Journal Essay

Saudi Arabia: Civil Rights and Local Actors

Raed Abdulaziz Alhargan

Spring 2012, Volume XIX, Number 1

Mr. Alhargan is a PhD candidate at the University of New England. His research topic is "The Impact of Transnational Civil and Political Rights Advocacy on the Saudi Government with Special Reference to the Spiral Model."

Transnational advocacy directed towards the Saudi Arabian government originated mainly out of Western democratic states, UN human-rights mechanisms, international rights NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), and local rights groups and other activists. Transnational actors often remind democratic Western states of their responsibility to act in the field of human rights, as they rely heavily on these states and see them as prime movers in bringing about change in human rights and freedoms. The United States and the European Union have shown international concern over civil rights and have often addressed issues related to human rights in their bilateral relations with the kingdom. UN human-rights mechanisms include charter- and treaty-based bodies. The former include the Human Rights Council and its Special Procedures, which have been monitoring and advocating for development concerning rights. Several Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups have been monitoring human-rights practices, lobbying to improve human-rights conditions in the kingdom and pressing the government to further accede to UN instruments. Following Saudi Arabia's accession to core UN human-rights instruments, UN treaty-based bodies such as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women have been contributing to significant progress in local politics. The kingdom is required to submit regular reports on how it has implemented treaty provisions. The relevant human-rights treaty body considers these reports in the presence of a delegation from the kingdom and in light of all information, as well as information provided orally during the consideration of the report.1 Based on this process, human-rights treaty bodies adopt what are generally known as "concluding observations," which refer to the positive aspects of the kingdom's implementation of the treaty and the areas in which the treaty body recommends further action.2

However, since the early 2000s, the effectiveness of local actors has gradually been developing. The space for people to pressure the government from below has increased, representing a greater challenge. This article examines local actors that have been advocating for civil rights and respect for the law. It argues that local actors arose mainly from the religious establishment, unaffiliated government clerics, independent rights activists and local NGOs, and finally activists and writers with Islamo-liberal orientations.3

Saudi society's openness toward international media and the Internet has played a significant role in empowering local actors, who have found international channels to be quite transparent and are able to provide evidence of open public cynicism toward government policies. Such channels provide reports on corruption and human-rights violations and offer opportunities for dissidents and activists to present their views. They have also been effective instruments for building a culture of accountability and the promotion of democracy and various freedoms.

The Internet has played an educational and informational role, filling the knowledge gap, which other local media outlets cannot do. Blogs, email and other forums have facilitated the dissemination of information, public discussions and debates. Since it became publicly available in Saudi Arabia (in 1999), the Internet has been an information tool and a forum for free political discussion. It has proven to be an efficient democratic medium, allowing a freer exchange of views for a variety of Saudi groups. Human-rights NGOs and rights activists have found it an effective tool for disseminating information and influencing public opinion. Political activists have used it to educate the public on political parties, elections and candidates.

The arbitrary arrest of citizens in the early 2000s on suspicion of involvement in violent actions or belonging to al-Qaeda was the main trigger for some local activists. The violation of the rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention has affected large segments of Saudi society, including Saudis with Islamic as well as liberal orientations.


The role played by the ulama (legal scholars) is of huge significance in regulating the relationship between citizens and the government. As people who are immersed in Islamic teachings, Muslims are supposed to listen to and respect the advice of clerics, especially on controversial social and religious issues. The official religious establishment (as well as some non-governmentally affiliated clerics) plays a significant role within Saudi society, especially as the ruling Al Saud family rely on the official religious establishment for their political legitimacy. Indeed, because the religious establishment enjoys such great respect, it also plays a role in legitimating government policies.

