Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1991

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by the descendants of its
founder. King Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud- known in the West as Ibn
Saud, who unified the country in the early part of the 20th
century. The concept of separation of religion and state is
foreign to Saudi society. The legitimacy of the royal regime
depends to a large degree on its perceived adherence to the
precepts of a puritanically conservative form of Islam.
There is no written national constitution. The legal system is
based on Islamic religious law. Most Saudis share a respect
for this legal system, which they believe to be divinely
inspired, as well as for ancient customs which call for
consensus in government, internal social cohesion, respect for
private property, and private economic enterprise. Since the
death of King Abd Al-Aziz, the King and Crown Prince have been
chosen from among his sons, who themselves have preponderant
influence in the choice. Senior religious scholars and other
princes also have limited influence in the choice of the King
following the death of a reigning monarch, as do other members
of the society, through informal consultations with the royal
family. However, there are no elected assemblies or political
parties. All forms of political expression except those
favorable to the regime are forbidden.
Police and border forces under the Ministry of Interior are
responsible for internal security. Both police and military
personnel were responsible for human rights abuses during the
During the past 40 years, massive oil revenues have transformed
Saudi Arabia's centuries-old pastoral, agricultural, and
commercial economy. This transformation has been marked by
rapid urbanization, large-scale development of economic and
social infrastructure, the emergence of a welfare state and
technocratic middle class, and the importation of millions of
foreign workers for skilled and menial labor. It has also been
marked by widespread expenditure of public funds in ways that
have enriched the royal family and their associates. With some
important exceptions, the economy remains largely in private
Human rights continue to be subject to pervasive abuse.
Principal human rights problems include prohibitions or severe
restrictions on the freedoms of speech and press, peaceful
assembly and association, religion, the right of citizens to
change their government, women's rights, and worker rights. As
in previous years, there were credible reports of the
mistreatment of prisoners and incommunicado detention. Abuse
(usually verbal but sometimes physical) of Saudis and
foreigners of both sexes by Saudi Arabia's official proctors of
proper moral behavior (the Mutawwai ' in) or other religious
zealots acting as vigilantes without government control has
become commonplace and rose sharply in the latter part of 1991.
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
      a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were no reports of political killings. There was a
credible report of deaths of persons in official custody (see
Sect ion I.e.).
      b. Disappearance
There were no known disappearances.
      c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
There were unconfirmed reports in 1991 that police beat some
detainees to elicit confessions. There were credible reports
of injuries and the deaths of at least two, and possibly more,
persons caused by beatings or the use of excessive force while
being held in official custody. In addition, there was a
credible report of the torture of several foreigners in Saudi
military custody. But it is general government policy not to
respond to such reports, and it cannot, therefore, be
determined what, if any, action the Government took to punish
those responsible. Lack of regular access to Saudi detention
facilities by impartial independent observers makes
verification of reports of prisoner abuse extremely difficult.
On at least one occasion, however, Saudi authorities invited
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) representatives
to meet with abused prisoners. The Saudi Government tried and
convicted those responsible in Shari'a courts.
Saudi interpretation of Islamic law requires strict application
of Koranic sanctions, and punishment for some crimes includes
amputation and execution by beheading, firing squad, or
stoning. In the absence of two witnesses (four witnesses in
the case of adultery), confessions before a judge are almost
always required for conviction. Capital punishment is imposed
only for serious felonies such as murder, rape, and drug
smuggling. All criminals known to have been executed in 1991
were convicted of one or more of these three crimes, and all 26
capital sentences in 1991 were carried out by beheading,
sometimes followed by gibbetting. Death by firing squad or
stoning may be imposed for adultery, although high evidentiary
standards make such sentences quite rare. Repeated thievery is
punishable by amputation of the right hand. For less severe
crimes, such as drunkenness or publicly flouting Islamic
precepts, flogging with a cane is often imposed.
