Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Record: Then and Now

By Michael Marinelli

On March 14, President Donald Trump met with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, after which the White House described its “support for a strong, broad, and enduring strategic partnership.” A statement from the Saudi government said that U.S.-Saudi “relations had undergone a period of difference of opinion,” but the meeting “has put things on the right track and marked a significant shift in relations.” At least publicly, the Trump administration has signaled little interest in the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. But, an comparison of U.S. government and prominent rights organization reports from 2003 and 2016 illustrates the history of Saudi’s poor rights record.

In its 2003 ‘Freedom in the World’ report, Freedom House rated Saudi Arabia 7 on overall freedom, civil liberties, and political rights – the worst possible score. According to the report, freedom of religion was virtually non-existent; women remained second-class citizens; freedom of expression was severely restricted; the judiciary was subject to the influence of the royal family; and Saudi citizens faced arbitrary arrest, prolonged pretrial detention, or torture at the hands of security forces. In 2016, Freedom House reported equally troubling findings despite marginal improvements for Saudi women. “The government continued to exercise restrictions on dissent and freedom of expression, however, targeting a number of writers, activists, and dissidents,” the 2016 report says.

Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) 2003 report recorded far-reaching human rights abuses including torture of prisoners, harsh limitations to freedom of expression, and a complete lack of “independent national institutions to question, criticize or hold accountable the all-powerful executive branch of government controlled by the royal family.” HRW’s 2016 report found that King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’ death, and the subsequent leadership changes in 2015 did not lead to significant human rights changes. To illustrate the dire state of Saudi human rights, the report points to continued arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents, and the use of banned cluster munitions and unlawful airstrikes in Yemen against Houthi forces that resulted in civilian deaths.

The U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Reports reveal similar findings. Its 2003 report noted that “authorities may detain without charge persons who publicly criticize the Government” or “may charge them with attempting to destabilize the Government.” It also recorded that following demonstrations in October of 2002, “authorities arrested and detained hundreds of political protesters.” The 2016 assessment identified that “the Ministry of Interior, to which the majority of forces with arrest powers reported, maintained broad authority in law and in practice to arrest and detain persons indefinitely without judicial oversight, notification of charges against them, or effective access to legal counsel or family. Authorities held persons for months and sometimes years without charge or trial and reportedly failed to advise them promptly of their rights, including their legal right to be represented by an attorney.”

Notably, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. State Department all acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s incremental improvements in some areas, including women’s issues. In 2015, women were permitted to run as candidates in municipal elections, but generally gender discrimination remains pervasive in the Kingdom. It remains the only country in the world where women do not have the right to drive. Despite minor improvements, the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 141st out of 145 nations, representing a substantial and consistent drop from 128th in 2006, the first year the report was released.

Despite persistent human rights concerns, Saudi Arabia has largely staved off pressure to change, in part thanks to a cadre of U.S. lobbying firms. Al-Monitor reported $9.5 million in contracts with U.S. lobbying firms in 2015, up from $4.1 million the year before. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration database, since Al-Monitor’s most recent update, Saudi Arabia has signed nine new contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby against JASTA legislation, manage its media image, and to “tell the nation’s story.” 

As the Trump administration takes steps to strengthen ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia, it should consider the country’s persistently poor human rights record as a part of “the nation’s story.”

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