The religious establishment can be classified into two main categories, the first one being the Board of Senior Ulama (BSU). This group works as an advisory body to the government as well as the citizens. It does not apply significant pressure on the government to address violations and abuses; thus, its effect is minimal. It can therefore be used by the government as a support for its policies, providing approval and consent for potentially controversial policies. During the Gulf crisis (1991), when many salafis expressed anger at the government's invitation to the non-Muslim coalition forces, King Fahd had to turn to the BSU for support and to legitimate his handling of the war. The head of the board, Sheikh Ibn Baz, issued a fatwa providing a religious permit to the government's invitation to the coalition forces.4 Further, the ruling family asked the board to condemn the anger expressed by the salafis during the Gulf War, and Ibn Baz publically criticized all the salafi activists.5 Later, in the early 1990s, when several activists presented the petition "Memorandum of Advice" to the king, calling for freedoms and political participation, they did not enjoy the support of the official religious group. When these activists decided to establish the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), King Fahd had to turn again to the board to condemn their memorandum and their committee in order to legitimate his act of suppression. The board criticised the CDLR on the basis that the government rules according to sharia and that there was no need for such a committee. When seven members of the governing council refused to condemn these activities, the king had them removed and replaced with more loyal and obedient clerics. Such acts indicate the government's power over the religious establishment.6

In times of turmoil, the government has had to turn to the BSU to regulate and sustain good relations between itself and the citizens. The demonstrations that arose in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 inspired Saudi activists to arrange similar uprisings; the most well-known one was planned for March 11, 2011. Activists lobbied mainly through the Internet and its social networks. However, in countering the potential threat, the government again sought assistance from the religious establishment.7 Members of the BSU obediently issued a fatwa denouncing the demonstration and arguing that such a practice is forbidden in Saudi Arabia and is an "un-Islamic" way of protesting. The members argued that "the correct way in Sharia law of realising common interests is by advising." The fatwa added that "[r]eform and advice should not be via demonstrations or by any ways that provoke strife and division; this is what the religious scholars of this country in the past and now have forbidden and warned against."8 The Grand Mufti encouraged citizens to listen to their rulers: "Obeying rulers brings it fruits in terms of unity of people and positions, frightening the enemy."9

The Saudi authorities followed this by ordering the printing and distribution of 1.5 million copies of the edict throughout the kingdom. The edict was not appreciated by some activists as well as many clerics and retired judges. It also drew criticism from several regional scholarly institutions, including Al-Azhar, a highly regarded religious institution in the Muslim world. Sheikh Gamal Qotub, former head of Al-Azhar's fatwa committee, refuted the fatwa, arguing that peaceful protests can be part of the Islamic principles of dawa (promoting virtue and preventing evil). Qotub described the edict as a "big mistake," saying that the protesters were merely warning officials of their oversights. He went on to argue that Muslim governments should allocate channels for citizens to express their opinions and give feedback to officials.10

In issuing the religious edict regarding demonstrations, the BSU has been heavily influenced by Wahhabi teachings, which place much emphasis on (and exaggerate) the Islamic principle of taa al wali (obey the ruler). Since the start of the Arab Spring and following several attempts to break the ban on demonstrations, the BSU has emphasized the Islamic principle of "obey the ruler" and the need to abstain from all forms of anti-government activities. The principle of "obey the ruler" considers a revolt against a Muslim leader as unsanctioned unless the ruler openly rejects Islam or sanctions laws or practices that violate accepted Islamic laws or principles, or unless it is feared that a greater tribulation will befall Muslims should they not rise up.11 It also asks citizens to follow and obey rulers, as long as they do not command sinful acts, and to obey rulers in matters that do not involve disobedience towards Islamic laws. This Islamic principle is aimed at preventing activities that can bring about chaos or disorder. It seems that the BSU, which is highly affected by this Wahhabi teaching, is eager to build and maintain good relations between the ruler and the citizens, despite the latter's lack of freedom and rights. Thus, the BSU's priority is to sustain stability over civil and political rights.


Since the early 2000s, silence on the part of the BSU over the government's crackdown on citizens and reluctance to address civil rights has caused many citizens (and the younger generation, in particular) to look to unaffiliated government clerics. These clerics have gained in popularity because of their neutral position and their views on abuse and the lack of rights. They have called on the government to desist from abusing the citizens, in particular with respect to arbitrary arrest. The argument that "when clerics become part of the state, they risk losing their voice and credibility with the population" is likely to prove correct in this case.12 Actually, some citizens have come to believe that the clerics who are part of the government are ulama alsultan, or "rulers' clerics"; Islamic teachings warn against such clerics and against clerics who regularly visit the ruler.

