The United States and Saudi Arabia Human Rights and Arms Sales

Saudi Arabia Human Rights

This article was last updated on August 8, 2022

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The United States and Saudi Arabia – Human Rights and Arms Sales

Washington loves to use human rights violations as an excuse to either sanction or take military action against nations that it deems have unacceptable behaviour toward its citizens, and, in a unipolar world, their actions went unchecked.  There is, however, one nation that gets an exemption; Saudi Arabia, Washington’s second-best friend in the Middle East and ground zero for a war with Iran.  In this posting, we’ll look at what the Department of State has to say about human rights in Saudi Arabia followed by some recent news.


On an annual basis, the U.S. Department of State releases Country Reports on many nations around the world.  The latest report on Saudi Arabia opens with this stage-setting information:


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is both head of state and head of government. The 1992 Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government, and it provides that the Quran and Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) serve as the country’s constitution. It specifies that the rulers of the country shall be male descendants of the founder, King Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud).


The State Security Presidency, National Guard, and Ministries of Defense and Interior, all of which report to the king, are responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The State Security Presidency includes the General Directorate of Investigation (mabahith), Special Security Forces, and Special Emergency Forces; police are under the Ministry of Interior. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.


The report is divided into several sections, however, to keep this posting to a reasonable length, I will deal with two sections along with examples for each section.  It is important to keep in mind that the nation is under sharia law.


1.) Respect for the Integrity of the Person


a.) Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings:


Capital punishment can be imposed for violations including apostasy, sorcery and adultery.  Recently, the Saudi Government announced a moratorium on the deal penalty for drug-related offences by the changes to the law have not been published.  Minors’ prison sentences are capped at 10 years (with adults being defined as those aged 18 and older) with the exception of a category of crimes that includes various types of murder and those crimes that carry specific penalties under the nation’s interpretation of sharia law.  Lengthy prison sentences or death are prescribed for individuals who are convicted of terrorism or political protests.


b.) Disappearances:


There are outstanding reports of disappearances carried out by or on behalf of government authorities including several members of the royal family that were detained in March 2020 who stand accused of contact with foreign powers to carry out a coup d’état.  Here is another example:


On April 5, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years’ imprisonment, followed by a 20-year travel ban, on terrorism financing and facilitation charges. After his arrest in 2018, al-Sadhan was detained incommunicado for two years before being allowed to speak with his family. Legal proceedings against him began on March 3 in a process that Amnesty International said was marred by rights violations. Al-Sadhan reportedly tweeted comments critical of the government and sympathetic to ISIS, which family members claimed were satirical in nature. Family members alleged that al-Sadhan was physically abused during his detention and that he was unable to present a proper legal defense during his trial.


c.) Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:


While the law prohibits torture, there were reports by human rights organizations and the United Nations that such actions had taken place when officials try to extract “confessions” through the use of torture.  Here is an example:


In July Human Rights Watch reported anonymous accounts from prison guards alleging torture of political detainees, including of prominent activists Loujain al-Hathloul and Mohammed al-Rabea. They alleged women’s rights activists and others were subjected to electric shocks, beatings, whippings, and sexual abuse. In February, following her sentencing and conditional release, al-Hathloul’s family reported that an appeals court rejected a lawsuit regarding her claims of torture. In December 2020 the Riyadh Criminal Court had previously dismissed her claim, citing a lack of evidence.


Courts also continue to sentence individuals to corporal punishment (i.e. flogging) for offenses including drunkeness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons and false accusations of adultery.  One individual who was found guilty of drug trafficking was sentenced to 5,000 lashes, however, his sentence was changed to five years in prison, a five year travel ban and a large fine.  Saudi activist Raif Badawi was originally sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in prison and a ten-year travel ban with his sentence including 50 lashes every week for 19 weeks after his initial flogging.  Physicians who examined him stated that his health would not permit further floggings because his initial wounds had not healed properly.  In 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court announced the abolition of flogging which would be replaced by fines and imprisonment as shown here:



e.) Denial of Fair Public Trial:


While the nation’s law states that authorities may not detain a persons for more than 24 hours, certain government departments including the State Security Presidency have the authority to arrest and detail persons indefinitely without judicial oversight, notification of charges or effective access to legal counsel or family members even though the law requires that authorities file charges within 72 hours of arrest and hold a trial within six months.  There are reports that authorities have held suspects up to 12 months in investigative detention without access to legal council with authorities complete a full investigation of the case.  Here is an example:


On May 6, Prisoners of Conscience reported that dozens of journalists and bloggers remained under arbitrary arrest. In November Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities had detained blogger Zainab al-Hashemi and university student Asmaa al-Subaie since May without charge. The two were reportedly arrested with other online activists. As of year’s end, their whereabouts were unknown.


