Skip to main content


Saudi Arabia continues to commit widespread violations of basic human rights. The most pervasive violations affect persons in the criminal justice system, women and girls, migrant workers, and religious minorities. Persecution of political and religious dissidents is widespread. Human Rights Watch published detailed reports on violations against these persons between 2008 and 2012, including Steps of the Devil; Looser Reign Uncertain Gain; Slow Reform; Returned to Risk; Denied Dignity; and The Ismailis of Najran.

Criminal Justice System

Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system violates the most basic international human rights standards and detainees routinely face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights. Since 2008, authorities have detained scores of men and women for expressing their peaceful political and religious opinions under vague and politicized charges.

One of the central problems associated with Saudi Arabia’s justice system stems from the fact that it does not have a promulgated criminal (penal) code. As a result, citizens and residents have no way of knowing with any precision what constitutes a criminal offence and judges are free to criminalize acts in accordance with their interpretations of Islamic law and prophetic traditions – the two agreed-upon sources of Shariah law. Previous court rulings do not bind Saudi judges, and there is little evidence to suggest that judges seek to apply consistency in sentencing for similar crimes. The absence of a clear criminal code allows judges to enforce seemingly arbitrary charges against individuals including “harming the reputation of the Kingdom”, “establishing contact with outside organizations”, and “parental disobedience.”

Saudi Arabia has failed to implement the recommendation it accepted during the previous UPR in 2009 to “amend its criminal procedural code to bring it in line with international human rights standards and conduct a systematic campaign among Saudi Arabian judges to apply this amended Code”. Saudi Arabia promulgated a Law of Criminal Procedure in 2002, but it does not permit detainees to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court and fails to guarantee access to legal counsel in a timely manner. The code also permits pre-trial detention of up to six months without judicial review and fails to make statements obtained under duress inadmissible in court. Judges routinely ignore provisions of the Law of Criminal Procedure.

In 2008, Saudi Arabia set up the Specialized Criminal Court to try terrorism cases, but authorities have increasingly used the court to prosecute peaceful dissidents on politicized charges and in proceedings that violate the right to a fair trial. Persons on trial are frequently denied the right to consult lawyers, and proceedings are closed to the public.

Saudi courts impose the death penalty after patently unfair trials in violation of international law, and impose corporal punishment in the form of public flogging, which is inherently cruel and degrading.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous examples of law enforcement officials subjecting suspects to torture or other ill-treatment, including prolonged solitary confinement. Authorities often do not inform individuals of the crime of which they are accused or the evidence supporting the accusation. An accused person often does not have access to a lawyer and waits excessive periods of time before trial, where she or he is often not permitted by the court to examine witnesses or evidence and present a legal defence.

Contrary to the recommendation it accepted during its previous UPR in 2009 to “amend the Code of Criminal Practice to stipulate that only individuals aged over 18 will be tried as adults,” Saudi Arabia’s juvenile justice system fails to protect the rights of juvenile defenders. While Saudi Arabia set the age of criminal responsibility at 18 in 2008, judges retain discretionary power to try and sentence minors who have reached the age of puberty for capital crimes. Judges continue to sentence to death persons for offenses committed while under age 18. Saudi Arabia is one of just three countries globally that continues to execute juvenile offenders.

Authorities have failed to investigate alleged abuses by security forces, which since 2011 have led to the deaths of up to 12 protesters in Eastern province, to take preventative measures against possible further abuses or to hold perpetrators to account.

The members of the Human Rights Council should strongly urge the government of Saudi Arabia to:

  • Promptly promulgate a penal code and amend the Law of Criminal Procedure to comply with international human rights law;
  • Make the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecutions independent of the Ministry of Interior and ensure prosecutors uphold due process rights;
  • End all forms of the death penalty, including executions of juvenile offenders, and judicially sanctioned corporal punishment;
  • Ensure that children are only detained as a measure of last resort, and for the shortest possible time;
  • Investigate all abuses committed by security forces, including allegations of torture and other ill-treatment and allegations of excessive use of force against demonstrators, and ensure full accountability.

