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Rule of Law: Country Studies - Saudi Arabia

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 7 Political Rights, 7 Civil Rights (Not Free)


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, established in 1932 by Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman ibn Faysal al-Saud (also known as Ibn Saud or Abdul Aziz), occupies the largest part of the Arabian Peninsula, which also includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and parts of Iraq and Jordan. Surrounded by the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia is the 15th-largest country in the world at 1,960,582 square kilometers (about one-fifth the size of the United States). Most notably, Saudi Arabia possesses approximately 25 percent of the world's known oil reserves and is by far the largest producer and exporter of oil (oil accounts for approximately 90 percent of exports and constitutes 75 percent of all revenues).

Saudi Arabia
As a result of its vast natural wealth, Saudi Arabia had the world's 25th-largest economy in 2006, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $310 billion. However, per capita income in Saudi Arabia ranks slightly lower: In 2006, gross national income (GNI) per capita was 56th in the world at $12,510, and GNI per capita measured by purchasing power parity (PPP) was 58th, at $16,620. In addition, Saudi Arabia is home to a substantial number of foreign workers: as of 2006, approximately six million, or about one-fourth of the 2006 population of 24 million. Saudi Arabia is also home to Islam's two most sacred cities, Medina and Mecca, and thus hosts the annual pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, which is one of the five main duties of a Muslim. Saudi Arabia thus plays a special role for the world's Muslim community, which numbered over 1.2 billion at the beginning of the 21st century.

Saudi Arabia, however, is consistently rated as one of the most unfree countries in the world by Freedom House in its annual Freedom in the World survey; other human rights organizations rate it similarly. Politically, Saudi Arabia is a strict monarchy. The king has absolute authority over all institutions and thus controls the kingdom's legislative and judicial bodies. All high-ranking government and economic positions are reserved for members of the extensive al-Saud dynasty, now numbering in the thousands, who are provided with privileges, quality educational opportunities, and a high social status.


Ancient History

The Arabian Peninsula was the home of Semitic-speaking peoples—a part of the larger Afro-Asiatic family originating in Africa—who developed a wide variety of written languages, including Akkadian, Amorite, Aramaic, Hebrew, and later Arabic. The Semitic languages are distinguished as being among the first written languages, dating from at least 3500 BC. From the Arabian Peninsula, Semitic peoples migrated to other lands (most significantly Mesopotamia and the Levant, or Asia Minor) and came to dominate southwestern Asia.

Arabia's numerous tribes took advantage of the peninsula's central location to engage in trade, especially along the coasts of Oman and Yemen. Trade routes eventually expanded north and east, assisted greatly by the camel (the only animal capable of traversing the desert), leading to the development of major trading centers like Petra, in Jordan. Three major kingdoms, Nabatean, Sabian, and Minean, developed on the peninsula, but they had largely fallen by the first century AD, when the Roman leader Emperor Trajan conquered Mesopotamia.

The Rise of Islam

The most historic and influential events of the Arabian Peninsula, however, are centered around the Prophet Muhammad (570–632 AD) and the rise of Islam.

At the time of Muhammad's birth in 570, the peninsula was divided among different Arabic and Bedouin tribes of traders and nomads. The term "Bedouin" refers to Arabic speakers living throughout the Arabian Peninsula who lead nomadic lifestyles. These groups' religious beliefs were mainly polytheistic, with devotions made for favorable days for commerce and agriculture. The center of trade was the city of Mecca, and its most prominent tribe was the Quraysh, to which Muhammad belonged. Although it is believed that Muhammad could not read or write, he was well traveled and possessed a wide knowledge of the Christian, Jewish, and Arabian communities. According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad made frequent trips to the mountains, and Muslims believe that during one such visit in 610, Muhammad was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told him that he was God's messenger. According to Islamic historiography, Muhammad continued to receive visitations and visions throughout his life. Although Muhammad doubted his visions at first, he became convinced of their validity, and he began to seek other followers who would be faithful to Allah . The sacred scriptures for Muslims are contained in the Holy Koran, which is the word of Allah revealed to Muhammad.