Both Saudis and foreigners were often the targets of harassment
by members of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and
Prevention of Vice (the Mutawwai ' in) , or by unsanctioned
religious zealots acting as vigilantes. The Mutawwai 'in sought
to enforce increasingly strict standards of social behavior,
from observance of prayer time closings of commercial
establishments to appropriate dress in public and patronage of
video tape rental shops. There were also reports that the
Mutawwai ' in sometimes exceeded their legal right to detain
suspects for up to 24 hours before turning them over to the
civil authorities and that Mutawwai 'in verbally and sometimes
physically abused detainees while seeking to elicit
confessions. They often used switch-like sticks to harass
those whom they perceived as violating religiously inspired
standards of behavior. Some such incidents escalated into
violent confrontations. In several instances involving
Americans, the U.S. Government protested to the Saudi
Government, which often placed the blame on self-appointed
vigilantes acting outside official channels. However,
government authorities appeared slow to act to prevent
recurrences. After a lull during the Gulf War when large
numbers of non-Muslim military were present in the Kingdom, the
latter half of 1991 saw a marked increase in confrontations.
      d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
Saudi internal security forces are divided into several
branches, including the regular police and the special
investigative police. Since criminal procedure and the grounds
for arrest are generally determined at the discretion of the
arresting officer, arbitrary arrest can and does occur. There
is no automatic, prompt procedure for contacting a detainee's
family or employer; however, in cases involving foreigners,
Saudi authorities acknowledge their obligation to do so. When
asked, the police will almost always confirm an arrest or
provide a satisfactory answer the same day. Embassies usually
hear about arrests of their nationals within a few days through
informal channels; official arrest notification almost always
takes several months, if it is given at all.
Saudi law makes no provision for bail or habeas corpus;
prisoners are, however, sometimes released on the recognizance
of a patron or employer. While investigations proceed,
prisoners may be held for long periods before they are charged
or released. Regulations issued by the Interior Ministry in
1985 to eliminate lengthy pretrial detentions or detentions
without charges are frequently not enforced, particularly if
the authorities have any suspicions that other parties to the
charge are involved. However, under normal circumstances most
arrestees are held no longer than 3 days before being formally
charged. However, over 40 Shi 'a activists have remained in a
prison near Riyadh since April 1988.
Problems particularly may arise when persons are arrested by
the GID, the security service, commonly called the "mubahith"
or investigative police. GID prisoners are regularly held
incommunicado during the initial phase of an investigation,
which may last weeks or months. At least four suspects
reportedly have been detained in Jeddah since February while
being investigated in connection with a terrorist incident
there. Relatives of the accused allegedly have not been
allowed to visit the prisoners. It is not known whether they
have been permitted legal counsel. Human rights groups outside
of Saudi Arabia continued in 1991 to report cases of long-term
incommunicado detention of what they termed political prisoners.
One credible report states that there is evidence of a clear
pattern of suspected political opponents (Shi 'a) being arrested
without warrants and held for long periods without trial. It
is alleged that the detainees, 25 of whom remain in detention,
were routinely tortured or otherwise abused in the first days
or weeks of detention and denied access to counsel and family.
Shi'ite scholar Sayyid Tahir al Shimimy was among them.
The Government does not use exile as a form of punishment.
      e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The judicial system is based on Islamic jurisprudence (the
Shari'a). Regular Shari'a courts exercise jurisdiction over
common criminal cases and civil suits regarding marriage,
divorce, child custody, and inheritance of real or personal
property. In Saudi courts, the defendant appears before a
judge who determines guilt or innocence and, if warranted,
imposes the sentence. Trials are generally closed and are
normally held without legal counsel, although the advice of
lawyers is available before trial and lawyers may act in court
as interpreters for those unfamiliar with Arabic. Sentencing
is not uniform and a sentence may be changed at any of the
stages of review.
Appeals against judges' decisions are automatically reviewed by
the Justice Ministry or, in more serious cases, by the Court of
Cassation and the Supreme Judicial Council to ensure that court
procedure was correct and that the judge applied appropriate
legal principles and punishments. Cases involving capital
punishment must also be reviewed by the King. The Shi 'a
community is free to adjudicate exclusively noncriminal
intra-Shi'a disputes within their own legal tradition.
