The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest country on the Arabian Peninsula and the second-largest in Western Asia, known for its vast oil reserves (currently the biggest oil exporter in the world) which gave the Kingdom enough leverage and wealth to take part in international politics.

But power and wealth haven’t made its citizens’ lives any better. To understand why, we must first talk about the country’s political and law system: Saudi Arabia is ruled by an absolute monarchy that combines legislative, executive, and judicial powers into a single position, in other words, a form of centralized government that oversees everything and everyone.

Theoretically, the King claims to derive power from the Holy Quoran and the Prophet Muhammad’s traditions but must abide by the Shari’ah Islamic Law, as per the seventh and eighth article of the Kingdom’s Constitution (1). However, as it frequently happens in absolutely centralized body governments, the leader and its innermost circle are allowed to abuse their powers and silence any possible dissidents or critics.

Throughout the years, especially in the last two decades, reports of basic human rights violations have increased, this includes extrajudicial torture, kidnapping, violent crackdowns on any kind of protests, and outlawing the rights of minorities, women, and children. Only until 2018 were women even allowed to drive a car, as an example.

Women rights defenders, bloggers, journalists–or anyone that dares criticize the government’s international, domestic and economic policies–are frequently jailed, forced to pay absurdly long sentences, and, in the worst of cases, are tortured, maimed, or killed. Some go missing and are never seen again.

This is the reality the average citizen faces every day. Despite the blatantly obvious violations of basic human rights, has any western country denounced these practices? On paper, yes.

Saudi’s Crimes on Yemeni Soil

In September 2017, the European Parliament and Saudi held their first open dialogue about the numerous cases opened against the Arab country for its repeated violations of human rights, including imprisonment and unlawful murder of its own citizens.

The EU Parliament discussed with Saudi the humanitarian situation in Yemen and the possibility of a ceasefire. The catastrophic humanitarian crisis caused by the severe acute malnourishment of Yemen’s population, and the repeated attacks on hospitals, schools, and other types of infrastructure by the Saudi-led coalition on Yemen only helped to exacerbate the country’s descent into chaos (2).

Evidently, despite strong calls for the Saudi-led coalition to stop its unlawful attacks on Yemen and the full mobilization of the United Nations’ funds assigned to Yemen, things haven’t improved. Since then, the coalition has repeatedly struck multiple districts, such as Sirwah, and other heavily populated areas such as Ta’izz, Al-Hudaydah, and Mocha (3) (4) (5).

As grim as the situation beyond Saudis’ current borders looks, the current condition for anyone who dares raise their voice against the monarchy isn’t any better. And most recently, Yemenis have taken it into their own hands to defend what’s left of their country and people by raising the cost of genocide and war crimes, in what is the world’s worst-ever man-made humanitarian crisis.

Persecution of Journalists

In 2018, it’s likely you may have heard of the name Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was a journalist and a dissident, editor of the Al-Arab News Channel, and a writer for The Washington Post, where he strongly condemned the Crown’s reforms and their authoritative control over the country.

In 2017, he fled the Kingdom and went on living in the US. He continued his work as a journalist and writer, criticizing the Saudi-led coalition on Yemen and the online abuse of whoever called out the Monarchy’s abuses of power. He was engaged in multiple projects that advocated for more freedom of press, more political representation, and other democratic suggestions.

Unfortunately for him and his family, this only increased the Kingdom’s desire to silence him. In September 2018, he was falsely lured into the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, over alleged paperwork regarding her fiance, who lived at the time in the city.

He and his fiance arrived at the consulate on October 2th and went inside the building at 1 PM. His fiance waited for him outside, entrusted with both of his cell phones. At 4 PM, his fiance was worried and called his friend, Yasin Aktay, to tell him about her husband’s unusually long absence and to contact the Turkish President Erdogan to start an investigation as soon as possible (6).

The Saudi government immediately alleged that Khashoggi left the building through a back door, but CCTV demonstrated this was a lie and that the journalist never left the building. Afterward, a series of investigations conducted by both Turkish authorities and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) shed light on Khashoggi’s disappearance.

The journalist had been ambushed and kidnapped by a 15-man team known as the Tiger Squad, subsequently, he was dismembered and his remains disposed of. The investigation’s report confirmed that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi, was the mastermind that orchestrated the unlawful murder of Khashoggi.

Despite international pressure to convict those involved in the kidnapping and murder, only a few were convicted to death–most likely scapegoats–, but the top officials involved were not punished at all (7).

Khashoggi’s case isn’t an isolated one at all. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of journalists imprisoned has increased throughout the years (8), independent media is outlawed and any dissident is put behind bars for an undetermined amount of time, despite the country’s allegations of allowing its media to speak more freely.

Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia

In 2019, the Council of Ministers approved a series of laws that gave women slightly more autonomy regarding legal paperwork. For example, women over 21 won’t require permission from male guardians to travel abroad, nor will they require male approval for passports or child registration (9).

However, despite these ‘improvements’, much is left to be desired. The Kingdom continues to have one of the lowest female employment rates in the whole region of the Middle East. Sex segregation continues to be the norm throughout the majority of institutions and the public workforce, except in hospitals and a few other places. Slowly, but surely, women are being pushed out of the country’s workforce.

In his study titled “Oil, Islam and Women”, Professor Michael Ross argues that development bolstered by an oil and mineral-based economy only helped preserve and perpetuate patriarchal norms, institutions, and laws (10).

Journalists and critics, such as Nouf Abdulaziz, have been arrested for standing up for women and other minorities, a clear sign the country hasn’t made any significant progress in having more progressive reforms.

Saudi’s Continued Brutal Persecution of Shia Muslims

Historically speaking, anti-Shi’ite sentiment has been prominent in the country. There are no religious or labor force laws that protect Shia Muslims at all, and anti-Shia rhetoric and teachings are systemically institutionalized by the public education system and radical state-run media and so-called religious clerics. Time and time again, reports denounce systematic oppression and discrimination against Shia Muslims in most–if not all–sectors of the country (11) (12).

Shia Muslims have no local, regional or national representation as part of the police force, of the ministry, or even as mayors. Thus, their voices and complaints about fairer treatment are brutally silenced. One unfortunate execution occurred on march 12, 2022 of 81 individuals, 41 of which were Shia Muslim activists, and 35 of them are shown below in remembrance of human rights activists.

2022 Shia Muslims executed in Saudi Arabia for their activism
Portrait Equality – a digital memorial

Shia Muslims are banned from building mosques and their religious practices aren’t respected at all. From a young age, Shia Muslims in the Saudi-governed Arabian Peninsula are taught their religion is nothing but a ‘heretic one’ and thus, they are sinners (13).

Home raids, terrorist attacks on mosques, and police arrests on pilgrimage sites happen quite frequently on Saudi soil. Despite the state-owned media condemning the attacks and discrimination, they make no effort at all to modify their treatment of Shia Muslims and only help encourage resentment and discrimination.