How Bad Are Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Abuses?

  • October 6, 2023
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Michael Chapman

During the 2020 presidential race, Joe Biden pledged to play tough with Saudi Arabia and hold it accountable for its human rights abuses – in one case, especially: the regime’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. However, as a recent Cato policy analysis by Jon Hoffmann, Pariah or Partner? details, Biden did not keep his promise after the election and is now seeking to build warmer US‐​Saudi relations.

A cushier relationship between the countries is not wise policy, according to the Cato report, which states that “Saudi Arabia actively undermines both U.S. interests and values.” One of those interests is human rights. Saudi Arabia’s human rights record should make it a pariah among nations. Let’s look at just a few of the facts about the Saudi regime.

The US State Department’s 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights: Saudi Arabia reports,

“Capital punishment may be imposed for a range of nonviolent offenses, including apostasy, sorcery, and adultery, although in practice death sentences for apostasy, sorcery, and adultery were rare and usually reduced on appeal.”
“… members of the Shia minority and members of the al‐​Huwaitat tribe were disproportionately sentenced to death.”
“Amnesty International reported that Saudi Arabia executed 148 persons in the first 11 months of 2022 and that in March, the authorities executed 81 individuals in a day—the largest mass execution in years—including 41 individuals who were from the Saudi Shi’a minority.”
“On April 11, the Sanad and THE WINA human rights organizations reported that Abdullah bin Abdulrahman al‐​Kamli, age 29, died in prison with marks indicating that he died under torture.”
“…[O]n November 10, the government resumed executions for drug‐​related crimes when it executed two Pakistani nationals for smuggling heroin, according to Amnesty International. By year’s end, a total of 20 drug‐​related executions had been carried out despite the announced moratorium [against capital punishment for drug crimes].”
“…[T]he European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) said it had documented 21 killings by government officials or others in prisons during the period from December 2010 to October 2021.”
“There were numerous credible reports of disappearances carried out by or on behalf of government authorities. … [A]uthorities arrested and forcibly disappeared rapper and songwriter Omar Shiboba in mid‐​March for unknown reasons without a charge. As of year’s end, his whereabouts were unknown.”
“[T]here were numerous credible reports … of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government officials and law enforcement officers, and of defendants’ confessions being obtained through torture or other mistreatment.”
“[L]awyer and activist Mut‘ib bin Zafir al‐​Amri … had been subjected to severe physical and psychological torture since 2018 by government officials in Dahban Prison, including beatings and electric shocks.”
“… [W]riter, translator, and computer programmer Osama Khaled, detained since 2020, was sentenced to a prison term of 32 years …following ‘allegations relating to the right of free speech.’”
“… U.S.-Saudi citizen Saad Almadi, age 72, was sentenced to 16 years in prison, plus a 16‐​year and 3‑month long travel ban, for tweets he primarily posted while abroad, some of which were critical of the government.”
“There were reports that authorities attempted to intimidate critics living abroad, pressured their relatives in country, and in certain instances abducted or pressured dissidents and repatriated them to the country.”
“[F]ormer interior ministry official Salem al‐​Muzaini, who is the son‐​in‐​law of exiled former senior security official Saad al‐​Jabri, was abducted from a third country in 2017, forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia, tortured, and detained.”
“T]he government uses the Kollona Amn (We Are All Security) app, which allows citizens to report others alleged to be critical online of the government, and to target female critics of the government.”
“Government authorities regularly surveilled websites, blogs, chat rooms, social media sites, emails, and text messages.”

Those are just some of the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia reported by the US State Department for one year (2022).

On a related note, Amnesty International reported that Saudi Arabia passed a new Personal Status Law in March 2022, which “enables discrimination against women, including through male guardianship. Only men can be legal guardians under this law, and women must have a male guardian’s permission to marry and are then obliged to obey their husband.”

Twenty‐​one years ago, Cato Senior Fellow Doug Bandow wrote a policy analysis about America’s dubious alliance with Saudi Arabia, describing the nation as “a corrupt totalitarian regime.” He concluded, “Although America should not retreat from the world, it should stop supporting illegitimate and unpopular regimes where its vital interests are not involved, as in Saudi Arabia.”

That policy change is long overdue.

The newly unveiled sign in honor of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is seen on the 5th anniversary of his death in front of the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Los Angeles, California on October 2, 2023. (Getty Images)

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