The independence of the judiciary is prescribed by law and is
usually respected in practice, although jurists are
nevertheless aware of and reportedly have on occasion acceded
to the power and influence of the royal family and their
associates. The Justice Ministry is responsible for the
appointment, transfer, and promotion of judges. Judges may be
disciplined or removed only by the Supreme Judicial Council, an
independent body of senior jurists.
The military justice system has jurisdiction over uniformed
personnel and civilian government employees charged with
violations of military regulations. Court-martial decisions
are reviewed by the Minister of Defense and Aviation and by the
The number of political prisoners being held at year's end was
unknown because of the Government's policies of not providing
data or responding to inquiries about such persons, conducting
closed trials, and detaining persons incommunicado for long
periods while under investigation.
      f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The sanctity of family life and the inviolability of the home
are among the most fundamental of Islamic precepts. Saudi
police must generally demonstrate reasonable cause and obtain
special permission from the provincial governor before
searching a private home, but warrants are not required. The
Saudi religious police (Mutawwai ' in) may enter homes to search
for evidence of un-Islamic behavior when they have grounds for
suspicion but rarely do so without probable cause. However,
such behavior appears to have increased markedly late in 1991.
Wiretaps and mail surveillance may be carried out on the
authority of officials of the Interior Ministry or the
Directorate of Intelligence. Informants are reliably reported
to be widely employed in internal security matters.
Most social and Islamic religious norms and strictures
affecting personal life are matters of law and are enforced by
the Government. Saudi women may not marry non-Saudis without
government permission, which is rarely given. They are
prohibited from marrying any non-Muslim, although Saudi men may
marry Christians and Jews. Saudi men must obtain approval to
marry women originally from countries other than the six
members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. During Ramadan, the
Islamic month of fasting and abstinence, the prohibition
against public eating, drinking, or smoking during daylight
hours is enforced on Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Prohibitions against alcohol and material deemed pornographic
are strictly enforced and apply as well to foreign residents.
A rigid dress code for women, as well as the closing of shops
for a half-hour period during the five daily prayers, are
enforced by the Mutawwai'in.
In general, human rights abuses by the Mutawwai'in increased
sharply in the latter part of 1991. In addition to the
harassment of non-Muslims attempting to conduct religious
services (see Section 2.c.), both the number and seriousness of
incidents in which Saudi and foreign women were harassed for
alleged failure to observe Mutawwa-enforced dress codes rose.
In response to increased Mutawwa intrusions, Saudis and
expatriates alike increased security at their housing
compounds. There is also a credible report that a Saudi
professional man was whipped and later jailed on an adultery
charge for having given a non-Saudi female colleague a ride
home from work. The woman was deported.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
      a. Freedom of Speech and Press
Freedom of speech and press is severely limited. Criticism of
Islam, the ruling family, or the Government is not allowed.
The potential presence of informers renders public criticism of
the regime rare. In private, complaints are expressed
relatively freely. Saudis are able to voice complaints and
seek redress of personal grievances through the open-door
audiences held by members of the royal family at all levels.
In 1991 numerous clandestine audio tapes as well as two
petitions signed by dozens of prominent Saudis calling for
government reform were circulated widely in the kingdom through
informal channels but were not published in the local press.
Their wide circulation was formally criticized by the country's
senior body of religious scholars and publicly, if obliqiaely,
in the local press. There were also reports that some of the
petitions' signatories were interviewed by Ministry of Interior
Saudi television and radio are state owned and operated.
Foreign programs and songs are heavily censored, with
references to politics, religions other than Islam, pork or
pigs, alcohol, or sexual innuendo removed. Although foreign
news is generally presented in an objective manner, news about
subjects affecting Saudi Arabia is tightly controlled and
conflicting viewpoints are usually not offered. In addition,
there are an estimated 16,000 to 20,000 private satellite
dishes operating in the kingdom which receive foreign
broadcasts. The status of these devices is ambiguous, and they
are chiefly in the possession of the country's political and
economic elite. There was a dramatic improvement in foreign
press access to Saudi Arabia following Iraq's invasion of
Kuwait in 1990, but this improvement proved to be temporary,
and access is again tightly restricted.
