Legal Framework for Establishing of Human Rights Groups in Saudi Arabia: Current Environment and Required Repairs

Legal Framework for Establishing of Human Rights Groups in Saudi Arabia: Current Environment and Required Repairs


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia operates under a monarchical system ruled by the Al Saud family. The population is 28.5 million with about  5.8 million migrants. From 2005, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has ruled as the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, an obligation for Islam’s two holiest sites: Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia’s government anchors its legitimacy on the Sharia and the 1992 Basic Laws.

Saudi Arabia is a result of the amalgamation of different regions in the 1920s by the tribal ruler of the central Nejd region, King Abdulaziz bin Saud.  Al Saud used coercion to conquer some regions that resisted his rule while other regions conceded as a result of his actions. Although, most regions that make up Saudi Arabia have no internal loyalty to this dynasty and Nejd, signs of nationalism have started to emerge.

Minorities and from different ethnicities, and diverse regions in Saudi Arabia are evident as its topography ranges from southern mountains to Northern Nefud desert; this has led to the emergence of dynamic culture and traditions among the people. The government has made efforts to recognize these regional diversities and their own unique history. The Sunni Islamic population in the Eastern Province is estimated between 1.5-2.5 million while there is the Southern Ismaili community- none  is represented in the Ulema Supreme Court.

In contrast to the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Saudi Arabia is a big nation not a city state. Having strong economy, with increasing  population rate, at 5 percent between 1980-90 and a slow 2-3 percent consequently on the political and social conversation, the kingdom has combined religious authority with modernized traditional policies, and some Western values to validate it’s typical society.

Socio-political background

In the 18th century, Saudi Arabia acquired a religious and conservative status in its society as a result of the alliance between Muhammad bin Saud and Muhammad Abdul Wahhab. Approximately, 60-70 percent of the Saudi people are conservatives who rejected the government’s reformation. On the other hand, many Saudi people believe that the pact between the Ulema and the government has resulted in an atmosphere where Islam can be practiced and the rules adhered.

In the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia had an empathic rigidity in its activities. This is traced back to the actions of a group of young Saudi Wahhabi zealots headed by Juhaiman al-Utaibi, overtook the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 1979. Responsively, the government strengthened its religious scholars status   who fanned the embers of conservative interpretation of Islam    and the Ulema more educational curricular control.   


Saudi Arabia has faced the issue of civil reforms and has recently gained some international attention though the complex social context of the region has a relationship with the increased citizen participation and the challenges. As civil reforms are ongoing in the Saudi Arabian  society, the goal of empowering women has been included in the Tenth Saudi Development Plan (2015-2019) as a major objective.

While there is a body of research that explores civil rights more generally by NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and elsewhere, little research has been carried out on the specific strategies that NGOs in Saudi Arabia adopt to increase activism and participation in their activities. Nowadays, NGOs are increasingly working as a “catalysts for social change” especially in promoting empowerment through their activities (Elbers al et. 2014:1).

Saudi Arabia has no formal democratic process but rather some traditional representation and consultation mechanisms through the traditional meetings: the Majalis.  Presently, Saudi Arabia’s population increase  and this means the Majalis cannot take up the numbers wishing to take part in government policy discussion. As a result, it is hard for citizens to make their views public – and even it is  harder to influence government policy-making. Apart from the Majalis, civil societies, associations and meetings are effectively the only means whereby Saudis can keep the government informed.

However, the Saudi government frequently bans meetings and closes down associations; it has even delayed publishing a long-promised civil society law, and has made the  registration of ay  association a very complicated process.

Saudi Arabia has a very considerable number of media-savvy, educated young people, many of whom are unemployed and f,and  who desperately  wish to be part of government decision-making but they are currently excluded by the absence of formal channels.

The ambivalence towards associational life indicates that traditional interests among the authorities fear the potential challenges to the status quo. Such conservatives have not adjusted themselves  to seeing the contemporary shifts in the way society and individuals interact with each other; the conservative authorities failed to provide the public with a platform by which younger generations can channel energy and aspirations  for  useful  civic activism that will  help in build a stronger civil society with a strong sense of national identity in a burgeoning, diverse , yet rapidly developing country.


