Rule of Law: Country Studies — Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 7; Political Rights 7, Civil Rights 7.

Saudi Arabia


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932 by Abdul Aziz (also known as Ibn Saud). Politically, Saudi Arabia is a strict monarchy. The king has absolute authority over all institutions and thus controls the kingdom's executive, legislative, and judicial bodies. All high-ranking government and economic positions are mostly reserved for male members of the extensive al-Saud dynasty — the descendants of King Abdulaziz ibn al-Saud — who now number in the thousands. The rule of law is determined by the absolute power of the monarchy held in a partnership with a religious establishment that enforces a highly strict interpretation of Shari’a law. The result is a highly repressive system in which Saudis are routinely sentenced to harsh imprisonment, corporal punishment, and death for the exercise of basic freedoms, including challenging the rule of the monarchy. Saudi Arabia is consistently rated as one of the least free countries in the world by Freedom House in its annual Freedom in the World survey. 

Saudi Arabia occupies the largest part of the Arabian Peninsula and is surrounded on three sides by water (the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Sea). It also has access to the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal, opened in 1869. Saudi Arabia is the 15th-largest country in the world in area (about 2 million square kilometers), approximately one-fifth the size of the United States. With just 31 million people (2016 estimate), it is one of the least densely populated states. A little less than one-third of Saudi Arabia’s total population is made up of foreign workers. Saudi Arabia possesses approximately 25 percent of the world's known oil reserves. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), its economy was 19th largest in the world in 2014, at $746 billion in nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Nominal per capita income in 2015 placed Saudi Arabia 37th in the world (at $27,139 per annum).


Ancient History

The Arabian Peninsula was the home of Semitic-speaking peoples who developed among the first written languages dating from 3500 BC. From the Arabian Peninsula, Semitic peoples migrated to Mesopotamia and 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 expanded north and east. Three major kingdoms arose on the peninsula but fell in the first century AD to the Roman Emperor Trajan.


The Rise of Islam

The most consequential events of the Arabian Peninsula center on the Prophet Muhammad and the rise of Islam. At Muhammad's birth in 570 AD, the peninsula was divided among many polytheistic Arabic and Bedouin tribes of traders and nomads. The center of trade was the city of Mecca. Its most prominent tribe was the Quraysh, to which Muhammad belonged. According to Islamic historiography, on a trip to a nearby mountain in 609 AD, Muhammad was visited by the archangel Gabriel who told Muhammad that he was God's messenger. Although at first Muhammad doubted his vision, he continued to receive visitations and became convinced of their validity. He sought followers who would be faithful to the vision he had of the one true God, or Allah. The sacred scriptures for Muslims are the Holy Koran, which contain the word of Allah as related by Muhammad.

The Quraysh tribe relied on pilgrimages of idol worshippers for its trade and mainly rejected Muhammad's prophetic message. Muhammad and his early followers went to Medina in 622, where he built an army. In 629 Muhammad returned to seize Mecca and by 630 conquered the entire Arabian Peninsula to unite the tribes of Arabia around the new monotheistic religion of Islam. After his death, Islam spread through trade, travel, and warfare. By the 8th and 9th centuries AD, it reached as far West as Spain and as far north as Central Asia. It then spread further to sub-Saharan Africa, southern Russia, parts of Europe controlled by the Ottoman Empire, as well as southwest Asia and the Pacific. The center of the Muslim world switched several times, from Mecca to Damascus, and Baghdad, where succeeding caliphates, or religious rulers, were based. The last Sunni caliphate was based in the Ottoman Empire and formally ended in 1922. The minority Shiite branch of Islam split from Sunni Islam in a violent schism over the legitimacy of the early caliphs. Shiite followers, a majority in Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran and Iraq but minorities in most other countries, recognize the succession of caliphs based solely on family relationship to Mohammad. While both branches of Islam share many of the same beliefs, their practices differ in many respects. Due to its history as the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia plays a special role for the world's entire Muslim community of 1.2 billion people as home to Islam's two most sacred cities, Medina and Mecca. Its religious authorities host the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which is one of the five main duties of a Muslim, to be achieved at least once in a lifetime if possible. Each year three million visitors visit Mecca.