The press is privately owned. It is effectively controlled by
a 1982 media policy statement and the firm understanding that
nothing embarrassing to the Government, ruling family, or
religious leadership may be published. The media policy
statement enjoins the press to uphold Islam, oppose atheism,
promote Arab interests, and preserve the cultural heritage of
Saudi Arabia. Newspapers receive guidelines issued by the
Information Ministry on government positions on controversial
issues, and the government-owned Saudi Press Agency (SPA)
expresses the official viewpoint on such issues. Most foreign
news that does not directly concern Saudi Arabia is presented
objectively. Domestic news concerning sensitive subjects, such
as crime or terrorism, is usually published only after the
perpetrators have been arrested, convicted, and imprisoned or
executed. Editors in chief are appointed with the explicit
approval of the Ministry of Information, and the Government has
the power to have them removed.
Foreign publications circulate but may be censored for
materials deemed immoral or critical of Saudi policies and
actions. Entire publications are sometimes withheld from
distribution. Although such censorship appeared to have
declined in 1991, the Saudi Ministry of Information was quoted
in September as favoring the continuation of censorship.
Academic freedom is constrained by similar guidelines; for
example, the study of Freud, Marx, and Western philosophy is
not formally allowed. Some professors believe that classroom
comments which would be taken as antiregime will be reported to
the authorities. There continues to be an injunction against
the study of music in educational institutions through the
university level, although there are some private organizations
for the study of Western classical music.
Nevertheless, over the past few years there has been a gradual
increase in some artistic activities in schools and
universities and in society in general, as evidenced by classes
sponsored by the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, an
association whose head holds ministerial rank. There are also
private art galleries, and some members of the royal family
patronize the arts. Abstract and representational artists as
well as photographers are allowed to work. Cinemas and most
public musical or theatrical performances are, however, still
      b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Public demonstrations as a means of political expression or
presenting grievances are prohibited. Tribal, familial, and
economic interest groups informally aggregate public opinion
which their leaders express to high officials. Political
parties are prohibited (see Section 3). Nonpolitical clubs and
professional groups may be organized with the permission of the
authorities. The few existing professional bodies are
permitted but not encouraged to maintain contacts with their
recognized international counterparts. Public meetings are
generally segregated by sex. Unless they are sponsored by
diplomatic missions, members of groups seeking to hold
unsegregated meetings face arrest, incarceration, and
In October 1990, some 47 women were arrested in Riyadh for
driving cars to protest the ban on women driving. They were
released within 24 hours into the custody of male relatives but
were subjected to a variety of sanctions, including loss of
their government jobs (a number were university teachers) and
seizure of their passports. The passports were returned in
October 1991 but none of the women has regained government
      c. Freedom of Religion
Freedom of religion does not exist. Islam is the official
religion, and all Saudi citizens must be Muslims. Public
apostasy is a crime punishable by death. Islamic practice in
Saudi Arabia is generally limited to that sanctioned by the
Wahhabi sect's interpretation of the Hanbali jurisprudential
school of Islam. Practices contrary to this interpretation,
such as the visiting of graves of famous Muslims by pilgrims to
Mecca or Medina or the use of the Shi ' ite call to prayer, are
prohibited. The Shi ' a Muslims of the Eastern Province, usually
estimated at up to 500,000 persons, constitute a religious
minority subject to officially sanctioned forms of social and
economic discrimination. Any form of public Shi ' ite practice
that deviates from Sunni Islam is generally prohibited.
Historically, the Government has prohibited Shi ' ite public
processions during the Islamic month of Muharram and restricted
public celebrations to specially designated areas within the
major Shi ' a cities. However, as in 1989 and 1990, reliable
reports indicate that authorities permitted marches on the
Shi ' a holiday of Ashura in 1991, provided they took place
without banners or public self-flagellation.
The Government occasionally offers to provide financial support
for the Shi 'a religious establishment, which is generally
refused. The Government seldom permits private construction of
Shi ' ite mosques, and the Shi ' a have refused government offers
to build state-supported mosques, in which Shi ' ite motifs would
be prohibited.
