Democracy and rights
The King’s House Al Saud holds Saudi Arabia, abbreviated as SAU by Abbreviationfinder, in an iron grip. The death penalty and executions are very common and freedom of speech is severely circumscribed. Criticism against the royal family, the government, Islam and religious leaders is severely punished.
There is a generational shift in the royal house and several reforms that have been published in recent years have raised hopes that the regime’s exercise of power will be mitigated and societal norms become more permissible. But the people have not had real influence, and the setbacks have been brutal. The most noteworthy example: While the state opened to allow women to drive, women who worked for driver’s license and to escape the mandatory system of having a male guardian (wali) have been arrested and brought to justice. The intention seems to be to demonstrate that activism is not rewarded; it is the royal house that, if and when it pleases, awards benefits.
- Countryaah: Offers a comprehensive list of airports in Saudi Arabia, including international airports with city located, size and abbreviation, as well as the biggest airlines.
Equally, the conditions for women have improved. In August 2019, women over the age of 21 were given the right to obtain a passport and travel, and some other rights have been extended even if the guardianship system remains. In the royal house’s advisory circle and in municipal councils there are women, but there are no democratic choices – to bodies that make or enforce the decisions – hardly exist: the door is closed to both men and women. Political parties are not allowed.
Campaigns through meetings and placards are as gender-segregated as society in general, which means that it is mostly in social media that such messages can be seen.
Moral police can intervene against unauthorized intercourse across the gender boundary and clothing that is considered obscene. The power of the moral police has diminished, but often the limits of the allowed blur. There are examples of comedians dealing with the morality police being punished, while others get away. Some cafes that let women and men mingle have been closed, while other establishments have both women and men as guests.
The literal Sunni form of Islam, which is state religion, also makes life difficult for Muslim minorities, although there is a domestic Shiite minority and Shia Muslims from abroad are allowed pilgrimage to the holy places of Islam.
A large part of the workforce consists of guest workers who lack rights.
After 2019, Transparency International, which examines corruption in the world, put Saudi Arabia at 51 out of 180, see list here. Thus, almost three-quarters of the world’s countries were estimated to have major problems with corruption. But the conditions are special when, in principle, all activities, for example in business, require good relations with the royal house. In the fall of 2017, a large number of corporate executives and former authorities were placed under luxury house arrest, until they transferred assets to the state. The transparency of how their assets were acquired and how they were then handed over to the state has been minimal. The state’s cash register is handled as if it is the royal house’s private, also that without transparency.
Freedom of expression and media
The regime exercises tight control over everything that is published in traditional media or shared via social media. Media can be closed if they are considered so split, threaten order and security, or violate an individual’s dignity.
Efforts to silence opinion opponents sharpened after the wave of insurgency that swept across the Middle East in 2011. New tougher rules for online media have meant increased opportunities to limit content. News sites that have not been registered have been blocked. The regime also conducts its own campaigns. Hundreds of accounts on Facebook and Instagram with coordinated political content have been shut down by the platforms that have designated the Saudi government as responsible for the accounts.
Stricter bans have been introduced to circumvent Islamic law, infringe on state interests, support foreign interests or damage public order and national security. Anti-terrorism legislation passed in 2014 further strengthened the authorities’ ability to classify anything that can be perceived as criticism of the state or Islam as criminal.
Reporters Without Borders places in their assessment of freedom of the press 2020 Saudi Arabia as a country 170 out of 180, see list here. The freedom of the press is thus considered greater than in, for example, Iran and Syria, but less than in the two war-ravaged countries Libya and Yemen.
Most media are owned by members of the royal family and the state etheric media company dominates the domestic TV offering. There are dozens of Arabic-language newspapers and some that are published in English. Saudi interests are also behind media of international spread: influential pan-Arab newspapers are the London-based al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat. TV channel al-Arabiyya broadcasts news from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and tries to compete with Qatar-based al-Jazira, which is accused by the Saudi regime of partial reporting.
Judicial system and legal security
The judicial system is based on the Qur’an. Judgment has traditionally been done by judges interpreting Islamic law. Under King Abdullah (2005–2015), a restructuring of the judiciary was launched, despite strong opposition from conservative judges. New courts were established and written laws were introduced to provide greater clarity and less favor, but the legal application has remained strict. Torture, arbitrary imprisonment, inadequate trials and substandard imprisonment characterize the system.
Sharia (Islamic law) in Saudi vintage means that theft is punished with a severed hand. The death penalty is common and often punished for, for example, murder and drug trafficking – but also adultery, homosexuality, blasphemy, waste from the right faith and witchcraft can lead to the death sentence. The punishment is usually executed with decapitation, which can be done publicly after Friday prayers. Saudi Arabia is one of the most execute countries. A mass execution in January 2016, when 47 people were executed on the same day, had regional repercussions (see Foreign Policy and Defense). In April 2019, 37 people were executed on a single day, during the entire year 184, which meant a sharp increase. In 2018, Amnesty International counted 149 executions.
In 2020, it was announced that executions will no longer be carried out as it concerns crimes committed by minors. In such cases, ten years in prison shall be punishable by maximum sentence.
Writer Jamal Khashoggi, who had disgusted himself with the royal house, was murdered by Saudi staff at a country’s consulate abroad. The murder has led to condemnation also from countries that normally adhere to the regime. Accusations against the Crown Prince that he personally ordered the murder have not been investigated.
Many peaceful reform advocates and democracy activists have been arrested. Blogger Raif Badawi was arrested in 2012 and accused of insulting Islam and starting an unauthorized internet forum. Following a 2014 penalty, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 whips. According to the verdict, the whipsaw was to be distributed 50 at a time for 20 weeks, but after the first round, the continuation was postponed because Badawi’s life was said to be in danger. Badawi’s lawyer, human rights activist Walid Abu al-Khair, was sentenced in 2014 to 15 years in prison, partly for “undermining the regime” and “upsetting the public”. al-Khair, who was awarded the 2012 Palm Prize but was not allowed to leave the country to receive it, was also sentenced to fines and 15 years of travel ban after serving a prison sentence. Badawi’s case has led to repeated criticism and diplomatic entanglements. In 2020, the message came that prison would be replaced by prison sentences, generally. (The change occurs despite the fact that punishment is referred to as the method of punishment in the Qur’an. But the Qur’an also stipulates, in the specified crimes, that the person before the charge must be able to rely on four witnesses.)
According to Amnesty International, a special criminal court in Riyadh, established in 2008 to deal with terror-related crimes, is also used to silence critical voices.
Suspected terrorists are killed in a firefight
Six men suspected of being al-Qaeda members are killed in a gunfight with Riyadh police. It is the latest of a series of acts of violence involving militant Islamists.
Accidents related to hajj
More than 360 pilgrims die in congestion and panic in connection with the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Over 70 pilgrims perish in a separate accident when a shelter in the city collapses.