Saudi authorities in 2021 carried out arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents. Dozens of human rights defenders and activists continued to serve long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or advocating political and rights reforms.
Saudi Arabia announced important and necessary reforms in 2020 and 2021, but ongoing repression and contempt for basic rights are major barriers to progress. The near-total repression of independent civil society and critical voices impedes the chances that reform efforts will succeed.
Freedom of Expression, Association, and Belief
Saudi authorities in 2021 routinely repressed dissidents, human rights activists, and independent clerics. On April 5, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court sentenced an aid worker, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, 37, to 20 years in prison followed by a 20-year travel ban on charges related to his peaceful expression. On April 20, the same court sentenced a human rights activist, Mohammed al-Rabea, to six years in prison on vague and spurious charges related to his activism. Sources close to both cases say that Saudi authorities tortured them in detention and compelled them to sign false confessions. A Saudi court sentenced Sudanese journalist Ahmad Ali Abdelkader, 31, to four years in prison in June on vague charges based on tweets and media interviews he shared to Twitter in which he expressed support for Sudan’s 2018-19 revolution and criticized Saudi actions in Sudan and Yemen.
Saudi authorities released prominent women’s rights activists from prison in 2021, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, and Nassima al-Sadah. They remained banned from travel and were serving suspended sentences, allowing the authorities to return them to prison for any perceived criminal activity. In January, Human Rights Watch received text messages from persons identifying themselves as Saudi prison guards describing torture and ill-treatment they witnessed by Saudi interrogators against high-profile detainees in mid to late 2018, including Loujain al-Hathloul and Mohammed al-Rabia.
Capital trials continued against detainees on charges that related to nothing more than peaceful activism and dissent. As of September, those on trial facing the death penalty included prominent cleric Salman al-Awda, on charges alleging 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. Al-Awda and al-Maliki have been in detention since September 2017 with multiple postponements of their trials, which began in 2018.
Prominent royal family members remained detained without any apparent legal basis in 2021. They include former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and former Saudi Red Crescent head Faisal bin Abdullah, both of whom were detained in early 2020 and have been held largely incommunicado.
In late 2020, a Saudi court following an unfair trial sentenced two children of former Saudi intelligence official Saad al-Jabri to nine and six-and-a-half years in prison respectively, for “money laundering” and “attempting to escape” Saudi Arabia, apparently in order to coerce their father to return from abroad. Authorities charged the two a month after al-Jabri filed a lawsuit against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a US court alleging that the crown prince had sent a hit squad to murder him in Canada in 2018. The authorities also detained up to 40 other al-Jabri family members and associates.
Over a dozen prominent activists convicted on charges arising from their peaceful activities were serving long prison sentences. Prominent activist Waleed Abu al-Khair was serving a 15-year sentence that the Specialized Criminal Court imposed after convicting him in 2014 on charges stemming solely from his peaceful criticism of human rights abuses in media interviews and on social media.
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. A 2021 textbook review found that despite steps to purge school textbooks on religion of hateful and intolerant language, current texts maintain language that disparages practices associated with Shia and Sufi Muslims.
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 August, at least 8,773 civilians had been killed in the conflict and 9,841 wounded since 2015, according to the Yemen Data Project, although the actual civilian casualty count is likely much higher. Most of these casualties were a result of coalition airstrikes that have hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes.
In September, the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen stated that it had “reasonable grounds” to believe that parties to the conflict in Yemen were responsible for grave human rights violations and reiterated its call to the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court. Saudi Arabia campaigned vigorously to end the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts, which was not renewed at the September session of the UN Human Rights Council.
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).
Saudi Arabia applies its uncodified interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) as its national law. In the absence of a written penal code or narrowly worded regulations, judges and prosecutors can convict people on a wide range of offenses under broad 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 2021, 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. Saudi laws do not clearly prohibit the corporal punishment of children, which the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded in 2016 "remains lawful in all settings”.
Though Saudi authorities announced criminal justice reforms in 2020 that re-stated a 2018 legal change halting the death penalty for alleged child offenders for certain crimes, prosecutors can seek the death penalty against children for crimes such as murder. Abdullah al-Huweiti has been on death row since 2019 and could be executed even though he was 14 at the time of the alleged crime and his conviction followed a grossly unfair trial.
Saudi Arabia did not carry out any drug-related executions in 2021, in line with a moratorium on such executions that the Saudi Human Rights Commission said went into effect in 2020. According to Interior Ministry statements, Saudi Arabia executed 52 persons between January and September, mostly for murder, up from 24 executions total in 2020. Executions are carried out by firing squad or beheading, sometimes in public.
Women’s and Girls’ Rights
Despite recent important women’s rights reforms, including allowing women over 21 to 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 have previously resulted in arrest, and forcible return to their male guardian’s home or imprisonment.
