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Saudi Arabia

Events of 2020

G20 leaders are projected at the historic site of al-Tarif in Diriyah district, on the outskirts of the capital Riyadh, ahead of the G20 virtual summit on November 20, 2020.

© 2020 Reuters/Nael Shyoukhi

Saudi Arabia held the presidency of the G20 in 2020 despite the country’s longstanding human rights abuses, but the Covid-19 pandemic forced authorities to turn G20 events, including the leaders’ summit, into virtual forums.

Authorities failed to hold high level officials accountable for suspected involvement in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Instead, a Saudi court sentenced eight lower level operatives found responsible for the murder to prison terms of 7-20 years in a trial that lacked transparency. The court originally sentenced five of the eight men to death in December 2019, but the penalties were later reduced.

In August, former Saudi intelligence official Saad al-Jabri filed a lawsuit against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a United States court alleging that the crown prince sent a hit squad to murder him in Canada in 2018. Saudi authorities detained two of al-Jabri’s adult children in March and held them incommunicado in an apparent effort to coerce al-Jabri to return to Saudi Arabia.

Through 2020, the Saudi-led coalition continued a military campaign against the Houthi rebel group in Yemen that has included scores of unlawful airstrikes that have killed and wounded thousands of civilians.

Freedom of Expression, Association, and Belief

Saudi authorities in 2020 continued to repress dissidents, human rights activists, and independent clerics. Prominent women’s rights activists detained in 2018 remained in detention while on trial for their women’s rights advocacy, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz, and Nassima al-Sadah.

Capital trials continued against detainees on charges that related to nothing more than peaceful activism and dissent. By November, those on trial facing the death penalty included prominent cleric Salman al-Awda, whose charges were connected to his alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and public support for imprisoned dissidents, as well as Hassan Farhan al-Maliki on vague charges relating to the expression of his peaceful religious ideas.

Authorities detained prominent royal family members in 2020, including former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and former Saudi Red Crescent head Faisal bin Abdullah, and held them incommunicado. Their legal status remained unclear at the time of writing.

In March, Saudi Arabia opened a mass trial of 68 Jordanians and Palestinians detained beginning in 2018 on vague allegations of links with a “terrorist organization.” Family members of defendants described a range of abuses by Saudi authorities following the arrests, including enforced disappearances, long-term solitary confinement, and torture.

Over a dozen prominent activists convicted on charges arising from their peaceful activities were serving long prison sentences. Prominent activist Waleed Abu al-Khair continued to serve a 15-year sentence that the Specialized Criminal Court imposed on him after convicting him in 2014 on charges stemming solely from his peaceful criticism in media interviews and on social media of human rights abuses.

With few exceptions, Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam and systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in public education, the justice system, religious freedom, and employment.

Saudi Arabia has no written laws concerning sexual orientation or gender identity, but judges use principles of uncodified Islamic law to sanction people suspected of committing sexual relations outside marriage, including adultery, extramarital, and homosexual sex. If individuals are engaging in such relationships online, judges and prosecutors utilize vague provisions of the country’s anti-cybercrime law that criminalize online activity impinging on “public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.”

In July, a Saudi court sentenced a Yemeni blogger to 10 months in prison, a fine of 10,000 Saudi Riyals ($2,700), and deportation to Yemen for posting a video on social media calling for equal rights, including for gay people. He had fled Yemen in June 2019 after Yemeni armed groups threatened to kill him and has since been living in Saudi Arabia as an undocumented migrant.

Yemen Airstrikes and Blockade

As the leader of the coalition that began military operations against Houthi forces in Yemen on March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law. As of June, at least 7,825 civilians had been killed in the conflict, including 2,138 children, and 12,416 wounded since 2015, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), although the actual civilian casualty count is likely much higher. Most of these casualties were a result of coalition airstrikes. The Armed Conflict and Event Data Project estimates that 112,000 people have died from the hostilities, including 12,000 civilians. 

Since March 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous unlawful attacks by the coalition that have hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes. Saudi commanders face possible criminal liability for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility. Human Rights Watch reported in March that Saudi military forces and Saudi-backed Yemeni forces carried out serious abuses against Yemenis since mid-2019 in al-Mahrah, Yemen’s far eastern governorate, including arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and illegal transfer of detainees to Saudi Arabia.

In September, the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen stated that it had “reasonable grounds” to believe that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Government of Yemen were responsible for human rights violations in Yemen, and recommended that the UN Security Council refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court.

The conflict exacerbated an existing humanitarian crisis. The Saudi-led coalition has imposed an aerial and naval blockade since March 2015 and restricted the flow of life-saving goods and the ability for Yemenis to travel into and out of the country to varying degrees throughout the war. (See also Yemen chapter).

Criminal Justice

Saudi Arabia applies Sharia (Islamic law) as its national law. There is no formal penal code, but the government has passed some laws and regulations that subject certain broadly defined offenses to criminal penalties. In the absence of a written penal code or narrowly worded regulations, however, judges and prosecutors can convict people on a wide range of offenses under broad, catch-all charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.” Detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest.

Judges routinely sentence defendants to floggings of hundreds of lashes. Children can be tried for capital crimes and sentenced as adults if they show physical signs of puberty. In 2020, judges based some capital convictions primarily on confessions that the defendants retracted in court and said had been coerced under torture, allegations the courts did not investigate.

In April, Saudi authorities announced criminal justice changes ending flogging as a punishment for some crimes and re-stating a 2018 legal change halting the death penalty for alleged child offenders for certain crimes. In August, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced the judiciary would review three death sentences in accordance with the legal reforms. Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zaher were sentenced to death for allegedly committing crimes when they were children.