The Quraysh in Mecca were dependent on pilgrimages of idol worshippers and rejected Muhammad's prophetic message. They shunned him and his followers, forcing Muhammad to flee to Medina in 622, where he built an army of followers. By 629, Muhammad controlled Mecca, and by 630, the entire Arabian Peninsula, successfully uniting the tribes of Arabia around the new monotheistic religion of Islam. Soon after Muhammad's death, Islam began to spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula through trade, travel, and warfare, reaching Spain by the eighth century. The center of the Muslim world switched several times, from the Arabian Peninsula, to Damascus (currently in Syria), and then to Baghdad (currently in Iraq), where succeeding Islamic caliphates were established. At the same time, the pilgrimage by Muslims to Mecca became one of the five basic obligations that all able Muslims must fulfill at least once in their lifetime, making Mecca a sacred location for Muslims.

The Beginnings of Modern Saudi Arabia

Unlike many other Arabic-speaking countries (and non-Arabic countries, for that matter), Saudi Arabia was not colonized by a Western country. Beginning in the 18th century, the Egyptians and Ottomans vied for control of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet neither power subdued the territory fully. Arabia continued to be a trading center, with cities on the western coast more open to foreign influence and those in the east more closed.

Unlike many other Arabic-speaking countries (and non-Arabic countries, for that matter), Saudi Arabia was not colonized by a Western country.

The contemporary leaders of Saudi Arabia have roots in the region of Nadj (near Riyadh), where the al-Saud family emerged as a powerful force beginning in the 1500s. During the 18th century, the Muslim cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92) began propagating a new form of Sunni Islam. Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam, with Shia Islam the minority branch, which split from Sunni Islam over its rejection of the legitimacy of the early caliphs. Al-Wahhab set out to restore a "unitary" and pure belief that advocated a severe interpretation of Islam based on its earliest tenets. Al-Wahhab's followers consider themselves "al-Muwahhidun," or "Unitarians," and the term "Wahhabi" is used by non-Muslims.

Lacking followers, al-Wahhab turned to the most powerful man in the Nadj region, Muhammad al-Saud, the patriarch of the al-Saud family, who had become wealthy through agricultural production. Al-Saud sought a mission around which to unify the peninsula, and al-Wahhab needed a backer to help propagate his campaign for religious purification. The two men formed a partnership in 1744 through a traditional Muslim oath that pledged to create a centralized state according to Islamic principles. This oath remains one of the kingdom's core principles. By the time of Muhammad al-Saud's death in 1765, he had secured control over Nadj, establishing Wahhabism as the dominant faith. Thereafter, al-Saud's sons continued to expand the reach of Wahhabism through a series of attacks on Shiite cities in Iraq, such as Karbala, in 1802 as well as other cities on the Arabian Peninsula, including Mecca and Medina in 1803.

The Foundations of the Kingdom

The Egyptians briefly gained control over the Najd region in 1818, although the al-Saud family regained control in 1824 under Turki ibn Abd Allah, and thwarted attempts by both the British and the Ottomans to secure the area. However, fighting within the al-Saud family led to the rise of a rival family, the al-Rashid family, causing members of the al-Saud clan to move to Kuwait. In 1902, however, Abdul Aziz (Ibn Saud), of the al-Sauds, managed to reassert his family's control over Najd. In 1902, Abdul Aziz secured Riyadh and built an army through alliances with local leaders and with the support of a group of Bedouins who were followers of Wahhabism (the Ikhwahn). Balancing the less devout local leaders with the more devout Ikhwahn, Abdul Aziz eventually retook the other parts of the peninsula, with the exception of the coastal cities where the British set up separate ruling dynasties and kingdoms. In 1932, the various regions became united as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

But building a state on the basis of these conflicting and competing groups proved difficult. King Abdul Aziz had to battle frequently against opponents of modern innovation. For example, he established a radio station only by convincing the elders and imams that the Koran could be broadcast on it. At one point, King Abdul Aziz had to confront the Ikhwahn when they contested Aziz's compromises with the British; the king's agreement thwarted the Ikhwahn's aims for greater influence.