Unaffiliated government clerics, who mostly do not hold official positions in governmental religious establishments, are more likely not to be dominated or even influenced by the ruling authorities. They enjoy less restriction on their speech and expression; thus in addressing sensitive issues, they can pursue more independent religious views than the official religious establishment.13 Many of these clerics disagree with the BSU. Unlike the current grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, who preaches that Muslim citizens have a religious obligation to obey their rulers, "even if they are oppressive,"14 some unaffiliated government clerics have urged that it is their obligation to press the government to lift oppression. Some of these clerics, who often do not have any political affiliation, exercise substantive political influence. Unlike the board members, who rarely if ever address the rights that citizens have been deprived of, some "independent" clerics have weighed in on sensitive political issues. Unlike the official religious establishment, which does not support the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, some unaffiliated governmental clerics see them as legitimate "advice to the ruler."15

Though unaffiliated governmental clerics may not be allowed to present their views freely on local media channels, many of them play visible roles through the Internet and social networks. Salman Alouda, for example, has a prominent base among the increasingly politicized Saudi youth, who account for a hefty portion of his half million Facebook fans and 113,000 Twitter followers.16 Ayed Alqarni also has more than half a million followers on Facebook. The two sheikhs' online followers easily outnumber those of prominent Saudi political bloggers, illustrating the influence they hold within Saudi society.17

Many figures in this category, including Yousuf Alhamad and Ibrahim Alsakran, have lobbied the government to respect citizens' rights of freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. Some of them have beamed video clips of speeches urging the government and the king to free those who have been arbitrarily arrested. These clips have greatly increased in number and have been widely circulated, marking a sea change for political adherents. This new form of lobbying is viewed by many citizens as eroding the status of the authorities. It has alarmed the Saudi leadership, as it is attracting popular support by exposing government practices.18 This type of religious pressure has also involved sending petitions directly to the king and the ruling family. A number of clerics have signed texts calling for the release of or a fair trial for the country's thousands of political prisoners, many of whom were arrested on terrorism charges after 2003.19

A number of scholars have established personal websites providing access to their own political analyses, scholarship, rulings on religious matters and discussion forums. Salman Alouda's personal website has achieved an enormous number of followers and has been accessed by a much wider audience, not only in the kingdom but further afield. The Islam Today Institute provides access to many scholars' political analyses. This institution has now established a magazine, Islam Today. Furthermore, other clerics have reached vast audiences and followers through the use of the media. Some have established private television channels that allow them and other activists with similar orientations to offer comments on regional and local politics and articulate their criticisms of internal policies. Seeking to avoid being on the front line confronting the government, some clerics have been able to distance themselves from the harshest rhetoric, while enabling it to be distributed from their networks.20

Although the two religious categories have indicated different political positions toward the government, some of their followers share common ideas and perspectives, in particular on women's rights. In fact, few hardliners from either religious category can be described as obstacles to women's rights and women's enhanced role in Saudi society. However, proposals that enhance women's rights may be rejected by the official religious establishment. The Permanent Committee for Issuing Religious Edicts, chaired by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, has issued several religious edicts restricting women's role in society and their freedoms. For example, King Abdullah approved plans for creating about 70,000 new jobs for Saudi women and instructed all government departments to implement these plans. Once the plans were produced, many within the two categories warned against the mixing of the sexes in the workplace. The Permanent Committee issued a fatwa banning such integration in offices and educational institutions and warned that this would have a negative effect on both the family and society:21

Women are not allowed to work with men. For example, they cannot work as secretaries for men or at receptions, production lines or accounting sections in a commercial centre, pharmacy or restaurant where men are also present.22

Furthermore, when the government launched the National Dialogue Session on Women, many religious scholars issued a joint statement asserting that total equality between men and women would contravene Islam, and that women should only be allowed to work outside their homes in segregated jobs.23 Such religious edicts and interpretations of "correct" sharia law have an influence on decision makers and Saudi society.24 It should be noted that, unlike pressure from liberals and others, the ruling family has to maintain close ties with the ulama, as the government relies on them for their legitimacy, and thus needs their support in times of peace as well as crisis.25