Freedom of Expression, Belief, and Assembly

Saudi Arabia has failed to implement recommendations it accepted during the previous UPR in 2009 to “enact and implement a Law of Association” and to enable associations “to work in independence without being supervised by official authorities.” Saudi Arabia still does not allow political or human rights associations and authorities have responded to growing calls for political reforms by prosecuting and imprisoning political leaders, human rights activists, academics, and dissidents. Arrests, detentions, and trials of human rights activists have increased, with the authorities targeting the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA), the Adala Center for Human Rights, and members of a Jeddah reformist group who courts sentenced to up to 30 years of imprisonment after they attempted to set up a human rights organization. Authorities have also arrested prominent academics, journalists, and lawyers.

The judicial system has also been used to prosecute individuals for expressing their religious views. Insulting Islam carries the death penalty and a number of persons being held in detention after expressing their religious opinions may be at risk of the death penalty, including Hamza Kasghari. On July 29, a Saudi court sentenced Raif Badawi to seven years in prison and a flogging of 600 lashes after convicting him of founding a liberal website and insulting Islam and religious authorities.

Saudi Arabia has not achieved progress in implementing the recommendation made during the 2009 UPR to “ensure adequate protection for all religious minorities, with a view to gradually allowing public practice of other faiths and beliefs.” Saudi authorities do not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam and systematically discriminate against the Kingdom’s Muslim religious minorities, particularly Shia and Ismailis. The Shia, estimated to number between two and three million people, are Saudi Arabia’s largest religious minority and mostly reside in Eastern province. Discrimination against them affects their religious freedom, access to government employment, and the education system, which bars Shia from teaching religion. They also face bias from the judiciary with judges sometimes disqualifying Shia witnesses because of their religion and exclusively following tenets of Sunni religious law. Official discrimination against Ismailis also encompasses government employment, religious practices, education, and the justice system.

Since the outbreak of protests in Eastern province in 2011, authorities have used excessive force including live fire against Shia protesters, resulting in at least 12 deaths and dozens of injuries.

The member states of the Human Rights Council should strongly urge the government of Saudi Arabia to:

  • Publicly and officially denounce hate speech against Shia, Ismailis, and members of other religious or ethnic minorities;
  • Set up a national institution, as recommended by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, empowered to receive claims of discrimination, to make public recommendations for remedy and to review and recommend changes in official and private discriminatory policies and practices;
  • Terminate all Ministry of Information and Ministry of Islamic Affairs censorship regarding the possession, production, and exchange of Ismaili or Shia religious material;
  • Pass legislation that protects from discriminatory government interference the construction of buildings of worship for religious minorities, and permit religious minorities to teach and practice their religious beliefs without intimidation.

Enact and implement a Law of Association that enables civil society organizations to operate legally without undue government interference

Women’s Rights

By accepting recommendations 18, 19 and 20 during its previous UPR in 2009, Saudi Arabia made a number of important commitments on women’s rights. Little has been done since then, however, to implement these commitments.

Saudi Arabia has failed to make progress towards implementing the recommendation on “abolishing of the male guardianship system” that it accepted in 2009. Under the Kingdom’s discriminatory male guardianship system, girls and women are prohibited from travelling, marrying, or conducting official business without the permission of their male guardians. This system, which is grounded in a restrictive interpretation of an ambiguous Quranic verse, is the most significant impediment to the realization of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The guardianship system enables authorities to treat women as if they are legal minors who are not entitled to exercise full control over their own lives and well-being, or that of their children, and routinely prioritizes the wishes of male guardians over the rights of females over whom they hold authority.

Saudi Arabia has also failed to take effective measures “to ensure the eradication of violence against women” and to “amend legal provisions to (…) prevent violence against women.” Male guardianship over adult women also contributes to their risk of family violence. Survivors of family violence, social workers, and lawyers have all told Human Rights Watch of the difficulties of obtaining the removal of male guardianship over women and children, which judges have discretion to decide, even in cases of abuse. On August 26, 2013, Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers passed a draft law criminalizing domestic abuse, including bodily, physiological, or sexual abuse. The law, however, does not detail specific enforcement mechanisms ensuring prompt investigations of abuse allegations or the prosecution of those who commit abuses.

Since the 2009 UPR, the Saudi authorities have also taken only limited steps to comply with the recommendation to “abolish legislation and practices which prevent women from participating fully in society on an equal basis with men.” Since 2008, the Saudi government has taken steps to expand women’s political participation by allowing them to run and vote in municipal elections, and the king appointed the first 30 women to the consultative Shura Council in January 2013.