The Beginnings of Modern Saudi Arabia

Unlike most other Arabic-speaking countries, Saudi Arabia was never colonized by a Western country. Although the Egyptians and Ottomans vied for control of the Arabian Peninsula, neither subdued the territory fully. Arabia continued to be a center for trade, with cities on the western coast more open to foreign influence and those in the interior and on the east coast more closed. The contemporary leaders of Saudi Arabia have roots in the central region of Najd, near the current capital of Riyadh. In the 18th century, the Muslim cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92) began propagating a "unitary" interpretation of Sunni Islam based on its earliest tenets. His followers were called al-Muwahhidun or "Unitarians" (known as "Wahhabi" by non-Muslims.) Lacking followers, al-Wahhab turned to Muhammad al-Saud, the patriarch of the wealthy al-Saud family and the most powerful man in the Najd region. Al-Saud sought to again unify the peninsula politically 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 them both in the creation of a centralized state according to Islamic principles. This oath remains one of the kingdom's core principles today. By the time of Muhammad al-Saud's death in 1765, he had secured control over Najd and established Wahhabism as the dominant faith there. In the early 19th century, al-Saud's sons expanded the reach of Wahhabism to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, including Mecca and Medina, and also further north. many other Arabic-speaking countries (and non-Arabic countries, for that matter), Saudi Arabia was not colonized by a Western country.

The Founding of Saudi Arabia and the Discovery of Oil

The al-Saud family had to thwart attempts throughout the 19th century by the Egyptians, the British, and the Ottomans to conquer Arabian territory. In 1902, after a period of infighting within the al-Saud family and clashes with rival tribes, Abdul Aziz, also known as Abdulaziz and Ibn Saud, reasserted his family's control over the central Najd region, including Riyadh, by creating alliances with local leaders and a group of Bedouin known as the Ikhwahn. Abdulaziz eventually retook the other parts of the peninsula, with the exception of coastal cities where the British set up separate ruling kingdoms (the origin of other Arabian Gulf states). In 1932, all of the various regions under Aziz’s control became united as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Building a state on the basis of its many conflicting and competing groups proved difficult. King Abdulaziz had to battle frequently against opponents of modern innovation. (For example, he established a radio station only by convincing the tribal elders and imams that it was a means to broadcast the Koran.) But the peninsula’s fortunes changed as a result of the discovery of oil deposits in the early 1930s. In 1932, King Abdul granted exploration rights to the Standard Oil Company of California, later called Chevron. Profits from oil drastically changed the nature of all the kingdoms and royal dynasties that ruled on the peninsula.

The Saudi Kings and the Saud Family

King Abdulaziz ruled from 1932 to 1953. While Abdul was known for his moderate behavior, his first son and successor, Saud (1954-64), had an extravagant lifestyle and mismanaged state revenues. He was forced to abdicate by a royal family decree and replaced by the next oldest son, Faisal, who ruled from 1964 to 1975. Faisal followed more closely the modest behavior of his father and sought to modernize the economy and improve the kingdom's educational system. Oil revenues increased markedly after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised prices and imposed an oil embargo on countries supporting Israel. In 1975, Faisal was assassinated by a disgruntled nephew. Successors continued to be chosen by the line of succession designated among King Abdulaziz’s sons (the Crown Princes). The next kings were Khalid (1975–82), Fahd (1982–2005), Abdullah (2005–2015), and now Salman (2015–present). Officially, King Abdulaziz had 37 sons by 20 wives, while each of the sons has had multiple wives and children. Today, the hundreds of members of the extended royal family hold all important government posts and own or control most of Saudi Arabia's economic assets, including its oil production. Thousands of family members benefit from monthly stipends, educational scholarships abroad, and other privileges and are distanced from the rest of society. The total wealth of the Saudi royal family is estimated to be around 1.5 trillion dollars.

In foreign policy, the Saudi kingdom was an ally of the US in the Cold War, opposed to Soviet influence in the region. But in the last thirty years, the kingdom’s main focus shifted to combatting the spread of other foreign threats and influences: the Muslim Brotherhood, which originated in Egypt as an anti-monarchical movement; the Shiite theocracy of Iran, whose aggressive foreign policy has sought to challenge the dominance of Sunni-dominated states; and Syria, whose Alawite Shiite leadership counts Iran as an ally in defeating a rebellion of its majority Sunni population. Despite being a US ally, Saud Arabia participated in and funded all the Arab wars against Israel, has enforced all boycotts and backed all diplomacy directed against Israel, and remains formally in a state of war with Israel.

