CLBR Backgrounder – Saudi Arabia


In connection with CLBR #299 on the plight of Saudi blogger Raid Badawi, we are providing some background on Saudi Arabia and its human rights record.

Saudi Arabia 101

Saudi Arabia is:

  • The birthplace of Islam and home to Islam’s two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina
  • The second-largest state in the Arab world after Algeria.
  • The world’s largest oil producer and exporter, controlling the world’s second-largest oil reserves and the sixth largest gas reserve.
  • The largest buyer of U.S. weapons.

From: Saudi Arabia, CRS In Focus, February 2, 2018

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled by the Al Saud family since its founding in 1932, wields significant global influence through its administration of the birthplace of the Islamic faith and by virtue of its large oil reserves. King Salman bin Abd al Aziz Al Saud (age 82) assumed the throne in 2015 [and his] son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (age 32), is now the central figure in Saudi policymaking.

. . . The centerpiece of Saudi leaders’ domestic agenda is the Vision 2030 initiative, which seeks to transform the kingdom’s economy by diversifying the government’s sources of revenue and reducing longstanding oil export dependence by promoting investment and private sector growth.   [T]he Vision 2030 initiative is being accompanied by significant changes in the state’s approach to some sensitive social matters. King Salman has directed authorities to prepare to reverse the kingdom’s longstanding ban on women driving by June 2018, in part to expand women’s participation in the workforce.  Parallel changes also have created more public space for women in social and cultural events.

Saudi Wahhabism

In the 1950s, Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi version of Islam, a product of nomadic desert culture, was practiced by a tiny minority of Muslims — perhaps 1 to 2 percent. Then came the oil boom, and Saudi Arabia — flush with cash — spread these ideas throughout the Muslim world.

This globalized Wahhabism has destroyed much of the diversity within Islam, snuffing out liberal and pluralistic interpretations of the religion in favor of an arid, intolerant one. . . . In the years after 9/11, after much defensiveness and many denials, the Saudis began to reverse course, shutting down government funding for Islamic extremist movements. . . .  Today Saudi intelligence is a major ally in fighting al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other groups.

Yet Saudi funding of Islamic extremism has not ended, and its pernicious effects can be seen from Pakistan to Indonesia. These funds come from individuals, not the government. Still, it is hard to imagine that the Saudi monarchy cannot turn off the pipeline of money to extremists abroad and at home.

Exhibit A may be Saudi Arabia itself, which produced not only Osama bin Laden, but also 15 of the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001; sent more suicide bombers than any other country to Iraq after the 2003 invasion; and has supplied more foreign fighters to the Islamic State, 2,500, than any country other than Tunisia.

. . . [State Department study of Saudi textbooks found that] [s]eventh graders were being taught that “fighting the infidels to elevate the words of Allah” was among the deeds Allah loved the most, the report found, among dozens of passages it found troubling. . . . Fourth graders read that non-Muslims had been “shown the truth but abandoned it, like the Jews,” or had replaced truth with “ignorance and delusion, like the Christians.”

Fundamentalism is surging in Indonesia. This did not happen naturally. . . . Saudi Arabia has been working for decades to pull Indonesia away from moderate Islam and toward the austere Wahhabi form that is state religion in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis’ campaign has been patient, multi-faceted, and lavishly financed. It mirrors others they have waged in Muslim countries across Asia and Africa.

Saudi Arabia and Human Rights

The most important human rights problems reported included citizens’ lack of the ability and legal means to choose their government; restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and pervasive gender discrimination and lack of equal rights that affected all aspects of women’s lives.

Other human rights problems reported included: a lack of equal rights for children and noncitizen workers; abuses of detainees; overcrowding in prisons and detention centers; a lack of judicial independence and transparency that manifested itself in denial of due process and arbitrary arrest and detention; investigating, detaining, prosecuting, and sentencing lawyers, human rights activists, and antigovernment reformists; holding political prisoners; and arbitrary interference with privacy, home, and correspondence. Violence against women; trafficking in persons; and discrimination based on gender, religion, sect, race, and ethnicity, as well as a lack of equal rights for children and noncitizen workers were common.  Lack of governmental transparency and access made it difficult to assess the magnitude of many reported human rights problems.

Saudi Arabia also conducts about 2 executions per week, mainly for murder and drug smuggling, although there are people who have been executed for deserting Islam and crimes against the Faisal bin MusaidThe method of execution is normally beheading in public. For example, Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 when he was 17 years old for taking part in an anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia during the Arab SpringIn May 2014, Ali al-Nimr was sentenced to be publicly beheaded and crucified.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen Civil War

As the leader of the nine-nation coalition that began military operations against Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen on March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law. As of November, at least 5,295 civilians had been killed and 8,873 wounded, according to the UN human rights office, although the actual civilian casualty count is likely much higher.  In 2017, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that airstrikes remained the single largest cause of civilian casualties.

Since March 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented 87 apparently unlawful attacks by the coalition, some of which may amount to war crimes, killing nearly 1,000 civilians and hitting homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar

  • Human Rights Watch has criticized the Saudi led embargo of Qatar as a “severe violation of human rights principles,” that has “resulted in separating families, interrupting medical, interrupting education, and stranding migrant workers without food or water.”

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