Due to the autocratic structural representation of Saudi Arabia, the public and people do not influence decision making because there are little or no opinion polling opportunities. Contextually, the associational civil society is as important as being the main channel of people’s views and opinion culmination. Thus, the Western democracy is converse to the  political structure of Saudi Arabia. Young people – who comprise some 60 per cent of the population – these have no formal voice but are social media-savvy; they are often unemployed or discontented with their job prospects; they wish to have a say in their country’s social, domestic and foreign policies.

Association or gatherings with objectives between people attracts penalties and is considered illegal. This paper argues that Saudi Arabia needs a multifunctional channel for discussions to thrive openly without the threat of Islamic influence and give voice to all it’s citizens. Irrespective of the challenges, this is only possible by robust associational culture where opinions are expressed.

These instances give negating signals to Saudi Arabia’s willingness to implement promote and protect human rights.



The Constitution, the highest source of legislation in  legal regime of Saudi, has become effective in different ways. Therefore, the codification and approval of the constitution in the ensuing points can reveal the characters of the system and make distinction between Saudi and other states in respect to the legal system.

1. The existence of the political and legal system in Saudi Arabia is merely the product of governmental (king’s) will. Now the question of the Saudi people’s role in creating the Basic Law has been raised. By tracing back the  history of constitutionalism, it is easy to discern  that the legal as well as the political system of the country is much older than the constitution. In other words, the Basic Law is was enunciated  according to the existing system to regulate and appropriate it on the shape of texts and articles that can be accepted by international standards. This event took place  when the Royal Decree  was issued by Fahad Ibn Abdul Aziz in 1992 for the first time of the modern Saudi era. The monarch , together with the Royal family, created the Basic Law and afterwards issued some required orders to put the articles in action. In this process as we understand, the role of people and the ballot box is lost. The royal Saudi family consists of some 4000 members, of who approximately 60 are involved in major policy decisions

2. The second distinguishing point is that the Saudi political and legal system revolves around the axle of one family. Saudi Arabia is among the few countries that are named after its ruling family. This shows that the high position of this family is regarded as more superior to anything else. In accordance with  Saudi Basic Law, the rule passes on to the sons of the founding king, Abd Al Aziz Bin Abd Al-Rahman Al-Faysal al saud and to the children of their children. No role is anticipated in favor of people except obedience to the king and the heir apparent (BLG, 1992: 5-6). The main role of people is illustrated in article 6; it  demands that citizens  pay allegiance to the Monarch in the name of Islam.

3. Considering the role of people in the process of   creating  the legal system, the important and essential distinction may emerge due to the categorization of the legal system in which the Saudi belongs to the mono system in character. Accordingly, the Saudi follows with firm insistence the Shari’ah or Islamic rules in its judiciary not observing the entities of the civil Roman law system. This factor is very essental and has made a lot of special aspects in the political system of the country.

4. Another consequent result of the absence of the people’s role in the legal structure of the Saudi system  is related to the matter of non-governmental organizations and syndicates  that activate human rights affairs. It should be noted that the first municipal election in the history of the Saudi took place in 2005 as a first step to open the way to form political parties (Gruber, 2005: February).


The Saudi land has always been considered as holy by Muslims since the advent of  Islam ; Mecca is the place to which all Muslims in the globe turn to in their daily mandatory prayers. Millions of Muslims from all the world go to perform their annual pilgrimage function ‘haj’ in this Holy Shrine.  The Saudi’s legal system and practices in respect to human rights has an impressive effect on the other members of the GCC.

It is not surprising yet to find that Human rights organizations and peaceful gatherings of activists in public places remain outlawed in Saudi Arabia even when the world conference on human rights recommends and urges  governments “to incorporate standards as contained in international human rights instruments in domestic legislation and to strengthen national structures institutions and organs of society which play a role in promoting and safeguarding human rights” (Vienna Convention on Human Rights, 1993: 2/E/83).

