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Saudi Arabia

Events of 2023

Fans watch from the first tee during day one of the LIV Golf Invitational - Jeddah at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club on October 14, 2022, in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia. 

© 2022 Joe Scarnici/LIV Golf via Getty Images

Killings by Saudi Arabian forces of at least hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers at the Yemen-Saudi border may amount to crimes against humanity. Saudi Arabian authorities conducted arrests of peaceful dissidents, public intellectuals, and human rights activists and sentenced people to decades-long prison terms or death sentences for social media posts. Abusive practices in detention centers, including torture and ill-treatment, prolonged arbitrary detention, and asset confiscation without any clear legal process, remain pervasive. There has been no accountability for Saudi Arabia’s role in apparent war crimes in Yemen.

Announced legal reforms are severely undermined by widespread repression under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. 

Authorities laundered their reputation, stained by a deplorable human rights record, by funding lavish sports and entertainment institutions, figures, and events. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) have effectively enabled the Saudi government’s efforts to “sportswash” its egregious human rights record through an announced agreement on June 6, which placed the government in an unprecedented position of influence and control of an entire sport, professional golf.

Freedoms of Expression, Association, and Belief

Dozens of Saudi human rights defenders and activists continued to serve long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or advocating for political and rights reforms.

Saudi authorities increasingly target Saudi and non-Saudi social media users for peaceful expression online and punish them with decades-long and even death sentences. On July 10, 2023, the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism tribunal, convicted Muhammad al-Ghamdi, 54, a retired Saudi teacher, of several criminal offenses related solely to his peaceful expression online. The court sentenced him to death, using his tweets, retweets, and YouTube activity as the evidence against him.

Women’s rights defenders, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassimah al-Sadah, and Samar Badawi, remain banned from travel and under suspended prison sentences, allowing the authorities to return them to prison for any perceived criminal activity. Human rights activist Mohammed al-Rabea, aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, and human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair remained in prison on charges that relate to peaceful expression or activism.

Asylum Seekers, Migrants, and Migrant Workers

Saudi border guards killed at least hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who tried to cross the Yemen-Saudi border between March 2022 and June 2023. Human Rights Watch found that Saudi border guards used explosive weapons to kill migrants and shot at migrants at close range, including many women and children, in a widespread and systematic pattern of attacks. In some instances, Saudi border guards asked migrants what limb to shoot and then shot them at close range. If committed as part of a Saudi government policy to murder migrants, these killings, which appear to continue, would be a crime against humanity.

Saudi Arabia’s economy relies heavily on migrant workers. Based on its 2022 census, Saudi Arabia hosts almost 13.4 million migrants, comprising 41.6 percent of the population. Authorities continue to impose one of the most restrictive and abusive kafala (visa sponsorship) systems in the region, which remains largely unchanged despite recent reforms. The kafala system gives employers excessive power over migrant workers’ mobility and legal status in the country and underpins their vulnerability to a wide range of abuses—from passport confiscation to delayed wages—which can amount to forced labor. Migrant domestic workers also face verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

Saudi Arabia carries out regular arrests and deportations of undocumented migrant workers, including major arrest campaigns in November 2013 and August 2017. Many workers become undocumented through no fault of their own when their employers report them, sometimes falsely, for “absconding,” even when they are fleeing abuse. Migrants are denied the right to contest their detention and deportation.

Yemen Airstrikes and Conflict

The Saudi and UAE-led coalition continue their military campaign against the Houthi armed group in Yemen, which has included unlawful airstrikes that have killed and wounded thousands of civilians.

In January, the United Kingdom’s High Court of Justice heard a challenge to the UK government’s renewed arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

A 2021 study commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provided a projected estimate that the protracted conflict in Yemen has killed over 377,000 people directly or indirectly between 2015 and 2021. Key causes of death include inadequate food, health care, and infrastructure. Warring parties have targeted civilian objects, including homes, hospitals, schools, and bridges, internally displacing more than 4 million people in Yemen.

Criminal Justice System

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 having sexual relations outside of marriage, including adultery, and same-sex relations. If individuals are engaging in such relations 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.”

An Egyptian doctor is serving a 10-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia for links with the banned Muslim Brotherhood following what appears to have been an unfair trial. The court imprisoned Sabri Shalabi, 66, despite allegations that Saudi prosecutors based the charges largely on forced confessions and apparently in retaliation for a work-related dispute. A court originally handed down a 20-year prison sentence in August 2022, but it was reduced to 10 years in December 2022 on appeal.

In January, Moroccan authorities extradited Hassan Al Rabea, a Saudi citizen, to Saudi Arabia where he is at serious risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and an unfair trial. Saudi prosecutors’ arrest warrant accused him of working with “terrorists” to help him leave Saudi Arabia “irregularly.” Saudi authorities have previously targeted other members of Al Rabea’s family, including two cousins who were executed in 2019 for alleged protest-related and terrorism offenses and a brother facing a death sentence for alleged terrorism.

