Saudi Arabia - Politics
Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and home to Islam's two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina. The king's official title is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. The government bases its legitimacy on its interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) and the 1992 Basic Law, which specifies that the rulers of the country shall be male descendants of the founder King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al Saud. The Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government, and it provides that the Koran and Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) serve as the country’s constitution.
Islamic Sharia’a is the law of the land in Saudi Arabia. The country has no penal code. One of the main sources of Islamic law is the hadith or ascribed sayings of the Prophet Mohamed. Saudi officials base this on their interpretation of hadith and state that this is what is expected of them as the country that hosts the two holiest mosques in Islam, in Mecca and Medina.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), a semiautonomous agency--referred to by some as the “religious police” --has the authority to monitor social behavior and enforce morality subject to the law and in coordination with law enforcement authorities. Its members have been accused of beating, whipping, detaining, and otherwise harassing individuals. As of June 2014 the CPVPV had 12 branch offices, 129 subcommission offices, and 345 information centers throughout the kingdom.
Continuing its consistent decades-long record, Saudi Arabia received the lowest possible marks for civil and political freedoms in the annual Freedom House rankings in 2014. The countries placed alongside it were North Korea, Turkmenistan, and smattering of the most brutal African dictatorships. Among the punishments distributed is anything from hands and feet being chopped off for theft, lashes for adultery and other “social” misdemeanors, to beheading, which can be handed down for crimes as varied as sedition, carjacking, sorcery and drug smuggling.
The regime’s disregard for any accountability to its people is brazen. There are no national elections, no parties, and no parliament – only a symbolic advisory chamber, known as Majlis al-Shura.
Tribal factors and longstanding traditions continued to dictate many individual appointments to positions. Unofficially, government authorities will not appoint a Bedouin tribesman to a high-ranking cabinet-level position, and Bedouins can only reach the rank of major general in the armed forces. All members of the cabinet who were tribal were not members of Bedouin tribes but urbanized “Hamael” tribes. Exceptions are sometimes made when a person marries into the Al Saud family.
In 1962, then-King Faisal abolished slavery in Saudi Arabia by royal decree. Decades later, migrant workers in the purportedly modern society that the kingdom has become continue to suffer extreme forms of labor exploitation that sometimes rise to slavery-like conditions. Their lives are further complicated by deeply rooted gender, religious, and racial discrimination. Employers or sponsors controlled the departure of foreign workers and residents from the country; employers/sponsors were responsible for processing residence permits and exit visas on their behalf. Sponsors frequently held their employees’ passports against the desires of the employees, despite a law specifically prohibiting this practice. Typically, foreign workers provide sponsors with their residence permit (iqama) before traveling in exchange for their passport to ensure the worker’s return to their employer after their travel.
There were Baloch, West Africans, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma; however, only a portion of these communities was stateless. For example, many Rohingya had expired passports their home government refused to renew. The UNHCR estimated there were between 250,000 to 500,000 Rohingya in the kingdom; some of these individuals benefited from a program to correct their residency status during the year; the government issued approximately 200,000 four-year residency permits by the end of 2014. Only an estimated 2,000 individuals of Rohingya origin had Saudi citizenship. There also were between 300,000 and 400,000 Palestinian residents not registered as refugees, as well as between 750,000 and one million Syrian nationals in the kingdom, although most of these arrived prior to the 2011 outbreak of the conflict in Syria.
The Basic Law establishes absolute monarchy as the political system. The goal of the House of Saud has been to make every Saudi citizen in some way dependent on the royal family in order to convince the citizenry that their own personal well-being is tied up with the existing political system. Riyadh's continued inability to provide the standard of living expected by Saudi citizens has encouraged opponents of the regime to push for a greater say in the way affairs in the Kingdom are conducted. These calls for greater political participation are exacerbated by the moves of Saudi Arabia's neighbors, particularly Bahrain, to liberalize their political systems and encourage participation from their citizens.