Although most unaffiliated government clerics have moderate views, a few are considered hardliners. Those who adopt religious views that are not entirely based on original Islamic texts and principles can be obstacles to the advancement of women's rights. For example, Dr. Youssef al-Ahmad proposed controversial religious views when he called for the knocking down and rebuilding of the Grand Mosque to ensure segregation and separate prayer areas for men and women.26 A number of hardliners sent a letter to the minister of information, Abdul Aziz al-Khoja, criticising the integration of men and women at a book fair in Riyadh, stating that during the book fair, the ministry had permitted the import of "obscene newspapers and magazines that are filled with deviant thought."27 The hardliners also condemned the increase in music and dancing on television, as well as images of women in popular newspapers and magazines, which they labelled "obscene."28 Some called on the authorities to ban women who exposed their faces from appearing on television and to prohibit their images in print media. They argued, "There should be no Saudi woman on television, in any case."29 Other conservative hardliners were critical of a Ministry of Labor plan to employ women as cashiers in supermarkets. Some urged their followers and other citizens not to shop at any supermarket chain that employed women as cashiers.30 Furthermore, when the Ministry of Education revealed that the country was thinking about introducing sports to state-run girls' schools, conservative clerics responded with a fatwa warning that such a decision would lead to "moral disintegration of women."31 On his website, Mohammed al-Habdan published a list of 14 "evils" that would result from introducing sports to girls' schools; these included removing the veil and the "masculinization" of women.32

Such hardline views reaffirm the rigidity of those clerics as the most potent obstacles to women's participation in Saudi Arabia.33 These types of religious views have created significant unease for the ruling authority. In an aim to regulate fatwas and prevent hardliners from challenging new government policies, King Abdullah issued a royal decree restricting the issuance of fatwas to the BSU and approved scholars only. As a result, such hardliners now have to refrain from issuing fatwas without seeking authorization from the king himself. However, this authorization might not be granted unless the king is confident that the cleric is in alignment with his own policies.


The voices and activities of advocates of constitutional reform and civil society, who have been labelled as dastoryeen (constitution advocates), have increased significantly since the early 2000s. The primary goal of the dastoryeen is the creation of a constitutional monarchy, with political, civil and economic reforms and accountability.34 They have been joined by a number of Islamists and liberal activists as well as by a new generation of young political activists who are looking for a more open type of politics and freedoms. Many followers of this younger generation do not feel bound by allegiance to King Abdullah, and many have come to believe that such allegiance is invalid, as they consider that the people should choose their own ruler and argue that this was the original Islamic principle.

The dastoryeen have been trying to raise awareness of human rights and the benefits of changing the current governance system into a constitutional monarchy. Their main activities include sending texts and petitions to the government. Since 2003, many activists have presented petitions to the government advocating a constitutional state, though described in a conservative way. Abdullah al-Hamed is one of the prime movers behind several such petitions. He has been active in the reform movement since the early 1990s. When the government engaged in fighting terrorists and dismantling their networks, Dr. Al-Hamed argued that the best way to counter the spread of extremist thought was to strengthen the Al Sauds' legitimacy by minimizing their dependence on the religious establishment. This would lead to a transformation of the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy governed by elected institutions:35

The main reason for the emergence of violence is the absence of popular participation in political decision-making....We say that political reform in an atmosphere of responsible freedom and dialogue is the best cure for extremism and violence.... The state wanted to make the religious establishment its source of support, but if it had relied on the people, and instituted social justice and given citizens their rights and freedoms, it would not have needed to rely on the religious establishment for everything.36

One of the initial petitions was "A Vision for the Present and Future of the Nation." The petition emphasized the rule of shura (consultation): "Shura cannot be achieved in a practical sense until the following conditions are met: a nation of institutions and of constitutionality." It also drew on several reforms designed to transform the kingdom into a state based on "constitutional institutions," respecting the principles of political participation and government accountability.37

The Shia have also advocated for political and civil reforms, along with their rights as a minority. In September 2003, after the outbreak of sabotage and terrorist acts, more than 400 Saudi citizens, including notable Shia figures, signed a petition entitled "In Defense of the Nation." It both highlighted the absence of popular participation in decision making and openly blamed the emergence of violent groups in the kingdom on the existing political restrictions. The petitioners considered that

depriving society's political, intellectual and cultural components from their natural right to express their views has, in effect, led to the hegemony of a particular trend, which by its very nature is incapable of dialogue with the other. This trend, which represents neither the tolerant values of Islam nor its moderation,... has contributed to the emergence of the terrorist.38

