July 1, 2010

August marks Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud's fifth year as king of Saudi Arabia, a good moment to assess reforms in the area of human rights. Saudis are somewhat freer today, and many credit the king. Saudi writers have won regional awards this year, and the diversity of Saudi society is on display, thanks to the growth of electronic media. Yet this freedom remains strictly limited. The king has changed the atmospherics but needs to institutionalize his reform agenda to ensure that changes last beyond his reign.

The pace and scope of reform has been contentious. Liberals call for a constitution, an elected parliament, equality for women and minorities, and unfettered freedom of expression. Conservative clerics and others who use the language of Islam still dominate the judiciary and education system and often oppose even reforms with broad acceptance, such as outlawing child marriage. The security establishment continues to enforce bans on political parties and public rallies, and on attempts to hold security services accountable.

Saudis see some progress in three areas -- women's rights, freedom of expression, and judicial reform. But in a fourth area where the king has also taken some initiative, religious tolerance, relations between Shia and Sunni Saudis remain as bad as ever. There have also been no discernible efforts to address abuses faced by many of the kingdom's estimated eight million foreign workers.

Rigid gender segregation between men and women is loosening in public places, though it's still the norm in the workplace and schools. The government promised to end the system of male guardianship, but it remains firmly entrenched in most areas of women's lives. Responding to public discontent, the government proposed amendments to laws governing the powers of the religious police, but has not passed them yet.  Women can now study law, and Justice Minister Muhammad al-‘Issa announced that women lawyers will be able to represent female clients in court in personal status cases, but there are no plans to appoint women judges or prosecutors.

The idea of holding accountable those who infringe on individual rights is still novel in Saudi society. Saudis today are a bit freer to criticize the government, but bright red lines remain. Challenging the religious ideology underpinning the kingdom's identity remains taboo, as does criticizing princes by name. Criticism of institutions and policies is tolerated if it does not question absolute monarchical rule. Activists like professors Matrook al-Faleh and Abdullah al-Hamid, the poet Ali al-Dumaini, and former judge, Sulaiman al-Rashudi, continue to pay a heavy price -- harassment in their jobs, arbitrary arrest, jail time, and foreign travel bans. Increased awareness of human rights has led to monitoring by independent activists. Some have created a virtual presence on the Internet, such as the Saudi Woman's Voice, the Saudi Society for Civil and Political Rights, and the Rights Activists Network, but the government blocks their websites and none have been able to register as civic societies.

Some Saudi media report human rights violations but the Information Ministry must approve the appointment of chief editors at Saudi newspapers, and the recent firing of the editor of  the  newspaper Al-Watan, Jamal Khashoggi, shows that the ministry terminates editors when they overstep the bounds of tolerated criticism. In practice, editors themselves do most of the censoring. In an opinion column in the on-line edition of Okaz newspaper, the Saudi novelist Abdo Khal criticized Kashoggi's dismissal as intended to "frighten everyone who has dedicated ... his pen to combat the bats of darkness and the corruptors on earth." None of this appeared in the print version of the newspaper. Khal himself recently won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, but his books remain banned in Saudi Arabia.

Street protests and organized meetings remain firmly off limits. Security forces in March 2009 arrested dozens of Shi'a in the Eastern Province demanding equal rights of religious worship. Muhammad al-‘Utaibi, a blogger, and Khalid al-‘Umair, a rights activist, have been detained for almost a year and a half for trying to organize a solidarity protest in Riyadh with the people of Gaza in January 2009. When veteran reformers pondered establishing a political party at a meeting in Jeddah in February 2007, the intelligence service stormed the house commando-style, arresting the professors, lawyers, and intellectuals there, most of whom remain detained without charge or trial.

Regarding judicial reform, the king in 2007 decreed new, specialized courts, more independence for judges, and more reliance on statutes and the legal profession than on interpretation of religious precepts, but three years later much of this remains on paper. Saudi Arabia still lacks a penal code and any mechanism to hold officials accountable. The 2009 trials of several hundred terrorism suspects were conducted in secret and in summary fashion, without lawyers and without revealing precise charges or evidence, or even names of defendants.

King Abdullah's reform agenda included interfaith dialogue, bringing representatives of world faiths together to promote mutual respect. Domestically, however, Wahhabi clerics, some on government salaries, openly call for discrimination against Shia, between 10 and15 percent of the population, and Shia calling for equality get jail terms. The government bans Shia religious education and worship, and detains those who speak out about exclusion from government and private employment. Since 2001 the authorities in Ahsa' province have imprisoned leaders of communal prayers. Since 2008, authorities have intensified restrictions on Shia communal life, arresting the owners of private communal prayer halls in Khobar. In April, Saudi authorities arrested four Shia in the Eastern Province for hosting private prayer services.

Finally, King Abdullah has neglected one area badly in need of reform. Many of the eight million foreign workers remain subject to exploitation and abuse by employers due to the sponsorship system, and a lack of legal protections and access to justice. Here there are no societal pressures for reform, and considerable opposition from business circles. 

King Abdullah has made a good start, but he should keep the momentum going. If his successors  tread even more cautiously, his legacy will be one of brief respite, not substantive reform.

Joe Stork is deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch; Christoph Wilcke is a senior Human Rights Watch researcher who has done extensive research about Saudi Arabia.