Because the House of Saud is a weak regime, it is highly distrustful of its own citizens. Principal human rights issues include abuse of prisoners and incommunicado detention; prohibitions or severe restrictions on freedom of speech, press, peaceful assembly and association, and religion; denial of the right of citizens to change their government; systematic discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities; and suppression of workers' rights.
According to the family monarchy system enshrined in the Basic Law, only a few members of the ruling family have a voice in the choice of leaders, the composition of the government, or changes to the political system. The 2006 succession law created the Allegiance Commission, comprising 34 senior princes appointed by the king and responsible for selecting a king and crown prince upon the death or incapacitation of either. The king serves as prime minister and his crown prince serves as deputy prime minister. The king appoints all other ministers, who appoint subordinate officials with cabinet concurrence. The Consultative Council (Majlis as-Shura), a royally appointed 150-member body, advises the king.
Citizens do not have the right to change their government peacefully. The Basic Law states that the government is established on the principle of consultation (shura) and requires the king and crown prince to hold majlis meetings, open-door events where in theory any male citizen or foreigner may express an opinion or a grievance. A prince or other important national or local official can also hold a majlis. The Basic Law states that all individuals have the right to communicate with public authorities on any issue. The government interpreted this provision as a right to be exercised within traditional nonpublic means, not by the use of mass media.
Political parties are illegal. The Green Party continues to operate illegally. There was no media coverage of the party's activities. The Basic Law does not provide for freedom of association, and the government strictly limited this right in practice. The government prohibited the establishment of political parties or any group it considered as opposing or challenging the regime. All associations must be licensed by the MOI and comply with its regulations. Groups that hoped to change some element of the social or political order reported that their licensing requests went unanswered. The MOI reportedly used arbitrary means, such as requiring unreasonable types and quantities of information, to effectively deny associations licenses.
There are no laws that prevent minorities from participating in political life on the same basis as other citizens, but the dominant societal norms marginalize the Shia population. The Consultative Council included only five Shia members. There were no religious minorities in the cabinet. There were some Shia judges.
Criticism is strictly forbidden: in 2014, prominent opposition activist Abd al-Kareem al-Khoder joined hundreds of the country’s political prisoners, when he was sentenced to eight years for demanding the changeover to a constitutional monarchy. Just days before King Abdullah’s death, blogger Raif Badawi was given the first 50 of his 1,000 lashes – for calling for free speech on his blog.
The courts continue to use corporal punishment as a judicial penalty, almost always in the form of floggings, a practice government officials defended as dictated by sharia. According to local human rights activists, police conducted the floggings according to a set of guidelines determined by local interpretation of sharia. The police official administering the punishment must place a book under his arm that prevents raising the hand above the head, limiting the ability to inflict pain on the person subjected to the punishment, and instructions forbid police from breaking the skin or causing scarring when administering the lashes. Courts sentenced several individuals convicted of theft to be punished by amputation, and there was one confirmed case of judicially administered amputation during 2014.
The law does not provide for freedom of association, and the government strictly limited this right. The government prohibited the establishment of political parties or any group it considered as opposing or challenging the regime. All associations must be licensed by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and comply with its regulations. Some groups that advocated changing elements of the social or political order reported their licensing requests went unanswered for years, despite repeated inquiries.
The law requires a government permit for an organized public assembly of any type. The government categorically forbids participation in political protests or unauthorized public assemblies, and security forces reportedly arrested demonstrators and detained them for brief periods. Security forces, nonetheless, allowed a small number of unauthorized demonstrations throughout the country, despite a 2011 Ministry of Interior statement that demonstrations were banned and that it would take “all necessary measures” against those seeking to “disrupt order.”
There are severe restrictions on foreign travel, including for women and members of minority groups. No one may leave the country without an exit visa and a passport. Women, minors (men younger than 21), and other dependents or foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a male guardian’s consent to travel abroad. According to Ministry of Interior regulations, a male guardian must apply for and collect a passport for women and minors.