The latest petition presented to the government following the most recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East is called "Towards a State of Rights and Institutions." This petition, stated in conservative language, calls for several major reforms, primarily democratic change, and warns that drastic consequences and chaos will likely result if the authorities do not comply with popular demands for development, freedom, integrity and the abolition of wrongdoing and corruption. It calls on the Saudi Consultative Council to be a fully elected body vested with complete authority to enact regulations and monitor executive authorities. The petition also calls for reform of the judicial system by granting it full independence. Hundreds of notable figures have signed the petition and forwarded it to the king. When the text was posted online, it gained thousands of followers. Among the signatories were notable moderate clerics, as well as Islamo-liberals such as Said Tayeb.39

To date, however, the petitioners are far from winning any tangible results. Nevertheless, they have created a new form of local pressure. The increased number of petitions and signatories has forced the government to accept this type of lobbying. Furthermore, it has signaled that many different segments within Saudi society, including elites and intellectuals, are dissatisfied with the current ruling system and determined to obtain their goal of political change and development.


In recent times, liberals have emerged as an increasingly tangible presence in Saudi society. Their profile has also been increased through the Saudi media, and as a result, their views and thoughts have been gaining popularity. Several Saudi newspapers, including Alwatan and Okaz, have given them more space and identified themselves with the liberals' views on freedom of expression. They have started to explore issues that were unthinkable for discussion in the past. Topics have included modernizing the legal system, increasing the role of women in society, and moderating religious education and its influence in schools. Through effective use of the Internet, the liberals have also gained a significant presence. Several liberal forums have been created: the first, Tuwaa, until 2004, followed by Dar Al-Nadwa, until 2006, and Minbar Al-Ibda wal-Hiwar and Muntadayatuna Al-Shabaka Al-Libaraliyya (Network of Saudi free liberalism),40 where they currently enjoy quite unlimited freedom of speech and advocate demands.

Lacroix sees the growth of liberalism as a remarkable development. For the first time, the term "liberal" is used here in a formal way, marking the increasing assertiveness of its proponents. He also has argued that liberals have lacked coherence due to a significant split in the early 2000s, which led to the emergence of two separate groups, representing two distinct options: "social liberals" and "political liberals":

For the first group [social liberals], the main problem in Saudi Arabia is social and cultural, and what is needed primarily, then, is social and cultural reform. Many of those liberals even oppose the idea of democratization, because, according to them, any opening in this direction while society isn't ready, would only benefit their Islamist foes. They are very loyal to the regime, which they see as an ally and protector against the influence of the Sahwa. The political liberals, on the contrary, believe that no change can be achieved without an all-encompassing effort at political reform. For them, social and cultural reform is also deeply needed, but it will not happen if the political issue is not addressed first. To make this happen, some of those "political liberals" have proven ready to collaborate with any other social group, including Islamists, as long as they agree on common goals.41

As Lacroix explained, the social liberals' first challenge is not the government, but the religious conservatives and hardliners, who strongly disagree with the liberals over the direction of the country. Some hardliners view them as "dangerous people" who hold "polluted beliefs" and "would like to weaken Saudi Arabia's Islamic identity."42

In short, Islamo-liberals are facing two challenges, the Islamists and the government, both of which limit their freedom and advocacy and thus have had a negative impact on effective change. Their main influence, however, has been to convince the populace as well as officials of the importance of creating an open society, enhancing the role of women, and moderating religious edicts and teachings.


Documenting human-rights violations and defending the abused in the courts — essential activities of local rights groups — have increased in recent years. Since the early 2000s, at least three human-rights NGOs have been established in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) is the first and only organization to have achieved legal status. It relies on government support and works within a restricted ambit. The Saudi Civil, Political Rights Associations (ACPRA) and the Human Rights First Society (HRFS) are human-rights monitoring groups operating without license or legal status.43 The government does not want NGOs to be allowed to function freely. It is aware that public pressure raises the cost of violating human rights. It also fears that people will organize to demand their rights and could thereby pressure the regime. The NGO law could lead to the establishment of associations for teachers and engineers in addition to political organizations. It might even pave the way for political parties. This would likely jeopardize the government's grip on power.44