In principle, the Saudis allow Muslims of all nationalities who
wish to visit Mecca and Medina to do so. However, as a result
of a decision by the Organization of the Islamic Conference
(OIC), Saudi Arabia has established and maintains a system of
national quotas for the yearly pilgrimage, or hajj, to
facilitate security and efficiency. The Iranian Government (an
OIC member-state) continues to criticize the quota system as
unfairly discriminatory against its citizens. However, in 1991
large numbers of Iranians participated in the hajj for the
first time in 3 years. Travel to the holy cities by
non-Muslims is illegal. Political activities by pilgrims are
Public or private non-Muslim religious activities are not
permitted, and in 1991 this began to be enforced. In October a
large number of Mutawwai'in accompanied by police broke up a
clandestine Christian religious service, arresting many of the
worshipers, including some children. With the exception of one
person, who was deported, those arrested were later released;
orders for their deportation were suspended. Persons wearing
non-Islamic religious symbols in public may also be arrested or
publicly harassed by the Mutawwai'in. There are no public
non-Muslim places of worship; and foreign nationals must
practice their religions in secret. Proselytizing, large
gatherings, or elaborate organizational structures are likely
to attract official attention and lead to the imprisonment or
expulsion of those responsible.
      d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
Travel for women, Saudi and non-Saudi, is restricted; they must
obtain written permission from their closest male relative
before being allowed to leave the country or to travel on
public transportation between different parts of the country.
Male Saudis may travel freely anywhere within the country. A
regulation promulgated in 1990 requires most single Saudi men
under the age of 18 to obtain permission before traveling
abroad; such permission can be easily obtained through family
or business connections. In the case of government officials.
the permission of the royal court is required, but appears to
be routinely granted.
Denial of exit visas is a fairly common form of punishment.
The women who took part in the driving demonstration in Riyadh
in 1990 to challenge the bar against women driving automobiles,
as well as their husbands and other relatives, had their
passports confiscated to prevent them from leaving the country
(see Section 2.b.).
The passports of suspected subversives have occasionally been
seized. Shi ' a believed to have pro-Iranian sympathies may not
be allowed to travel abroad. Saudis are permitted to emigrate
and assume foreign nationality, which results in the loss of
Saudi nationality. Citizenship is not revoked for political
reasons. Passports, however, may be seized if security
questions arise. Dual citizenship is illegal, and Saudis born
in the United States and thus required to travel to the United
States on a U.S. passport have had their passports confiscated
by Saudi immigration authorities. There was one incident in
1991 in which a naturalized Arab-American from Egypt was
detained and abused by Saudi immigration officials for
traveling on a U.S. passport.
There is no explicit formal policy regarding refugees or the
granting of asylum.
Refugees and displaced persons in most cases are dealt with
like other foreign workers. With some exceptions, persons
seeking residence in the country must meet strictly enforced
requirements of sponsorship and employment. In the aftermath
of the Persian Gulf War, 22,000 Iraqi citizens, primarily
Shi 'a, fled Iraq and were granted refuge in camps in Saudi
Arabia near the city of Rafha. Similarly, 13,000 Iraqi
prisoners of war declined repatriation to Iraq and remain in
the kingdom under Saudi care near the city of Artawiyah. This
population of approximately 35,000 Iraqis is required to abide
by Saudi residence requirements, with the result that most are
restricted to refugee camps within the kingdom. Saudi
officials have worked effectively with international
humanitarian organizations to provide care for these Iraqis but
have stressed that Islamic principles rather than international
humanitarian law are the basis for this policy. However, there
were credible reports that, contrary to this policy, perhaps as
many as 283 Iraqi refugees from the Rafha and the Artawiyah
camps were forcibly repatriated to Iraq in late December. It
was reliably reported that Saudi officials considered this a
serious breach of government policy and began an
investigation. In March the Government deported 959 Somalis by
ship back to Somalia after refusing to consider them legitimate
There are over 250,000 other resident foreigners who fled their
native countries, primarily Palestinians, Lebanese, Eritreans,
Somalis, and Afghans. Most of these persons generally receive
no special treatment, privileges, or services as refugees.
Individual Saudis, including many members of the ruling family,
permanently sponsor such persons to enable them to remain in
Saudi Arabia, permitting them to find work where they may.
