(Beirut) – King Abdullah’s reign brought about marginal advances for women but failed to secure the fundamental rights of Saudi citizens to free expression, association, and assembly. Abdullah’s successor, King Salman, should halt persecution of peaceful dissidents and religious minorities, end pervasive discrimination against women, and ensure greater protections for migrant workers.
Over King Abdullah’s nine-and-a-half year rule, reform manifested itself chiefly in greater tolerance for a marginally expanded public role for women, but royal initiatives were largely symbolic and produced extremely modest concrete gains. The spread of internet and social media empowered Saudi citizens to speak openly about controversial social and political issues, creating a broader social awareness of Saudi Arabia’s human rights shortcomings, but after 2011, Saudi authorities sought to halt online criticism through intimidation, arrests, prosecutions, and lengthy prison sentences.
“King Abdullah came to power promising reforms, but his agenda fell far short of achieving lasting institutional gains on basic rights for Saudi citizens,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “King Salman, the new ruler, should move the country forward by ending intolerance for free expression, rooting out gender and sectarian discrimination, and fostering a fair and impartial judicial system.”
Early in his reign, King Abdullah promoted modernization of Saudi Arabia's state apparatus, making it more efficient and transparent; encouraged a modest public re-evaluation of the enforced subservient status of women and religious minorities; allowed greater debate in the media; and promoted some degree of judicial fairness. After 2011, the authorities subordinated the king’s reform agenda to a campaign to silence peaceful dissidents and activists who called for religious tolerance and greater respect for human rights.
King Salman should take steps to prohibit discrimination against women and religious minorities and institute protections for free speech. A significant first step would be to repeal vague legislation used to prosecute Saudis for peaceful speech and create a written penal code that includes comprehensive human rights protections. He should also order the immediate release of Saudi citizens jailed solely for calling for political reform.
The most concrete gains for women under King Abdullah included opening up new employment sectors for women. In February 2013, King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, a consultative body that produces recommendations for the cabinet.
Systematic discrimination against women persists, however. Authorities have not ended the discriminatory male guardianship system. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son. Employers can still require male guardians to approve the hiring of adult female relatives and some hospitals to require male guardian approval for certain medical procedures for women. Women remain forbidden from driving in Saudi Arabia, and authorities have arrested women who dared challenge the driving ban.
“It is not enough for women to sit on the Shura Council if they can’t even drive themselves to work,” Stork said.
The government continues to control the appointment of newspaper editors and punish Saudis who criticize members of the royal family, government policies, or senior clerics. Under King Abdullah, Saudi authorities prosecuted human rights, civil society, and pro-reform activists for nothing more than exercising their right to freedom of expression. After 2011, Saudi courts began imposing prison sentences of over 10 years for speech-related crimes.
The government began to overhaul the justice system in 2007, but the country still lacks a written penal code, allowing judges wide discretion in certain cases to decide what behavior constitutes criminal offenses. Judges continue to jail and sentence people for “sorcery” and “sowing discord.”
Some written laws promulgated during King Abdullah’s reign curtailed basic rights, including vague provisions of the 2007 anti-cybercrime law, which prosecutors and judges used to charge and try Saudi citizens for peaceful tweets and social media comments. In 2014, Saudi authorities issued new counterterrorism regulations containing broad provisions that allow authorities to criminalize free expression and grant excessive police powers that are not subject to judicial oversight.
Saudi officials failed to pass an associations law under King Abdullah, leaving Saudi citizens with no legal avenue to set up non-charity nongovernmental organizations, and authorities prosecuted independent activists who set up unlicensed human rights organizations.
There have been no institutional gains in religious tolerance. In 2003, King Abdullah began a national dialogue series to bring Saudis together to discuss sensitive issues, including religious extremism and tolerance. In 2008, the Muslim World League, with the king's encouragement, began an interfaith dialogue initiative in Mecca and took it to Spain, the UN, and Switzerland. Neither of these efforts led to any improvement in the rights of religious minorities inside the kingdom, which does not allow public practice of any religion other than Islam.
Saudi Shia citizens continue to face systematic discrimination in public education, government employment, and in being allowed to build houses of worship. Shia citizens protested for an end to systematic discrimination in 2011 and 2012, but authorities used force to halt these demonstrations and arrested and tried many of those who participated.
“King Abdullah was a great champion of religious dialogue outside the kingdom, but these initiatives produced few benefits for Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, who continue to face systematic discrimination and are treated as second-class citizens,” Stork said.