Death Penalty

Saudi authorities executed Hussein Abu al-Khair, a Jordanian citizen, on March 12, 2023, after his conviction for a nonviolent drug crime. The judge ignored his allegations that he had confessed only after days of torture and ill-treatment. Under international law, the death penalty should only be imposed for the “most serious crimes” and in exceptional circumstances; international law explicitly excludes drug offenses from such punishment.

In June, two Bahraini Shia men were executed in Saudi Arabia following what Amnesty International described as a “grossly unfair trial” on terrorism-related charges.

Despite statements by Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission claiming that no one in Saudi Arabia will be executed for a crime committed as a child, the provision does not apply to qisas, retributive justice offenses usually for murder, or hudud, serious crimes defined under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law that carry specific penalties.

Women’s Rights

Saudi Arabia’s first codified law on personal status, which was issued on March 8, 2022, International Women’s Day, came into effect in June 2022. Although MBS and other Saudi government officials touted the law as “comprehensive” and “progressive,” it formally enshrines male guardianship over women and includes provisions that facilitate domestic violence and sexual abuse in marriage.

Saudi women’s rights activists long campaigned for a codified Personal Status Law that would end discrimination against women. However, the authorities provided them with no opportunity to offer input, as the bill was not made public before it was adopted. In recent years, Saudi women’s rights activists have faced arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and travel bans.

The Personal Status Law requires women to obtain a male guardian’s permission to marry, codifying the country’s longstanding practice. Married women are required to obey their husbands in a “reasonable manner.” The law further states that neither spouse may abstain from sexual relations or cohabitation without the other spouse’s consent, implying a marital right to intercourse.

While a husband can unilaterally divorce his wife, a woman can only petition a court to dissolve their marriage contract on limited grounds and must “establish [the] harm” that makes the continuation of marriage “impossible” within those grounds. The law does not specify what constitutes “harm” or what evidence can be submitted to support a case, leaving judges wide discretion in the law’s interpretation and enforcement to maintain the status quo.

Fathers remain the default guardians of their children, limiting a mother’s ability to participate fully in decisions related to her child’s social and financial well-being. A mother may not act as her child’s guardian unless a court appoints her, and she will otherwise have limited authority to make decisions for her child’s well-being, even in cases where the parents do not live together and judicial authorities decide that the child should live with the mother.

Saudi Public Investment Fund and Abuses

The crown prince has consolidated economic power in Saudi Arabia, most notably via the country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), with approximately US$700 billion in assets under management.

The fund has been directly involved in human rights abuses linked to the crown prince. They include the 2017 “anti-corruption” crackdown that involved arbitrary detentions, abusive treatment, and the extortion of property from former and current government officials, prominent businessmen, and rivals within the royal family as well as the 2018 murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Some sovereign wealth funds are structurally separate and distinct from a government’s chief executive. But the crown prince wields significant control over the PIF, one of the largest such funds in the world, and exercises unilateral decision-making with little transparency or accountability over the fund’s decisions. While Saudi Arabia’s state finances have long been characterized by a lack of transparency and oversight, the restructuring and dramatic expansion of the fund has consolidated—to an unprecedented degree—vast economic power in Saudi Arabia under the crown prince alone.

Technology and Rights

In February 2023, Microsoft announced its intention to invest in a cloud data center in Saudi Arabia to offer enterprise cloud services, despite the government’s well-established record of infiltrating technology platforms and ongoing domestic repression.

Saudi Arabian authorities’ egregious record on human rights, including their infiltration of X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, to spy on dissidents and targeting of human rights activists and political dissidents with sophisticated digital surveillance technology poses problems for companies committing to protect users’ privacy rights.

Saudi Arabia’s new data protection law and executive regulations grant sweeping powers to government agencies to access personal data and constitute a severe threat to privacy rights. The entities that control data are permitted to disclose data to state agencies based on vague and overbroad “security reasons,” which are not defined in the law.

Climate Change Policy and Impacts

By its own admission, Saudi Arabia is “particularly vulnerable” to climate change as an “arid country with a harsh climate and sensitive ecosystem.” Water scarcity is common in Saudi Arabia, most land is non-arable, and average rainfall is low. Yet Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s leading producers of fossil fuels.

Key International Actors

The United States provides logistical and intelligence support to Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen and billions of dollars’ worth of weapons. Human Rights Watch previously documented the coalition’s use of US-manufactured weapons in at least 21 apparently unlawful attacks under the laws of war.

US President Joe Biden’s administration issued a legal position that “recognizes and allows the immunity of Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman as a sitting head of government of a foreign state”; therefore, he cannot be sued in US courts. No other publicly known accountability measures have been taken for the role of MBS in the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Negotiations for a trade agreement between the UK and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—a political and economic coordination body made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, QatarSaudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—continued throughout 2023. The UK has released very little information on the timeline and substance of the talks and has not publicly pledged to include detailed rights protections for countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE that have dismal rights records, including in regard to migrant workers.