Yet, according to the original oath of al-Saud and al-Wahhab, the Saudi state and Wahhabism were intertwined. The king remained the protector of Islam's holiest sites. The al-Saud dynasty's main responsibilities were political, however. Al-Wahhab's followers and family members took charge of all official religious institutions, which included schools and courts. Even today, these institutions are controlled by the Wahhabi religious authorities. Although practicing other non-Muslim faiths is officially permitted in private, the government does not always allow this in practice; practicing other forms of Islam is not only discouraged but actively discriminated against. Although members of the minority Shia community are more accepted in the economy, they continue to face discrimination.

Saudi Arabia and the Discovery of Oil

Oil deposits were discovered in the early 1930s. In 1932, the Standard Oil Company of California (Socal), later called Chevron, won the rights over British companies to explore the reserves. From that point forward, American and Saudi oil interests tied the two countries together. Profits from oil also changed the nature of the kingdom and the royal dynasty, creating a large al-Saud family elite (Ibn Saud had over 30 sons). Today, hundreds of members of the royal family hold the government's most important positions and own or control most of Saudi Arabia's economic assets. Even more family members benefit from monthly stipends, educational scholarships abroad, and other privileges that distance themselves from the rest of society. The total wealth of the Saudi royal family is estimated to be worth billions.

While King Abdul Aziz was known to be modest in his behavior and retained the loyalty of his clan base, his son Saud, who succeeded him, led an extravagant lifestyle and mismanaged state revenues, leading to heightened social tensions between the kingdom's rich and poor. Saud's irresponsible behavior caused the royal family to issue a decree in 1964 naming Saud's half-brother Faisal as king, which was supported by the kingdom's ulama (Islamic religious leaders).

Faisal's rule reflected more closely the modest behavior of his father, and he sought to modernize the economy and improve the kingdom's educational system (for instance, approximately 10 percent of the budget was devoted to education in the mid- to late 1960s). Oil revenues increased during the 1973 war between Israel and two of its neighbors (Egypt and Syria), when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries raised prices and imposed an oil embargo on countries supporting Israel. In 1975, Faisal was assassinated by a disgruntled nephew. However, Faisal's actions and those of his successors, Khalid (1975–82), Fahd (1982–2005), and Abdullah, the current king (2005–), have failed to address endemic economic, social, and political problems. For the past several decades, the government has continuously sought to diversify its economic base by expanding the agricultural, banking, and construction sectors, although the vast majority of the kingdom's revenues still come from oil (around 75 percent as of 2006). Furthermore, Saudi Arabia still depends on foreign workers to fill both skilled and unskilled positions. As of 2004, unemployment in Saudi Arabia for Saudi males was estimated to range from 13 percent (the official figure) to as high as 25 percent (the unofficial figure). These endemic economic problems coexist with ongoing rifts among various groups in society, namely among modernists, the ulama, and traditional clan leaders. An additional rift has emerged within the ulama, between those who remain loyal to the Saudi state and those who support a more radicalized version of Islam and believe in the mission of jihad, the belief that Muslims must struggle against nonbelievers and spread Islam. It is this latter group that is associated with Osama bin Laden and his group, al-Qaeda, whose members perpetrated the attacks of September 11, 2001 (to note, 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia).

According to the long-standing oath between the al-Saud and al-Wahhab patriarchs in the 18th century, the Saudi state must adhere to Islamic principles.

