Saudi Arabia

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Part 1: Political and Human Rights Conditions

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, ruled by the Al-Saud family, with a Shari'a-based legal system. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud assumed the throne in 2005. Significant human rights problems remained, although there were improvements in some areas. There were reports of judicially sanctioned corporal punishment, beatings, and impunity. Judicial authorities sometimes denied public trials and failed to grant due process. Political prisoners and others were detained incommunicado. The government restricted freedoms of speech, assembly, and association and severely restricted religious freedom. Violence against women and foreign workers was a problem, as was discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, and ethnicity. Women faced restrictions on freedom of movement, although the government provided noncitizen women greater freedom to travel. With the exception of some members of local councils, there were no elected officials. Opportunities for citizen participation in government through electoral processes were extremely limited, although there were forums for direct consultation between government officials and the public. In February 2009 the king reshuffled his cabinet to advance a judicial reform agenda and appointed the first female deputy minister and a new head of the religious police. The king also undertook an initiative to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue through a series of conferences, including one at the UN. Authorities did not confiscate personal religious materials at points of entry, and the government improved public access to information on official corruption.

Part 2: U.S. Government Democracy Objectives

The United States works with the government and civil society leaders to encourage reforms that counter extremism and facilitate the development of a stable, responsive, transparent, and accountable state that embodies international human rights standards and welcomes civic participation in the political process. The United States continues to engage actively with the government to encourage wider public involvement in decision-making processes, support open political and civil society institutions, increase government accountability, strengthen religious freedom, and ensure rights for ethnic and religious minorities, women, and foreign workers.

Part 3: Supporting Top Priorities and Other Aspects of Human Rights and Democratic Governance

The United States urges the government consistently to promote political participation, transparency, and official accountability. U.S. officials meet regularly with and encourage the work of the Human Rights Commission and the National Society for Human Rights, as well as with civic organizations and reform-minded contacts to discuss internal political reform, including such topics as the increasing importance of the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) and municipal councils or the rights of women and minority groups. The United States works with human rights activists and organizations to encourage the government to reexamine the cases of individuals who appear to be victims of serious human rights violations.

The U.S. Government continues to utilize exchange programs to promote democratic values. Through the International Visitor Leadership Program, the United States sponsors government officials and civil society members to participate in seminars on topics such as the rule of law in judicial reform, religious and public education in the United States, U.S. elections, NGO administration, participatory democracy, civil liberties, youth leadership, and volunteerism. The United States provides exchanges and training to promote progress toward an independent judiciary, community involvement in government decision-making, investigative journalism, grassroots democracy, and women's health. The United States continues to encourage civil society development through U.S. speaker programs co-hosted by local civil society organizations. In March 2008 the United States initiated a media exchange program with radio and television talk show hosts to sharpen professional skills, encourage moderation, promote democratic values, and counter extremist ideas. In October 2008, to complement the government's judicial reform efforts, the United States organized a two-week program on court administration, specialized courts, and courtroom technology for a visiting Saudi judicial delegation. The United States also promoted political participation by sponsoring election-training programs for women. To help strengthen institutional capacity, the United States funds programs that provide training and technical assistance for members of the Consultative Council and the 178 municipal councils.

The United States advocates consistently for religious freedom in the country. In January 2009 the United States re-designated Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern for severe violations of religious freedom. U.S. officials raise regularly the issue of religious freedom with senior government officials and encourage them to protect private religious worship by non-Muslims, eliminate discrimination against religious minorities, and promote tolerance towards non-Muslims and those Muslims who do not adhere to the country's strict interpretation of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam. The United States supports the king's interfaith and intercultural initiative to promote religious dialogue and tolerance. The United States continues to encourage the government's efforts to revise and update its school textbooks and remove intolerant passages advocating violence, disparaging or promoting hatred toward other religions, or encouraging hostility toward other Islamic sects. Several exchange programs and U.S. speaker programs have promoted religious tolerance.

The United States encourages the government to raise public awareness of abuse of foreign workers, particularly household workers, and to extend labor protections to these workers. The United States advocates for long-term improvements in the status and legal rights of foreign laborers under Saudi labor law. In coordination with source-country governments, the United States works to promote improved legal protections for foreign workers, prevent forced labor and trafficking in persons, protect trafficking victims, and investigate and prosecute traffickers. In 2008 the United States participated in a government-hosted antitrafficking seminar. U.S. education and training objectives for the country's military include increasing awareness of international norms of human rights and fostering greater respect for the principles of civilian control of the military and the rule of law.