, eventually, to more conformity in judgments. But it does not even scratch the surface of harmonizing criminal law in a standardized penal code. Nor does it address the broader issue of the impunity with which prosecutors and judges violate Saudi law, whether by detaining suspects for more than six months, or refusing to issue a written verdict a convicted person needs to base an appeal.

For Starters

Foreign governments should be pushing the Saudi government to move quickly on a written penal code that, among other things, protects the exercise of human rights. They should also take advantage of the October 2007 amendments to the Judiciary Law to offer technical assistance in developing a judiciary trained in modern principles of criminal law. This assistance should include measures to strengthen the office of the inspector of the judiciary and the appeals court judges to ensure that lower court proceedings are conducted in compliance with the law and disciplinary action is taken where necessary. That means stopping trials or overturning verdicts where fundamental due process has been violated.

Foreign governments should also push for strong mechanisms of transparency for the criminal justice system. In particular, support for the creation of professional associations for criminal defense lawyers and the creation of free legal aid programs for all juvenile, poor and capital defendants would go a long way toward increasing transparency in trials and removing the stigma of criminal defense.

None of this would make the real Saudi Arabia resemble the place shown off through the visitors program, but it would be a start.

How to cite this article:

Clarisa Bencomo, Christoph Wilcke "Separating Image from Substance in Saudi Arabia," Middle East Report 248 (Fall 2008).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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