Domestically, the Saudi Kings continued King Faisal’s modernization and education policies, but presided over a highly repressive government and insular society. The government made some attempts to diversify its economic base by expanding the agricultural, banking, and construction sectors, but the vast majority of the kingdom's revenues continued to come from oil (despite drops in oil prices). Saudi Arabia depends on foreign workers (who make up one-third of its population) to fill both skilled and unskilled positions, while the education system built by King Faisal benefitted mostly the elite and failed to teach new generations of Saudis to meet the needs of a modern economy. Instead, education has focuses on inculcating religious values, distrust of the non-Muslim world, and virulent anti-Semitism (see, for example, Freedom House’s report on “Saudi Arabia’s Curriculum of Intolerance”).[A]ccording 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

The partnership of the al Saud family and the Wahhabi religious establishment remains a foundation of the state. All law emanates from the Koran and Sunnah (the precedents and sayings of Mohammad). Saudi Arabia, however, is not a theocracy by strict definition. The state is controlled by the secular dynastic monarchy of the al Saud family established by King Abdulaziz. Religious authorities (ulama) have no formal powers over the functioning of the state, as in Iran (see Country Study). Nevertheless, according to the original oath of al-Saud and al-Wahhab, the Saudi state must adhere to Islamic principles and the state and Wahhabi religious authorities are intertwined. The king is named as the physical protector of Islam's holiest sites, while al-Wahhab's followers and family members must be placed in charge of all official religious institutions. These include schools and most courts. Together, the monarchy and Wahhabi religious authorities combine to create a fully repressive system of governance.

The Basis of Law

Saudi Arabia's practices diverge from the Western concept of the rule of law in all respects (see Essential Principles). According to Article 7 of the Basic Law of 1992 that reaffirms earlier constitutions, the government's power is derived from the Koran and the Sunna (the guidance set by the deeds and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad). The constitution establishes Shari’a, a strict set of unitary legal interpretations by religious authorities of the Koran and Sunna, as the primary basis of law. The king appoints all members of the cabinet and government, including the Minister of Justice, who administers the Shari’a courts, and the Supreme Judicial Council, which appoints all other appeals and lower courts with the approval of the king. All decisions must be based firstly on Shari’a law and secondly on laws and decrees issued by the king, who has sole authority to approve laws proposed by the king’s cabinet. The King by custom consults with tribal leaders and by the constitution is obliged to consult with members of the cabinet and the national council, or Majlis. But all members of the cabinet and Majlis are appointed by the king and the king has final authority. Some local authority rests in municipal councils, half of whose members are appointed by the king and, since 2005, half are elected.

The king establishes laws by decree. Nearly all aspects of life are controlled by Shari’a and the laws of the kingdom. In addition to prohibitions against common criminal activities, Saudi law prohibits the sale of alcohol, most forms of public entertainment (such as cinemas), and any printed or visual material with sexual content. There is total control over the media and strict censorship. (There was a minor loosening of media controls in 2005 but these were quickly eliminated.) Journalists face severe punishment for publishing articles or opinions deemed critical of the government or insulting to Islam.

Enforcement and Administration of the Law

In Saudi Arabia, Shari’a 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, which is responsible for enforcing other domestic law).

The Minister of Justice oversees the system of Shari’a courts and appoints judges, who must be approved by the king. They are tasked with enforcing Shari’a and all decrees and laws of the king. All judges are members of the religious establishment, or ulama, which includes several thousand judges (qadi) scholars, imams and other religious officials. The most important qualification for a judge is to have graduated from Shari’a colleges. A special commission of religious experts issues guidelines for applying Shari’a law, which in the Saudi application is unitary and relies on all four schools of Sunni Islamic law. The most respected and senior religious leaders comprise the Council of Senior Ulama, having 30 to 40 members. It is formally responsible for relations between the government and the religious community. general, women are prevented from doing many things common in other societies.

Most Shari’a courts have one judge. Despite a requirement for open proceedings in the kingdom's most recent criminal code from 2002, most cases are still heard in closed sessions. Courts of appeal do exist, but the final arbiter of disputed cases is the king, not the High Court. Usually, cases are decided swiftly without due process. Although the new criminal code does require the accused to have defense lawyers, only the bravest of lawyers challenge decisions of the judges. Punishment is severe. Judges routinely sentence those found guilty to long prison terms, lashings, amputations and even death (the latter two punishments require the king’s approval). In 2015, the number of beheadings in the Kingdom reached its highest level in 20 years, according to Amnesty International, including for non-lethal offenses (mostly drug-related) — around 40 percent of the total.

Law Based on Discrimination

The public worship of all other religions is banned. Private practice of other religions, including Shiite and Sufi branches of Islam, is allowed but discouraged and Shiite and Sufi Muslims are widely discriminated against. Women are denied basic rights. Under Saudi law, women do not have self-guardianship, meaning that they must be represented in court by men and in all official settings. The religious police are accused of acting arbitrarily and harshly towards women. This includes punishing women for being raped (see, for example, the Washington Post article in Resources). In general, women are prevented from doing many things common in other societies, such as traveling abroad by themselves or even driving freely, although there are now some possibilities for both. In cases of divorce, women frequently lose rights to their home, children, and finances. Women must wear religiously approved clothing that covers their bodies and faces. Women are not permitted to mix with men in public places, such as mosques, shopping malls, eateries, hospitals, and schools. Women do now have the right to vote and stand for office in municipal council elections, but participation in the councils themselves is restricted.