Rule of Law

Saudi Arabia's practices diverge from the concept of the rule of law described in the "Rule of Law" Essential Principles (see Essential Principles). According to the long-standing oath between the al-Saud and al-Wahhab patriarchs in the 18th century, the Saudi state must adhere to Islamic principles. The state's law thus follows the strict principles of Wahhabi Islam, the conservative Sunni sect. According to Article 7 of the Basic Law (the kingdom's constitution that was adopted in 1992), the government's power is derived from the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (sunna). The kingdom is governed by Islamic or Sharia law which follows the Koran and sunna. Although the Basic Law calls for judicial independence, which the government has tended to respect in some cases, members of the royal family have not been required to appear in courts. Furthermore, the members of the kingdom's high court, the Supreme Judicial Council, are appointed by the king, and the council is responsible for appointing and removing other judges in the court system.

Elements of the Law

Aside from prohibitions against common criminal activities, Saudi law prohibits the sale of alcohol, most forms of public entertainment (such as cinemas), and anything with sexual content. There have been minor openings in the area of media freedom due to the impact of regional media outlets (leading Freedom House to improve Saudi Arabia's civil liberties rating from 7 to 6 in its Freedom in the World 2006 survey). Nevertheless, the government continues to exert strong control over the country's media outlets, and journalists face punishment and harassment for publishing articles or opinions deemed critical of the government or insulting to Islam.

Women face significant discrimination in Saudi Arabia. Under Saudi law, women are denied the right of self-guardianship, meaning that they must be represented in court by men, and in cases of divorce, they may easily lose rights to their home, children, and finances. In general, women are prevented from doing many things common in other societies. Women are not permitted to mix with men in public places, such as mosques, shopping malls, eateries, hospitals, and schools, to drive, or to travel outside of the country without a male chaperone. Today, women are present in the workforce, mainly in health care and education, although they must use male representatives to do business with males. Women cannot vote. Furthermore, under Sharia law, one man's testimony is equal to that of two women.

In general, women are prevented from doing many things common in other societies.
Enforcement of the Law

In Saudi Arabia, Sharia law is enforced by the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, informally known as the religious police, which is a semi-autonomous police force connected to the religious establishment. The government also maintains other police forces for border security and for the protection of the king, the largest force. The religious police are accused of acting arbitrarily and harshly, such as punishing women for being raped. Often, women are wrongly targeted, but only in a few cases have women successfully sought justice against the rapists (see Resources, especially the article in the Washington Post, December 23, 2006).

Administration of the Law

The Ministry of Justice, which was established by King Faisal in 1970, oversees the system of several hundred Sharia courts, which are presided over by judges appointed or approved by the king. The justice minister is selected by the king from among the kingdom's leading religious authorities. Since 1983, the minister of justice has also served as the head of the Supreme Judicial Council. Overall, the kingdom's ulama includes several thousand judges (qadi), scholars, lawyers, imams, and other religious officials. The close relationship between the government and the religious community is maintained through regular meetings with the Council of Senior Ulama, comprising the kingdom's most respected and senior religious leaders.

Most Sharia courts have one judge who may be chosen to serve this role only after years of study of the Koran and sunna. Most cases are heard in closed sessions, despite the requirement for open proceedings, as outlined in the kingdom's most recent criminal code implemented in 2002. Although a few courts of appeal do exist, the king still possesses the final decision on most key matters, and his approval is necessary for all death sentences and amputations. Usually, cases are decided swiftly without due process, although the new criminal code requires those accused to have defense lawyers. Only the bravest of lawyers, however, challenge decisions of the qadis; usually appeals to the king are based on mercy, not on justice or innocence.

Punishment is severe and corporal punishment is common. Judges routinely sentence those found guilty to lashings. Amputations of hands or arms for theft are common. The death penalty is routinely applied, frequently by beheading.


The symbiotic relationship between the monarchy and the ulama is unique in the Middle East, and arguably, only in Iran do religious authorities play an even greater role in state affairs (see Country Study of Iran). Not surprisingly, the two countries vie for international influence and for the export of their respective brands of Islam. What is clear is that any reform of Saudi Arabia's legal system and the introduction of the rule of law will require fundamental reforms to its Basic Law.