The establishment of the NSHR was greatly appreciated by intellectuals and human-rights activists. For the first time, Saudi citizens had had the opportunity to explore the government's violations of human rights through local publications. NSHR reports were considered to be courageous, transparent and touching on major concerns.45 The NSHR has discussed various topics and even highlighted some that have been banned. It has also revealed wrongful practices and demanded something unprecedented by calling in its first report for a revision of the Saudi Basic Law of Governance in order to frame the precise provisions of basic human rights. It also called for further political participation, which was greatly appreciated by activists.46 The Society has also raised the issue of arbitrary arrest and the abandonment of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which had been designed to protect the rights of citizens who were investigating the authorities while under arrest or investigation.47 It has visited prisons as well as Social Welfare Houses and has called for the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. Women's rights and the suffering caused by discrimination have been major concerns of the NSHR. The organization has also called for maintaining transparency in the media and has worked to restrict the government's ability to limit the remit of the media or ban media personnel from writing freely.48 The society has also succeeded in disseminating information on human-rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.49 It has published special reports on human rights and continues to educate citizens on their rights by organizing speeches, symposiums and worship opportunities in many cities across Saudi Arabia. It also encourages the government to sign on to yet more international conventions and covenants, and continues to promote those policies and programs that relate to the welfare of the groups most susceptible to rights violations.

ACPRA and HRFS are engaged in promoting human rights mainly through monitoring rights practices, documenting abuses and advocating for freedoms. The two organizations work independently of each other. ACPRA has challenged practices and violations by governmental institutions, in particular those of the Ministry of Interior and the Directorate of General Investigations, in several cases of the allegedly arbitrary arrest of citizens. It holds the power of attorney for several rights activists who have been arrested. The association has filed several lawsuits against the Ministry of Interior and has won a number of them.50 Similarly, the HRFS has shown itself to be influential in revealing a number of human-rights abuses and has observed the trials, convictions and impending appeals of many rights activists. ACPRA also has built strong relations with UN human-rights monitoring systems. It addresses special rapporteurs directly and cooperates with international attorneys in making cases to special rapporteurs and UN working groups and has found them to be quite effective.51 Further, ACPRA has relied on international mediators and journalists throughout the world and uses the Internet in lobbying the government.

ACPRA and HRFS also aim to inculcate a culture of civil society and the promotion of education on human rights through disseminating information and raising awareness concerning the obstacles to the implementation of political and civil rights. To date, ACPRA, headed by Abdulkareem Alkhader, has gained a wide range of support and followers, including university professors and retired judges and lawyers. It appears that the two organizations have become a haven for the many families of arbitrarily arrested and abused citizens. Although their existence has been challenged by the government, which has hindered the functioning of the founding members and activists, both organizations are still managing to function.52

In addition, there are rights organizations that are owned and operated by Saudi nationals outside the kingdom. The Centre for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (CDHR), based in Washington, and the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in the Arabian Peninsula (CDHRAP) are two examples of such organizations. The CDHR, established in 2004, promotes institutionalized democratic reforms through the restructuring of all Saudi state institutions to accommodate growing public awareness of rights and to meet international demands, as necessitated by globalization of goods, languages, values and information.53 The CDHR is widely dispersed via newsletters, its website and its social networks. On the other hand, the CDHRAP focuses on preventing and combating discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. It also highlights the Saudi regime's violations of human rights and propagates awareness of human rights among the people. The two organizations cooperate with international NGOs.

In short, unlike the early 1990s, when NGOs were severely repressed, since the early 2000s, local NGOs have been able to function. They are able to advocate for freedoms and to lobby for ending abuse, despite facing many constraints and challenges. Unlicensed local as well as overseas-based human-rights NGOs have been effective in highlighting concerns and violations and propagating the awareness of rights. Advocates and published reports have been welcomed by the international community, including many academics and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs). Several reports have been embraced by the U.S. Department of State and have become a resource guide and tool for human-rights INGOs.

The flourishing of these organizations and groups represents a concession never seen previously. In spite of this positive development, however, it appears that these groups have a limited capacity to effect change, which can be largely linked to the low level of popularity they are gaining. NGOs are still new to Saudi society, and it will take time to build trust among NGOs, communities and individuals; it is not part of the culture.54 The fact remains that many Saudi citizens, as well as many activists, are still unaware of the existence of such groups and organizations. The lack of media support plays a major role in their low popularity, thus hindering effective change on the ground. The government views these organizations with suspicion, considering them unlawfully interfering in their affairs. They are also viewed as anti-government activists whose aim is to spread division between the government and its citizens. Columnists in daily newspapers discredit them, describing them as "opportunists" or "mouthpieces of the external world." They are also viewed as "trouble makers" and as khawarij, or "opposing the regime." Local media never cover local unlicensed NGO cases unless published articles would serve the interests of the Ministry of Interior. In fact, articles published in local media were merely random pieces against these local rights groups and individual activists.55 The authorities block their websites and order newspapers and TV channels not to mention them or air their views, in order to minimize their impact.