Some sponsors reportedly have charged fees to such persons for
providing documentation required by the Government. There are
few Saudi exiles outside the country. Saudi authorities are
responsive in cases where deportation of refugees to their home
country would jeopardize their safety.SAUDI ARftBIA
All foreigners living in Saudi Arabia are required to carry
identification cards. Foreigners are officially not permitted
to travel outside the city of their employment or change their
workplace without their sponsor's permission. Foreign
employees are prevented from traveling abroad without their
sponsor's permission, since sponsors generally hold their
passports and are responsible for obtaining exit visas for
them. Foreign diplomats are ordered by the Government not to
travel outside of the major cities without notifying the
Government. Foreigners involved in commercial disputes are
sometimes not allowed to leave the country until the dispute
has been resolved or to return to present their case locally.
Some sponsors have taken advantage of this arrangement to exert
pressure to resolve commercial disputes in their favor.
Occasionally, Saudi sponsors or business partners have been
able to prevent foreign nationals from departing Saudi Arabia
for years or to have them arrested or deported. In criminal
cases, Saudi regulations require that the passports of all
potential suspects and witnesses be seized, which sometimes
forces foreign nationals to remain in Saudi Arabia for lengthy
periods against their will.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens
to Change Their Government
Citizens do not have the ability to change their government
peacefully. There are no formal democratic institutions, and
most Saudi citizens have no voice in the choice of leaders or
in changing the political system. The King rules the country
in matters secular and religious, within limits established by
religious law, tradition, and the need to maintain consensus
among the ruling family and religious leaders. The King's
legitimacy is based upon his descent, his selection by
consensus of the royal family, his adherence to the tenets of
Islam, his ability to govern, and his perceived concern for the
welfare and security of the nation. The King is also the Prime
Minister, and the Crown Prince serves as First Deputy Prime
Minister. The King appoints all other ministers, who in turn
appoint subordinate officials with cabinet concurrence.
There are no popularly elected officials in Saudi Arabia.
Political parties are not permitted, and there are no public
organized opposition groups.
Traditionally, public opinion has been expressed through
client-patron relationships and interest groups such as tribes,
families, and professional hierarchies. The open-door audience
(majlis) remains the primary forum for expression of opinion or
grievance. Any male citizen or expatriate may attend these
sessions, which the King, princes, and all important officials,
national and local, hold regularly and openly. Since the
assassination of King Faisal in 1975, however, Saudi kings have
reduced the frequency of their personal contacts with the
public. Access to King Fahd, to whom decisions even on some
apparently minor matters are referred, is considered by
ordinary Saudis to be quite difficult. Typical topics raised
in a majlis are complaints about bureaucratic delay or
insensitivity, requests for redress or assistance, and
criticism of particular acts of government affecting personal
or family welfare. Broader "political" concerns—Saudi social,
economic, or foreign policy—are raised only occasionally.
Either the King or the Crown Prince meets with Sunni religious
leaders at least once a week.
This institutionalized but relaxed means of ascertaining public
opinion through consultation falls far short of internationally
recognized norms. Participation by women in the process is
severely restricted, although there are reports that women may
seek redress through female members of the royal family. In
the Eastern Province, women may make written appeals to the
provincial governor, though they are barred from appearing in
person at his weekly majlis. As governmental functions have
become increasingly complex, time consuming, and centralized in
Riyadh, direct public access to senior officials has become
more difficult.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
There are no human rights groups publicly active in Saudi
Arabia, and none critical of Saudi policies would be
permitted. Amnesty International (AI), in its 1989 report,
stated that the Foreign Minister wrote to the organization in
January 1988 indicating Saudi willingness to discuss with AI
officials "the origins of human rights in Islam and the
principles of the Shari'a and its implementation in the Kingdom
of Saudi Arabia." However, a visit has yet to be scheduled.
Some U.N. agencies concerned with humanitarian issues,
including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, maintain
offices in Saudi Arabia and have regular contact with Saudi
authorities. The Saudis have facilitated the work of the ICRC
with Iraqi ex-prisoners of war, refugees, and displaced persons
from the Gulf War.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Language, or Social Status
Although racial discrimination is illegal in Saudi Arabia,
substantial societal prejudice based on ethnic or national
origin still exists. Foreign workers from Africa and Asia are
subject to various forms of discrimination. In 1991 there
continued to be credible reports of informal discrimination
against Jordanians, Palestinians, and Yemenis, primarily
because of positions taken on the Gulf crisis.