In June 2011, Saudi women’s rights advocates launched the “women to drive” campaign, which encourages Saudi women to film themselves driving in defiance of the de facto ban on women driving and post the videos on YouTube. Dozens of women have driven, including Manal Sherif, whom authorities briefly detained and then released after she signed a pledge not to drive or speak to the media about her case.

Since the previous UPR, authorities have made progress in implementing the recommendation to end “restricted access by women to work”. They have adopted legislative reforms that expand women’s rights in the workforce by allowing them to work in limited areas, such as clothing stores, for which no guardian permission is required. These decisions, however, reinforce strict sex segregation in the workplace mandating that male workers not interact with women. The Ministry of Justice also approved granting Saudi female lawyers the right to obtain law practice licenses, and the first woman received a legal trainee license on April 8, 2013. While such reforms represent important steps forward, their efficacy is limited by the male guardianship system which denies women the overall ability to make independent choices in most employment and educational affairs.

The member states of the Human Rights Council should strongly urge the government of Saudi Arabia to

  • Promulgate by royal decree the dismantling of the legal guardianship system for adult women;
  • Establish an oversight mechanism to ensure government agencies no longer require guardian’s permission for women to work, travel, marry, study, or access any public service;
  • Instruct the all government agencies to issue clear and explicit directives to their staff prohibiting them from requesting a guardian’s presence or permission to allow a woman to access any service; and
  • Issue executive articles for the new domestic violence law that detail specific and efficient enforcement and redress mechanisms for women and children facing domestic violence.

Migrant Workers

Over 9 million migrant workers fill manual, construction, and domestic service jobs in Saudi Arabia, and constitute more than half of the workforce. Human Rights Watch has documented the multiple abuses facing some laborers, including non-payment of wages, excess working hours, and poor living conditions.

The restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties migrant workers’ employment visas to their employers, fuels exploitation and abuse. Under this system, migrant workers’ residency permits are tied to ‘sponsoring’ employees, whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or exit the country. Employers routinely confiscate workers’ passports and some exploit their position of power to withhold workers’ wages for months or years. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases where workers were unable to escape from abusive conditions or to return home after completion of their contracts because their employer denied them permission to leave the country. The Labor Ministry has proposed abolishing the kafala system but no changes have taken place to date.

Migrant domestic workers – 1.5 million of whom are employed in Saudi Arabia- and agricultural workers remain excluded from the 2005 labor law, denying them protections afforded to other workers such as a day off once a week, limits on working hours, and access to labor courts. Many domestic workers report working 15-20 hour days, seven days a week, and face other abuses including forced confinement in the workplace, food deprivation, psychological and sexual abuse. In July2013, media outlets reported that Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers had passed a new law on domestic work that would offer domestic workers certain basic protections for the first time, such as a nine-hour daily break, provisions mandating a prompt salary payment at the end of every month, as well as sick leave and a one-month paid vacation every two years. The law would also prohibit sponsors from employing workers outside the home of their sponsor or assigning work that could be harmful to a worker’s health. The law, however, falls short of international standards by preventing workers from turning down tasks assigned by their employer or leaving a job “without a genuine reason.” It is unclear how authorities intend to implement the new law.

Some migrant workers still face the death penalty, often after having limited access to legal counsel and translators during court proceedings.

While Saudi authorities and official human rights bodies are able to assist some migrant workers in seeking redress and compensation for their abuses, in other instances they ignore workers’ complaints, return workers to abusive situations, prosecute workers on the basis of counter-complaints made by employers, or negotiate unfair settlements between employers and workers. Courts also often fail to process individual cases including those involving trafficking.

The member states of the Human Rights Council should strongly urge the government of Saudi Arabia to

  • Abolish aspects of the sponsorship (kafala) system that prevent workers from changing employers without permission;
  • Abolish the “exit visa” procedures requiring migrant workers to obtain sponsor consent to leave the country;
  • Extend labor protections to agricultural workers and create a timeline for implementation of the new law on domestic work;
  • Cooperate with labor-sending countries to monitor domestic workers’ working conditions, facilitate rescues, ensure recovery of unpaid wages, and arrange for timely repatriation;
  • Create shelters for survivors of abuse and ensure their access to medical care and legal aid.
  • Investigate alleged abuses by employers and ensure accountability for those who commit crimes against their employees.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.