The space for citizens to pressure the government from below and to contest government policies has become larger. Key local actors, which include clerics, rights activists, local NGOs, and activists and writers with Islamo-liberal orientations, have all had increasing impact. Unaffiliated government clerics have lobbied more than ever before, pressing the government to free arbitrarily arrested persons. The voices and activities promoting constitutional reform and advocating for civil society have increased significantly, and they have been joined by a wide swath of society. Islamo-liberals have also developed an increasingly tangible presence in Saudi society. Their opinions have been more widely presented in the Saudi media, calling for the creation of an open society, a greater role for women, and a more moderate application of sharia law.

The presence of local rights groups is an essential feature that distinguishes the current period. Local human-rights groups have been engaging in the promotion of human rights mainly through monitoring rights practices, documenting abuses and advocating for freedoms. They have been challenging the practices and violations of government institutions, in particular the Ministry of the Interior for several cases of alleged arbitrary arrest. They have also been aiming at establishing a culture of civil society and spreading awareness of rights. The government has not allowed these local groups to act freely and without hindrance, as it fears the creation of overwhelming public pressure from which it may be unable to escape.


1 For more information on the impact of the UN human rights system on the Saudi government, see Raed A. Alhargan, "The Impact of the UN Human Rights System and Human Rights INGOs on the Saudi Government with Special Reference to the Spiral Model," The International Journal of Human Rights (November 10, 2011).

2 See, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Working with the United Nations Human Rights Programme: A Handbook for Civil Society (New York and Geneva, 2008).

3 For different classifications, see Stéphane Lacroix, "Between Islamists and Liberals: Saudi Arabia's New ‘Islamo-Liberal' Reformists." The Middle East Journal 58, no. 3 (2004).

4 The religious edict can be seen in the Arabic language newspaper Al-Sharq Alawsat, August 21, 1990.

5 F. Gregory Gause, "Official Wahhabism and the Sanctioning of Saudi-U.S. Relations," in eds. Mohammed Ayoob and Hasan Kosebalaban, Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia: Wahhabism and the State (Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2009), 140.

6 The government's power over the BSU is applicable to controversial religious issues only. Other forms of edicts that have gained consensus amongst Islamic scholars are decided and dealt with by the board's will without government interference.

7 For a different view, see Joseph A. Kechichian, whose argument that the ulama in Saudi Arabia have never been dominated by the ruling authorities could be incorrect, especially in examining the relations between the Board of Senior Ulama and the government.

8 "Saudi Arabia Bans Public Protest: Ruling by Senior Clerical Follows Two Weeks of Shi'a Demonstrations and 22 Arrests" The Guardian, March 6, 2011, accessed August 23, 2011,

9 Yousuf Muhammad, "Obey Rulers to Ensure Stability, Says Grand Mufti," Arab News, May 10, 2011, accessed July 5, 2011,

10 "Al-Azhar Scholar Criticizes Saudi Edict Banning Protests," Al-Masry Al-Youm, accessed June 2, 2011,

11 Imam Zaid, ‘The Islamic Legitimacy of the Uprisings in Muslim Countries," New Islamic Directions, accessed June 24, 2011,

12 Gwenn Okruhlik, "The Irony of Islah (Reform)," Washington Quarterly 28, no. 4 (2005).

13 Some writers call this type of clerics Sahawists; however, such a term is not used by either clerics or followers.

14 See the statement of the Grand Mufti in Al-Hayat, August 22, 2003, quoted in Gause, "Official Wahhabism and the Sanctioning of Saudi-U.S. Relations," 142.

15 Abeer Allam, "Saudi Clerics Tap into Social Networks," Financial Times, July 6, 2011, accessed August 24, 2011, . Clerics who view demonstration as a permissible way of expression include Ali Alkhudair, Saleh Mohammad Almunajed, Humood Altuwaijri and Hamid Al'ali. See Hamid Al'ali, "Demonstration as a Way of Defending Oppression and Injustice," accessed June 28, 2011, .