In January 2018, human rights activist Mohammad al-Otaibi and Abdulah al-Attawi were sentenced to 14 sand seven years in prison, respectively, by the SCC. They were presented with a list of charges, including “participating in setting up an organization and announcing it before getting an authorization”, “dividing national unity, spreading chaos and inciting public opinion by preparing, drafting and publishing statements that are harmful to the reputation of the Kingdom and its judicial and security institutions”, and “publishing information about their interrogations despite signing pledges to refrain from doing so”

In May 2018, founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) Mohammed al-Bajadi was re-arrested. It is worth mentioning April 2012 Mohammed al-Bajadi had been sentenced by the SCC on account of  his peaceful human rights work and he was re-tried in October 2014.  However, he was released in April 2016 having spent a total of five years in prison. With half of his sentence suspended, he remains at the mercy of the authorities. He was only released after signing scores of pledges, including that he would  waive any form of   activism and refrain from communicating with media and foreign organizations. Now, unfortunately he is currently detained without charge directed against him.

Members of ACPRA, one of Saudi Arabia’s few independent human rights organizations, have borne the brunt of the persecution. Since 2013, all 11 founding members have been put on trial, charged and sentenced to prison terms followed by travel bans for their human rights activism. The authorities have also ordered the organization to be shut down.


The International Community has done a lot, and, as a result, Saudi Arabia has lately embarked on enacting a series of political and social reforms. Appropriated  provincial elections were held in 2005, but women were not permitted  to vote, and at least half the seats on each provincial council were to be appointed by the royal court away of any election. Many analysts, both inside and outside the Middle East, have deemed these reforms as superficial at best. The king, though nominally required by Shari’a law to seek the consensus of senior princes and religious officials on decisions, nonetheless, it remains the sole and absolute source of authority in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia remains at the bottom of the Freedom House survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties for the eleventh consecutive year.

The 1992 Basic Law (Nizam) serves as an informal constitution, but it fails to guarantee any basic human rights; it makes no mention of freedom of expression, religion, or association. The very few NGOs that do exist were established by separate royal decrees; otherwise, no legal framework exists for establishing new NGOs. The government also allows some professional associations to form, but they too are subject to absolute government control.

Furthermore, the recent death of King Fahd has given hope to many that his successors, when King Abdullah, embarked upon more ambitious political liberalization, but the pace of reform in Saudi Arabia is likely to remain slow.


The recommendations are as follows:

1. The Saudi government should form partnerships with civil society, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector for implementation and follow-up. This partnership is extremely important, as it will provide up to date information on what needs to be done.

2. The international community can place the constant crackdowns on NGOs as a constant agenda item of bilateral discussions with their Saudi Arabian counterparts.

3. The international community must do more in denouncing the constant harassment of Saudi Arabian civil society organisations, including at the UN Human Rights Council, where Saudi Arabia made most of its public pledges.

4 Amend the Civil Status Code to prohibit suppression of activism, particularly with respect to education, employment, and access to government and private services and programmes.

5. Train judges and court officials to implement the Law on Protection from Violence/Discrimination prejudiced towards activism and issue clear guidelines on standards of proof and sanctions for abusers, according to the international commitments of the state.

6. Conduct awareness campaigns and educational programmes to promote rights and create awareness of citizens to their legal rights.

Desist from restricting or criminalising the work of human rights defenders and immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders detained in association with the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, association or peaceful assembly.

7. Refrain from criminalizing the legitimate activities of human rights defenders and repeal all laws and policies that restrict their activities and rights, including the 2007 Anti-Cyber Crime Law, the 2015 Law of Associations, the 2017 Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, and the 2000 Press and Publications Law.

8. Enact laws and policies that give full force and effect to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, safeguard the right to safe and unhindered access to international human rights mechanisms, and prohibit acts of intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders who engage with the UN and regional human rights systems.


 There is much controversy over the definition of NGOs in Saudi Arabia since they are, at times, under the supervision of the Saudi government. As a result, there will always be some uncertainty about the status of Saudi NGOs. The concepts of civil society and NGOs have not been adequately defined in studies that have been conducted in Saudi Arabia, thus ,their status in this context remains somewhat vague and  easily contested. Although the idea of NGOs is well rooted, the modern conception of them, as  acknowledged by Western literature  remains at a developmental stage. Another limitation concerns the current stage of the development of NGOs in Saudi Arabia. Due to their nature – not being stable or static – it is difficult to classify and describe them, and it is likely that NGOs in Saudi Arabia will undergo a number of changes in the near future as a result of the newly construed laws that still need to be tested and evaluated.


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