Women in Saudi Arabia have few substantive political and social
rights, and they are not equal members of society. Women,
including foreigners, may not legally drive motor vehicles or
ride bicycles (see Section 2.b.), and there are restrictions on
their use of public facilities when men are present. By law
and custom, women may not undertake domestic or foreign travel
alone. They must have the written permission (and sometimes
physical escort) of their nearest male relative, especially for
travel abroad. Some women, however, reportedly travel by air
between major Saudi cities without such permission. Women are
restricted to specially designated sections in the rear of
urban buses with separate entrances. In public, Muslim women
are required to wear the abaya (a lightweight, black garment
covering the entire body and often the face) . Saudi
authorities have repeatedly said that non^Muslim women need not
wear the abaya. However, Saudi custom encourages many to do
so, or at least to wear loose-fitting clothing extending below
elbows and knees. Mutawwai ' in have traditionally appeared to
expect women from Arab countries, Asia and Africa to comply
more fully with Saudi customs of dress than women from Western
Female circvimcision or other mutilation are not practiced in
most parts of Saudi Arabia, although they may persist among
African settlers in the southwestern Tihama region. Little is
known about the extent of violence against women in Saudi
society, and the Government does not keep statistics on such
abuse. "Islamic advice" columns in the Saudi press sometimes
recommend "strict disciplining" of women, which is understood
to encompass some degree of physical force as part of a proper
In addition to these customary and legal restrictions, Saudi
women are subject to discrimination inherent in the Islamic
legal system. Under Islamic law a daughter's share of an
inheritance is half that of her brother, although the brother
has financial obligations to his mother and sisters. Women
must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce, but men
may divorce without grounds. If divorced or widowed, a woman
normally may keep her children until they attain the age of 9,
but then they revert to the husband's family, to which they
belong under Islamic law. Western women married to Saudis have
frequently been barred from visiting their children after
divorce. In a Shari'a court, the testimony of one man equals
that of two women. Although Islamic law permits polygamy, it
is becoming less common, especially in cities and among younger
Saudis. Islamic legal precepts limit the number of wives to
four and require a husband who has more than one wife to treat
each of his wives equally. In practice, this norm is not
always achieved.
Employment opportunities for Saudi women are extremely
limited. In practice, most employment opportunities are in the
field of education, with some available in health care and a
relatively few in business, engineering, and the media. In
1990 King Fahd, as part of the Government's response to the
Gulf crisis, called upon Saudi women to volunteer for nursing
and social services. However, plans to train women for these
wartime roles ended with the conclusion of the war. Free but
segregated education through the university level is available
to Saudi women, and the number of women enrolled in the
university system is said to be more than a million, which is
45 percent of overall university enrollment, and to be rising
rapidly. Saudi men are able to study overseas; Saudi women
cannot unless accompanied by a spouse or an immediate male
relative—usually a practical impossibility.
The large expatriate work force does not, for the most part,
receive the same economic and social benefits available to
native Saudis and must conform to restrictive Saudi social
standards. Highly skilled or high-ranking foreign workers are
allowed to bring their immediate families to live with them.
However, visits by other relatives of foreigners working in
Saudi Arabia, including foreign diplomats, are difficult to
arrange. Employment opportunities for non-Muslims are
Foreign embassies receive repeated reports of sexual abuse of
female domestics by Saudi employers. The Government, in
general, considers cases involving domestic servants to be
private family matters and will not get involved unless
clear-cut charges of severe abuse are brought to its
attention. It is almost impossible for these women to obtain
redress in the courts due to the court's strict evidentiary
rules and the women's own fears of reprisals. A few employers
have reportedly been punished for such abuses. There are as
yet no private support groups or religious associations to
which these women could turn for assistance.