16 Abeer Allam, "Saudi Clerics Tap into Social Networks," Financial Times, July 6, 2011, accessed August 24, 2011,

17 Ibid.

18 Yousuf Alahmad and many others have broadcasted several talks, available though the Internet, calling upon the minister of interior and the king to put an end to arbitrary imprisonment and apply the regulations put forward in the Code of Criminal Procedures. Following several appeals to the government to respect people's right to freedom from arbitrary arrest, Alahmad was arrested by the Saudi authorities and put into prison, where, at the time of writing, he remains.

19 Stéphane Lacroix, "Saudi Islamists and the Potential for Protest," Foreign Policy, June 2, 2011, accessed July 15, 2011,

20 See the example of Al-ouda at Toby Craig Jones, "Religious Revivalism and Its Challenges to the Saudi Regime," in eds. Mohammed Ayoob and Hasan Kosebalaban, Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia: Wahhabism and the State (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009), 117.

21 Muhammad al-Sulami, "Fatwa Body Bans Mingling of Sexes," Arab News, Jun 7, 2011, accessed July 16, 2011,

22 See, for example, the religious edict banning women from driving, available at The General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta, "Women's Fatwa,"

23 ICG Middle East Report, "Can Saudi Arabia Reform Itself?" no. 28 (July 14, 2004).

24 See, for example, the religious edict banning women from driving, available at,

25 Joseph A. Kechichian, "The Role of the Ulama in the Politics of an Islamic State: The Case of Saudi Arabia," International Journal of Middle East Studies, no. 18 (1986).

26 Youssef al-Ahmad is a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.

27 "Saudi Clerics Want Women Banned from TV, Media," accessed March 24, 2011,

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Rima Al-Mukhtar, "Preacher Told Not to Issue Unauthorized Fatwas," Arab News, accessed July 25, 2011,

31 Ahmed Al Omran, "Saudi Women Participate in First Athletic Exchange," National Public Radio, accessed August 28, 2011,

32 Mohammed al-Habdan, "Altarbiah albadanyah fi almadaris alnesa'yah" (Sport in Girls' Schools), accessed August 24, 2011,

33 Fahad, Farouqi, "Saudi Reform on Agenda at Last," The Guardian, accessed May 20, 2011,

34 Abdulaziz Sager does not see major political challenges arising from any group of activities, except from the "Islamic environment." However, such opinion was developed prior to 2005. See p. 253.

35 ICG Middle East Report, "Can Saudi Arabia Reform Itself?"

36 ICG interview with Abdullah al-Hamed, Riyadh, December 8, 2003.

37 ICG Middle East Report, "Can Saudi Arabia Reform Itself?"

38 Ibid.

39 Salman Alouda was one of the main signatories of the petition entitled "Towards a State of Rights and Institutions." Following his signature, his weekly live program on the Saudi-owned MBC network was shut down and he was banned from travelling outside Saudi Arabia.

40 Stéphane Lacroix, "Saudi Liberals Elitist Ambitions and the Reality of Saudi Society," Al Majalla, June 2, 2010, accessed August 21, 2011,

41 Ibid.

42 Sulayman al-Daweesh and Robert F.Worth, "For Saudi Liberal, a Ripple of Hope in a Sea of Tradition," New York Times, March 2, 2009, accessed August 26, 2011,

43 The government has promised to establish a law regulating the establishment and work of NGOs, but so far there is no system to register NGOs other than as charities.

44 Dr. Mohamad Alaqahtani (former head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, currently a Secretariat in the Association), interview by author, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 25, 2011.

45 National Society for Human Rights, Comments on the First Human Rights Report in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Riyadh, 2006).

46 National Society for Human Rights, First Report on the Status of Human Rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Riyadh, 2004).

47 Ibid.

48 For more information see Rights, Comments on the First Human Rights Report in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

49 Several studies and reports on human rights in Saudi Arabia published by the Society are available at (accessed on August 8, 2010).

50 For tribunal cases raised by the association, refer to the organization's website:

51 Alqahtani, interview.

52 Some of the founding members have been arrested by the authorities. See the case of Mohmad Albajadi, a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Associations, available at

53 Centre for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, accessed August 1, 2011,

54 Alqahtani, interview.

55 Ibid.