Decades of disrespect for human rights have distorted political and civic life in Saudi Arabia and dangerously narrowed possibilities for peaceful political reform, Human Rights Watch said in a new backgrounder released today.

"The ruling family is perpetuating a system that breeds intolerance and political violence," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "Saudi citizens should be able to participate in public affairs and openly debate ideas and policies rather than have to take their activities underground or abroad."

Human Rights Watch said Saudi Arabia's government is intolerant of public dissent, whether it comes from Saudi liberals or conservatives. Any criticism of the ruling family and its closely-knit circle of supporters, including the official ulema (religious scholars) is off limits. The lack of basic human rights protections has left the kingdom bereft of independent activists and organizations that elsewhere have championed political reform, promoted tolerance and women's rights, and peacefully challenged controversial foreign and domestic policies.

The 15-page Human Rights Watch backgrounder says that reforms are urgently needed in the following areas:

  • Administration of justice
  • Women's rights
  • Freedom of expression, association, and assembly
  • Religious freedom for Muslims and non-Muslims

Megally strongly urged the kingdom's allies and major trading partners to press for reforms, and to end decades of silence in the face of egregious and systematic human rights violations. Human Rights Watch said that the United States, the United Kingdom, France, other European Union states, and Saudi Arabia's allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council should use their influence to press for a reversal of long-standing policies that deny the most fundamental human rights for the kingdom's 22 million residents, including foreigners.

"The lack of human rights in Saudi Arabia should be high on the list of bilateral concerns, and not ignored as the price of selling arms or buying oil," Megally said.