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Occupying most of the Arabian peninsula, and heavily reliant on oil as its main source of revenue, this Kingdom does not have an elected state legislative body and political parties are outlawed. Serious violations of children’s human rights consistently occur and are very visible. These include, but are not limited to: use of the death penalty, lack of protection of girls’ rights, a high number of children from outside the country employed as labourers, and limitations on freedom of expression.
Saudi Arabia occupies the majority of the Arabian Peninsula, with the Red Sea on the west coast and the Persian Gulf on the east. The country shares lands borders with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait. The “empty quarter” of Saudi Arabia, which is roughly the size of France, is the world's largest sand desert. The capital city is Riyadh.
Population and Language
Saudi Arabia is home to 28 million people, a figure that has almost tripled over the last 30 years and continues to rise at a between two and three per cent per year. Islam is the dominant religion within the country, indeed it is illegal to publicly practice any religion other than Islam, and within the Islamic population 90 per cent is Sunni and 10 per cent Shi'a.
Arabic is the official State language, but English is widely spoken in business circles.
History and Politics
Modern Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932, when King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Al Saud (Ibn Saud) united a number of regions of the Arabian Peninsula. Ibn Saud was pronounced King of the newly created country in the same year, and his descendants have continued to rule as absolute monarchs since. Today, Saudi Arabia is a major economic, political and religious power in the region. Economically, it plays a major part in OPEC, including instigating the 1973 oil embargo over Western support of Israel. Politically, Saudi Arabia is a key US ally and in turn influences the affairs of others states in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. Using the military and security support it receives from the West, Saudi has intervened in neighbouring Yemen and, recently, Bahrain to support allied governments. Religiously, Saudi Arabia is the home of the major holy sites of Mecca and Medina and its theological scholars are an influential voice in the conservative Salafist form of Sunni Islam. While the royal family legitimate their rule through public shows of piety, the promotion of political Islam overseas and through the support of a clerical elite, more radical religious elements have been critical of or even taken up arms against the monarchy. As a result, Saudi Arabia is both a global source of and a target for political Islamist movements.
In October 2013, Saudi Arabia turned down the opportunity to sit on the United Nations Security Council, citing concerns over double standards on the conflict in Syria, nuclear weapons and the issue of Palestine.
There is no elected State legislative body and political parties are outlawed. There does exist a consultative advisory council, the Majlis as-Shura, but this is entirely appointed by the king and has no real power. The current King, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, came to the throne in 2005 and has, however, instituted some tentative political reforms. In 2005, men were able to vote for the first time in elections in which half of the members of municipal councils were selected. In 2006, the reforms continued with the creation of the Allegiance Commission which will govern the selection of a new King or Crown Prince should either of the office holders die. This move has largely been seen as a response to the increasingly elderly pool of eligible royal heirs. Municipal elections were repeated in 2011, and current plans would allow women to vote for the first time in the 2015 council elections. After the death of his brother in 2012, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is currently the Crown Prince, and the designated heir to the Kingdom.
The Saudi economy is heavily reliant on oil, of which the country is the world's second largest exporter and holder of the second largest proven resources in the world. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, economic growth was rapid, but barely fast enough to keep up with population growth. The high oil prices of 2003-7, however, provided for more substantial economic growth beyond that of population. The Saudi American Oil Company, which was nationalised in 1980, controls all onshore oil, though there is a large and varied private sector workforce in which a large population of foreign workers are employed. The private sector is highly responsive to the oil industry, however, and is as such highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of oil.
Among the economic problems facing the State is the growing youth population for whom there are no jobs. Official unemployment figures indicate that 10.6 per cent of the population is jobless, but this rises to 35 per cent of young men in their 20s and 60 per cent of the population under 21.