Saudi Arabia dramatically reduced use of capital punishment in 2020. According to Interior Ministry statements, Saudi Arabia executed only 15 persons between January and November, down from 184 executions in 2019. Of the 15 executions, nine were for murder, five for non-violent drug crimes, and one for terrorism. Executions are carried out by firing squad or beheading, sometimes in public.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

Despite major women’s right reforms in recent years, including an end to travel restrictions (for example, women over 21, like men, can now obtain passports and travel abroad without a guardian’s permission), Saudi women still must obtain a male guardian’s approval to get married, leave prison, or obtain certain healthcare. Women also continue to face discrimination in relation to marriage, family, divorce, and decisions relating to children, including child custody. Men can still file cases against daughters, wives, or female relatives under their guardianship for “disobedience,” which can lead to forcible return to their male guardian’s home or imprisonment. Women’s rights activists remain in jail or on trial for their peaceful advocacy.

In April, Saudi women took to Twitter, using pseudonyms, to share their experiences of sexual harassment, the reasons behind their hesitance to report these abuses to the authorities, and demands for the abolition of the discriminatory male guardianship system. 

Migrant Workers

Millions of migrant workers fill mostly manual, clerical, and service jobs in Saudi Arabia. Government efforts attempts to increase citizen employment by nationalizing the workforce, imposing a monthly tax on foreign workers’ dependents in mid-2017, increasing exclusions of migrants from certain employment sectors, and the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in which vast numbers of migrant workers were dismissed from jobs, led to an exodus of migrant workers from Saudi Arabia.

Jadwa Investment, a Riyadh closed joint stock company headed by a son of King Salman, estimated in July that 1.2 million migrant workers would leave Saudi Arabia in 2020. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) annual statistics for 2019 reflected that 47,000 foreigners worked in the public sector and 6.5 million in the private sector, down from 70,000 and 8.4 million in 2015.

Migrant workers continued to report abuse and exploitation, sometimes amounting to forced labor. The kafala (visa sponsorship) system ties migrant workers’ residency permits to “sponsoring” employers, whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or leave the country. Some employers confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will. Saudi Arabia also imposes an exit visa requirement, forcing migrant workers to obtain permission from their employer to leave the country. Workers who leave their employer without their consent can be charged with “absconding” and face imprisonment and deportation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed and amplified the ways in which migrant workers’ rights are violated. In March and April, Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations called on governments to take several steps to adequately protect migrant workers from the spread of the virus, including in immigration detention and labor accommodations. Many migrant workers faced dismissals and unpaid wages, and were unable to return home due to expensive tickets and travel restrictions.

In November 2017, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign to detain foreigners found to be in violation of existing labor, residency, or border security laws, including those without valid residency or work permits, or those found working for an employer other than their legal sponsor. By December 2019, authorities announced that the campaign had totaled over 4.4 million arrests, including for over 3.4 million residency law violations and over 675,000 labor law violations. Authorities did not publish updates in 2020.

In April, Saudi border guards fired on Ethiopian migrants who were forced into the Saudi-Yemen border area by Houthi forces, killing dozens, while hundreds of survivors escaped to a mountainous border area. Saudi officials allowed hundreds, if not thousands, to enter the country, but then arbitrarily detained them in unsanitary and abusive facilities without the ability to legally challenge their detention or eventual deportation to Ethiopia. Following media reports highlighting the poor and unhygienic conditions, Saudi Arabia said it would investigate these detention centers.

Saudi Arabia is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have an asylum system under which people fearing persecution in their home country can seek protection, leading to a real risk of deporting them to harm.

Migrant domestic workers, predominantly women, faced a range of abuses exacerbated by Covid-19 lockdown restrictions including overwork, forced confinement, non-payment of wages, food deprivation, and psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, for which there was little redress. Domestic workers found it difficult to access help, particularly from their own embassies, due to difficulties in providing shelter during Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

Key International Actors

As a party to the armed conflict in Yemen, the US provided logistical and intelligence support to Saudi-led coalition forces. A US State Department Inspector General report issued in August found that “the department did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties and legal concerns associated with the transfer” of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, raising concerns about potential US liability for war crimes.

In July, the United Kingdom imposed human rights sanctions on Saudi officials, including the deputy intelligence chief, in connection with Jamal Khashoggi’s killing. The following day the UK announced it would resume approving arms sales to Saudi Arabia after authorities claimed they developed a “revised methodology” to support the conclusion that previous coalition violations in Yemen were “isolated” incidents despite repeated attacks that hit civilians or civilian infrastructure. A landmark court ruling in 2019 forced the UK government to pause sales until it could show that it had properly evaluated the risk that weapons sold to Saudi Arabia could be used in laws of war violations.

In March, the European Union raised concerns on Saudi Arabia at the UN Human Rights Council, including over the detention of human rights defenders, the death penalty, and the Khashoggi case. In October, the European Parliament adopted a resolution strongly condemning Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Ethiopian migrants and the country’s overall human rights record.

At the UN Human Rights Council in September, Denmark deliveredjoint statement on Saudi human rights abuses on behalf of 33 countries, calling on Saudi Arabia to all political dissidents and women’s rights activists, provide accountability for past abuses, and end persistent discrimination against women.

In June, the UN secretary-general removed the Saudi-led coalition from his latest “list of shame” of parties responsible for grave violations against children during conflict, even though his report concluded that the coalition was responsible for 222 child casualties and 4 attacks on schools and hospitals in Yemen in 2019. 

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the country’s sovereign wealth funded headed by Mohammed bin Salman, attempted to acquire the Newcastle United F.C. Premier League club in 2020, but the bid was eventually withdrawn following protests.