Saudi Shi ' a face discrimination in government and industrial
employment, especially in jobs with national security
implications, which is broadly defined. The government
petroleum company, Saudi Aramco, which traditionally provided
large numbers of jobs to Shi 'a, reportedly was instructed
several years ago to cease all further hiring of Shi ' a and to
phase out gradually all Shi 'a working in responsible
positions. In 1991 there was some limited signs this policy
was easing. Shi ' a also face some limitations on their access
to social services, despite efforts by the Government to
improve the social service infrastructure in predominantly
Shi ' a areas of the country. Since the Iranian revolution, some
Shi ' a have been subjected periodically to surveillance and
limitations on travel abroad.
Members of the royal family and of other powerful families are
not subject to the same legal constraints as other Saudis.
Princes and other influential persons may not be subject to
customs inspection on entering the country. Government
contracts are often awarded on the basis of influence, and
foreign companies doing business in Saudi Arabia are often said
to need an influential "sponsor," frequently a member of the
royal family, to be successful.
 Section 6 Worker Rights
      a. The Right of Association
Government decrees prohibit the formation of labor unions and
strike activity.
      b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
Collective bargaining is forbidden, and there are no special
economic zones in the country. Wages are set by what the
market will bear.
      c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
Forced labor has been prohibited since 1962 by a royal decree
that abolished slavery, and Saudi ratification of International
Labor Organization Conventions 29 and 105 has the force of
law. Nonetheless, vestiges of the master-slave relationship
remain; a great number of former slaves chose to remain in the
princely households where many now enjoy a quasi-familial
status as household supernumeraries. Additionally, since
employers generally exercise control over the movements of
foreign employees, situations that could be described as forced
labor can occur, especially in remote areas where workers are
unable to leave their place of work. There are also reports
that female domestic workers are sometimes prevented from
leaving the homes of their employers and forced to work 12 to
16 hours per day, 7 days a week. In addition, there are
reports of workers whose employers have refused to pay several
months or even years of accumulated salary, or other promised
benefits. In such cases workers have recourse to the labor
courts, where workmen's wages are considered "first-class
privileged debts," secured by a lien on all of the employer's
property and enforceable for collection before all other debts.
      d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
There is no minimiom age for workers employed in family-operated
businesses or in other situations that are construed as
extensions of the household, e.g. , farmers, herdsmen, and
domestic servants, since they are not covered by Saudi Arabia's
labor regulations. In other cases, the labor regulations
provide for a minimum age of 13, which may be waived by the
Ministry of Labor with the consent of the juvenile's guardian.
Children under age 18 and women may not be employed in
hazardous or harmful industries, such as mines or industries
employing power-operated machinery.
While there is no formal government entity charged with
enforcing the minimum age for employment of children, the
Ministry of Justice has jurisdiction and has acted as plaintiff
in the few cases that have arisen against alleged violators.
      e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
There is currently no legal minimum wage. A provision
providing for the Council of Ministers to set a minimiim wage
has not been implemented. Saudi labor regulations establish a
maximum 48-hour workweek at regular pay and allow employers to
require up to 12 additional hours of overtime at
time-and-a-half pay.
There are numerous reports of foreign nationals coming to Saudi
Arabia on promises of a certain level of pay and benefits, only
to find that the contract they sign upon arrival specifies
lower levels of both. Other reports suggest that some workers
sign contracts in their home countries and are then asked to
sign ones less favorable to them upon arrival. There are
reports as well of workers who are indentured to Saudi sponsors
for a set amount each month and who must then find their own
employment upon arrival in the kingdom. To solve those
problems, some foreign governments have begun utilizing
employment organizations which negotiate salary and benefits in
advance for their nationals. These organizations periodically
check on the results of their efforts through their embassies
and the Saudi labor courts.
Saudi labor regulations require employers to protect most
workers from job-related hazards and disease, but workers
employed in family-operated businesses, farmers, herdsmen, and
domestic servants are not covered by these regulations. The
law specifically prohibits employers from requiring workers to
work outside when the temperature exceeds 122 degrees
Fahrenheit. Labor Ministry inspectors and the labor courts are
seeking, with some success, to enforce the labor code, but
foreign nationals report frequent failures to enforce health
and safety standards.