Media and Civil Society
Reporters Without Borders rated the country 158 out of 179 in its 2013 Press Freedom Index, which indicted “a very serious situation” for press operating in the country. Though King Abdullah Ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud launched some tentative reforms in 2005, since then a special government commission was set up to filter the information available through the internet, an initiative that led to the blocking of 400,000 websites on the grounds of terrorism, fraud, pornography, defamation or the violation of religious values. In 2009, the Lebanese satellite channel, LBC, was closed down over a programme entitled “conflicting with morality” while a female journalist who worked on the programmes was sentenced to 60 lashes before the sentence was commuted by the King. In recent months journalists have continued to be prosecuted for blasphemy, and have been detained without charge.
Civil society is largely under developed. While a large number of charity organisations exist, the vast majority of them are government affiliated and there there are very few genuinely Non-Governmental Organisations working on human rights issues. Further, this is only limited dialogue between the State and those organisations which are active. This situation is due in large part to a restrictive legal framework and a lack of transparency in NGO operations. Advocacy organizations are prohibited. The only legal NGO forms are charities or missionary organizations, which are narrowly defined. NGOs must obtain prior approval from the Ministry before communicating with regional and international peer groups, while foreign organizations are prohibited from opening branches in Saudi Arabia.
Reforms began in 2003 with the announcement of the creation of the Saudi Journalists Association, which represented a small step towards creating a role for civil society in public life, but Freedom House has reported that the elections to the organisation have been heavily controlled by the State. Political parties remain illegal within the country despite the implementation of municipal elections, and in February 2011, intelligence forces arrested six persons who planned to form the Kingdom's first political party. Similarly, in May 2013, the four founding members of a new human rights group in Saudi Arabia were reportedly called subject to questioning and intimidation from Saudi authorities.
Human Rights and Children's Rights
Serious violations of human rights are are endemic in Saudi Arabia. Though the King granted economic benefits worth US$130 billion to the population in response to the Arab Spring, authorities continued to arrest and jail Saudis for peaceful dissent. There is widespread discrimination against women and girls, who are prevented from travelling, studying or working without the permission of their male guardians. Women are even prohibited from driving - something has attracted international attention in 2013 through a series of public protests and acts of civil disobedience.
The criminal justice system provides for systematic violations of due process and trial rights and for the imposition of inhuman sentencing to offenders, including children: capital punishment, corporal punishment and life imprisonment are all lawful sentences for child offenders. Reports of physical, emotional and sexual abuse of migrant workers are also common, including with regards to conditions that amount to slavery.
- UNDESA, Population Statistics 2011
- Saudi Arabia generally gives priority to surviving brothers over sons. Currently, the titles of King and Crown Prince have been passed along through the surviving sons of Ibn Saud, many of whom are in their eighties.
- OPEC, "Statistical Bulletin 2010/11 Edition"
- The Economist, "Out of the Comfort Zone: Growing unemployment and political tensions are buffeting the Kingdom"
- Reporters Without Borders, "Journalist prosecuted for 'blasphemous' tweets" 23 February 2012
- Reporters Without Borders, "Three online journalists freed" 31 October 2011
- UNDP, Programme on Governance in the Arab Region, "Country Theme: Civil Society: Saudi Arabia"
- Freedom House, "Freedom of the Press 2011"
- Human Rights Watch, "World Report 2012: Saudi Arabia"
- Saudi Arabia moves to stamp out new human rights NGO
- The New York Times, "In Saudi Arabia, Royal Funds Buy Peace for Now" 8 June 2011
- Human Rights Watch, "World Report 2012: Saudi Arabia"
- CRIN, "Saudi Arabia: Inhuman Sentencing of Children"
- The Guardian, "Saudi Arabian torment of migrant workers at mercy of abusive madams" 25 June 2011
- Migrant Rights, "Kenyans in Saudi: Modern Day Slavery" 12 September 2011
- OHCHR, "Saudi Arabia Homepage"
- Foreign and Commonwealth Office, "Saudi Arabia Country Profile"
- Hauser Global Law School Programme, Globalex, "A brief overview of the Saudi Arabian legal system"
- BBC, "Saudi Arabia Country Profile" 16 January 2012
- Reporters Without Borders, "Press Freedom Index 2011/12" and news items (see footnotes)
- The Economist (see footnotes)
- The Guardian (see footnotes)