In June 2021, the Saudi authorities amended the Legal Pleadings System, removing language that required the immediate enforcement of court decisions to send a woman to her mahram (husband or a male relative she cannot marry). This change suggests that there is no longer enforcement power for court orders to return women to a male relative as part of its judgement on disobedience cases. However, it does not prevent courts from penalizing women with losing their right to financial maintenance if they refuse to return to their marital home. As of September 2021, there was no accompanying guidance issued to the police and other law enforcement agencies, suggesting women may still face arrests and forcible return home to their families.
In June 2021, Saudi authorities also allowed women citizens and residents to apply online for the limited hajj (Muslim pilgrimage) packages without a mahram (male relative).
Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity
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 same-sex relations. 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.”
A Saudi court has used this law to sentence a Yemeni blogger and human rights activist to 10 months in prison, a fine of 10,000 Saudi Riyals (US$2,700), and deportation to Yemen after he posted a video on social media calling for equal rights, including for LGBT people. Security officers subjected him to a forced anal exam.
Millions of migrant workers fill mostly manual, clerical, and service jobs in Saudi Arabia despite government attempts to increase citizen employment. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) annual statistics for 2020 released in 2021 reflected that 49,600 foreigners worked in the public sector and 6.3 million in the private sector during that year.
Migrant workers routinely report abuse and exploitation. The abusive kafala (visa sponsorship) system gives their employers excessive power over their mobility and legal status in the country and underpins their vulnerability to a wide range of abuses, from passport confiscation to delayed wages and forced labor.
Saudi Arabia introduced labor reforms in March that, if implemented, will allow some migrant workers to change jobs without employer consent under certain narrow circumstances but do not dismantle the kafala system and exclude migrant workers not covered by the labor law, including domestic workers and farmers, who are among the most vulnerable to abuse. The reforms allow migrant workers to request an exit permit without the employer’s permission but do not abolish the exit permit. The reform notifies employers of exit permit requests and allows them to lodge an inquiry into the request within 10 days. It remains unclear what criteria the ministry intends to use to determine whether to accept workers’ exit requests and whether the employer’s inquiry could be used to deny the worker the exit permit.
In July 2021, Saudi authorities began to terminate or not renew contracts of Yemeni professionals working in Saudi Arabia, leaving them vulnerable to arrest, detention and deportation to the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen as a result of not having legal status in the country.
In November 2017, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign to detain all 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 the end of 2019 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, but in 2021 authorities began weekly updates. Between September 3 and 9, for example, the Interior Ministry announced that it had made 17,598 arrests, including 202 individuals apprehended while trying to cross the southern border from Yemen illegally.
In December 2020 Human Rights Watch reported that a deportation center in Riyadh was holding hundreds of mostly Ethiopian migrant workers in conditions so degrading that they amount to ill-treatment. Detainees alleged to Human Rights Watch that they were held in extremely overcrowded rooms for extended periods, and that guards tortured and beat them with rubber-coated metal rods, leading to at least three alleged deaths in custody between October and November 2020.
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.
Climate Change Policies and Actions
Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of crude oil and among the top fifteen emitters of greenhouse gases contributing to the climate crisis that is taking a growing toll on human rights around the world.
According to the Climate Action Tracker Saudi Arabia’s current domestic targets are “critically insufficient” to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. If all countries’ commitments were in this range, warming would reach over 4°C, risking catastrophic consequences for human rights around the world.
Saudi Arabia has shown no desire to move away from fossil fuels although in 2021 it announced it will join other major producers in forming a "Net Zero Producers Forum" in which oil and gas producers will discuss ways to achieve net zero carbon emission targets to limit global warming.
Climate change impacts, including more frequent and intense heat waves, decreased precipitation, and rising sea levels pose risks to right to health, life, water, and housing, especially of migrant workers. Saudi Arabia is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because it lacks permanent water resources relying on groundwater and energy-intensive desalination plants.
Key International Actors
As a party to the armed conflict in Yemen, the US provided logistical and intelligence support to Saudi-led coalition forces. In February, the Biden administration announced that it would end support for “offensive operations” in Yemen, but in April, Vox reported that the administration had authorized US defense contractors to continue to service Saudi warplanes. The administration also placed on hold some US arms sales and transfers to Saudi Arabia announced by the Trump administration.
The Biden administration did not hold the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable, despite a US intelligence report released in February concluding that he had likely approved the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The US did, however, create the Khoshoggi Travel Ban, a new sanctions tool that allows the US State Department to impose visa restrictions on individuals “who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities.”
In July, the European Parliament adopted a resolution deploring Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and urging tough action from EU and member states to address it, but those calls remained largely unheeded. In September, the EU and Saudi Arabia held their first ever human rights dialogue, shortly before a visit in October by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who made no public reference to Saudi Arabia’s rights abuses. Rather, the EU’s diplomatic efforts remain focused on strengthening trade and cooperation ties with the Gulf.