While the law states that court hearings must be public, courts can be closed at the discretion of a judge.  Authorities are allowed to close a trial depending on the sensitivity of a case to national security, the reputation of the defendant or the safety of witnesses.   Authorities must offer defendants a lawyer at government expense, however, activists state that many political prisoners were not able to or allowed to retain or consult with an attorney during critical pareses of an investigation or trail.   In certain circumstances, the testimony of a women in court equals one-half that of a man and judges have the discretion to discredit the testimony of non-practicing Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and persons of other religions.


2.) Respect for Civil Liberties


a.) Freedom of Expression Including for Members of the Press and Other Media:


The law does not provide for or protect freedom of expression inducing for members of the press and other media as quoted here:


Media are prohibited from committing acts that lead to disorder and division, affect the security of the state or its public relations, or undermine human dignity and rights.” Authorities are responsible for regulating and determining what speech or expression undermines internal security. The government can ban or suspend media outlets if it concludes they violated the press and publications law, and it monitored and blocked hundreds of thousands of internet sites. There were frequent reports of restrictions on free speech.


Counterterrorism laws are defined as:


…any conduct…intended to disturb public order…or destabilize the state or endanger its national unity.” The law also penalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the king or crown prince…or anyone who establishes or uses a website or computer program…to commit any of the offenses set out in the law.”


Here are more details on freedom of expression for members of the press including online media:


The law governs printed materials; printing presses; bookstores; the import, rental, and sale of films; television and radio; foreign media offices and their correspondents; and online newspapers and journals. Media fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Media. The ministry may permanently close “whenever necessary” any means of communication – defined as any means of expressing a viewpoint that is meant for circulation – that it deems is engaged in a prohibited activity, as set forth in the law.


Government policy guidance instructs journalists in the country to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve cultural heritage. The press law requires all online newspapers and bloggers to obtain a license from the ministry. The law bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”


I think that information the information that I have provided in this posting gives you a sense of “freedom”, Saudi Arabian-style.  If you wish to read additional information, please click here for the entire Department of State Report.


Now, let’s look at recent news as announced by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency which can only have made Raytheon’s corner office dwellers happy:



Saudi Arabia Human Rights


Saudi Arabia Human Rights


I find it interesting that the sale of these PATRIOT Missiles will accomplish two purposes:


1.) allow Saudi Arabia to protect its borders from Houthi cross-border unmanned aerial and ballistic missile attacks on civilian sites and critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia not to mention protecting the 70,000 United States citizens who live in Saudi Arabia.  This, despite the fact that the war has resulted in  nearly 15,000 Yemeni civilian casualties, most of them in air strikes by the Saudi-led and American-armed coalition forces as shown here:



Saudi Arabia Human Rights


…and here:


Saudi Arabia Human Rights


2.) Here’s a quote from the press release:


This proposed sale will support the foreign policy goals and national security objectives of the United States by improving the security of a partner country that is a force for political stability and economic progress in the Gulf region.


In other words, the sale will support Washington’s moves toward a war with Iran.


This sentence in the press release is for irony-impaired politicians:


The proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region.”


At least not until the Russians or Chinese sell the Iranians additional materiel to counter Washington’s sale of $3 billion worth of Patriot missiles and other products from America’s defense contractors.


While it is not terribly surprising, Washington can clearly speak out of “both sides of its mouth” when it comes to manipulating the narrative to suit its own purposes.  The fact that politicians of both stripes can totally ignore Saudi Arabia’s egregious behaviour when it comes to human rights and, at the same time, justify selling the Saudi royal family billions of dollars worth of arms is nothing short of appalling. 

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