Saudi Arabia has frequently used arbitrary travel bans and detentions of Saudis over the years. In many cases the Saudi interior ministry did not inform citizens that they were on a travel ban list or the reasons for the restrictions. Some learned when they attempted to travel abroad. The government reportedly confiscated passports on occasion for political reasons and revoked the rights of some citizens to travel, often without providing them notification or opportunity to contest the restriction. Most travel bans reportedly involved individuals in court cases relating to financial and real estate disputes. During the year 2016 the government banned several individuals engaged in human rights activism or political activities from foreign travel, in addition to hundreds of other travel bans promulgated by the courts.
The number of political prisoners, including detainees who reportedly remained in prolonged detention without charge, could not be reliably ascertained. In many cases it was impossible to determine the legal basis for incarceration and whether the detention complied with international norms and standards. Those who remained imprisoned after trial, including persons who were political activists openly critical of the government, were often convicted of terrorism-related crimes, and there was not sufficient public information about the alleged crimes to judge whether they had a credible claim to being political prisoners.
King Abdallah, who died in 2015, started the reform movement by allowing Saudi women to run for the country’s consultative “Shoura” council and to enter the work force, becoming lawyers, bankers and salespeople. Some recent moves to change the status of women have angered parts of the kingdom’s mostly conservative population. Traditionalists, were not used to such quick change and many were afraid, because things are moving too fast for them.
In clashes with conservative clerics back in the 1960s, after King Faisal opened a school for girls in Riyadh, and when the king opened the first TV station in Riyadh in 1965, the government prevailed. Whenever the state clashes with the (conservative) clerical establishment, the state emerges victorious.
On 05 November 2017 numerous Saudi royals and top government officials were arrested as part of an apparent anti-corruption campaign, quickly nicknamed the "Game of Tobes". The moves consolidated Prince Mohammed's control of the Kingdom's internal security and military institutions, which had long been headed by separate, powerful branches of the ruling family. The arrests were conducted mere hours after Saudi ruler King Salman announced the creation of a powerful new anticorruption committee led by his son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Well-known billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was among those who have been detained in connection with newly-opened corruption probes.
According to Washington Post, this move was carried out during "a time of unprecedented political, social and economic upheaval in Saudi Arabia” as the kingdom seeks to reform its economy and decrease its dependence on oil exports. This development led some analysts to speculate that it was part of the crown prince’s plan to secure his power base.
"Knowledgeable observers of Saudi internal politics point to the many arrests of prominent clerics and intellectuals this summer as a sign of tensions inside the kingdom… The latest round of arrests only reinforces the sense that the succession debate is more difficult than the king and his son want," Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, wrote for Al-Monitor.
The targeting of Saudi Arabia's long-standing elite represents a shift from family rule to a more authoritarian style of governance based around one man, according to Durham University academic Christopher Davidson. "Going after such 'big fish' is intended by MBS and his allies in Abu Dhabi as a signal of MBS' newly-established sultanistic powers," he said, using the widely-used acronym for Mohammed bin Salman and referring to his close ties to the leaders of the United Arab Emirates. "By going after the richest, whether fellow princes or media moguls and construction magnates, MBS is demonstrating that nobody is outside his control, as he is now at the top of a more authoritarian, 'one-man regime', with the old consensus-based, dynastic monarchy of the past century having effectively collapsed at some point earlier this year."
Former CIA officer Bob Baer credited the Saudi royal family's consensus-based approach to rule for preventing a war with Iran up until now, warning Mohammed bin Salman's purge made the country's future stability less certain. "The Al Saud [ruling family of Saudi Arabia] have survived all these years, thanks to a remarkable and unbreakable consensus among their ranks and has avoided war with Iran," said Baer.
Others however considered this development a sign of actual reforms and a message to the country’s elite. "Cynics are calling this a power play but it's actually a message to the people that an era of elite indulgence is coming to an end," Ali Shihabi, executive director of the Arabia Foundation think tank cited by WaPo, said, adding that this move “will have a wide resonance with the masses since elite indulgence has been a sore issue for decades."
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