Current Issues

There are ongoing rifts between traditionalists and modernists within and among the ruling family, the religious authorities (ulama), and clan and tribal leaders. Modernists are not advocates of real democracy, but do propose certain change. King Abdullah, counted as a modernist, appointed a woman to a cabinet-level position for the first time (a deputy minister of education), authorized limited elections to municipal councils in 2005 (for half of its members), the participation of women in voting in 2011, and the right of women to stand for election to the local councils in 2015. These bodies, however, remain only advisory in capacity and the king still appoints half the local councils. Even such limited political advances, however, were limited by traditionalists within the Council of Senior Ulama, which announced that elected women officials could not mix with men and had to be separated in public deliberations. In 2011, the king also criminalized criticism of the Grand Mufti, the Council of Senior Ulama, and government officials.

Unlike most countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia did not see significant uprisings or protests during the Arab Spring events of 2010–12. In fact, it sent its own security forces to help quell protests in Bahrain at that government’s request and provided assistance to other monarchies in order to limit any democratic reforms in the region. In 2013, it strongly backed the military overthrow of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood-led government. In 2014, after adoption of a new anti-terrorism law, the king banned Hezbollah, a Lebanese-based armed Shiite religious movement, and the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist organizations. The Saudi monarchy considers both, and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a religious ideology conflicting with Wahhabism, as a threat to its monarchical rule.

In response partly to the Arab Spring, but also more generally, the Saudi government has cracked down in recent years on most dissent, including human rights organizations, advocates of liberalizing the system, independent journalists and bloggers, women activists seeking greater freedoms (like the right to drive), and representatives of the Shia and Sufi minority. Some examples:

      • In 2013, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) was banned and its leaders sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

      • In May 2014, Raef Badawi, founder of the website Liberal Saudi Network, had his previous sentence of six years’ imprisonment and 700 lashes increased to 10 years and 1,000 lashes.

      • Two months later, Waleed Abu al-Khair, a lawyer and human rights activist, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “disrespecting and offending the authorities.”

In January 2015, King Abdullah died and was replaced by Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz. He set about quickly on a modernist agenda. He re-structured the cabinet and replaced his half-brother Muqrin as Crown Prince with his 30-year-old nephew, Muhammed bin Najif. The new king ensured that the monarchy would be continued only by the next generation by naming  his son, Muhammed bin Salman, deputy crown prince, who was also appointed Minister of Defense and charged with prosecuting a war in Yemen against Houthi rebels allied with Iran. The Yemen war is part of an aggressive foreign strategy adopted by King Salman against expansionism by Iran.

Although considered a modernist for attempting to “update” the Saudi monarchy and fulfilling Abdullah’s initiative to allow women to participate in local elections, King Salman has also generally continued the repressive policies of his predecessor, upholding severe punishments against political and religious dissidents, including the punishment of 1,000 lashes of a dissident poet. One case of “leniency” was the commutation of a death sentence of a Palestinian poet living in Saudi Arabia who was convicted of apostasy. The sentence was commuted to 8 years’ imprisonment and 800 lashes. In early January, the kingdom announced the execution of 47 people, mostly for drug offenses but also including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric who had joined 2011–12 protests against Saudi discrimination of Shiites in the eastern provinces. In response to the execution of Sheik Nimr, Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Teheran, an action resulting in a break in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Before the announcement, Amnesty International had reported that Saudi Arabia had greatly increased death sentences (usually by beheadings): there were 157 executions in 2015.

Most analysts argue that substantive change of the Saudi kingdom will not take place in the near future, although some disagree, arguing that the ultimate succession of a second generation of princes and kings and the exhaustion of oil resources, perhaps beginning as early as 2030, will spur demands of younger generations as well as a growing Shiite minority, for even greater change. Recently, King Salman removed the oil minister of 20 years, replacing him with Khalid al-Falih, who was tasked with Crown Prince Mohammed with re-structuring the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil. The Crown Prince has promised to transform the Saudi oil company, Aramco, into a publicly traded industrial conglomerate. Political reforms, however, have not been introduced. And any true reform of Saudi Arabia's legal and political system will require fundamental changes to its Basic Law.