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Last updated 12 September 2013
In Saudi Arabia, although there are hundreds of civil society organizations working in various fields, the vast majority of Saudi NGOs are government-affiliated, and there are few if any independent organizations. Civil society remains underdeveloped, due in large part to a restrictive legal framework, a lack of transparency in NGO operations, and a lack of expertise in establishing effective and sustainable institutions. This environment exists despite Saudi society’s cultural and social heritage, and religious laws that call for civic work in various spheres.
Throughout the history of Saudi Arabia, various organizational formations appeared. They contributed to bringing the public's efforts together for many volunteer projects. However, these efforts were weakened with the establishment of modern state institutions that adopted a central administrative approach and effectively prohibited independent civic action.
Recently, Saudi Arabian society has seen an unprecedented increase in demand for civic rights. In response to these demands, the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs proposed in 2006 a draft Law on Associations and Foundations. This law was revised and published by the Shura Council on 31 December 2007 [English] [عربي]. On 18 January 2008, the Al Watan newspaper published what was reported as the most recent version of the draft law [English] [عربي]. Since then, no action has been taken by the Saudi government. As recently as October 2012, Saudi media reported on the "anticipated law," but there has been no indication of imminent adoption of the law by the government of Saudi Arabia.
As a result, Saudi civil society continues to be regulated by the restrictive and outdated Decision of the Council of Ministers 107 of 25 Jumada al Akheera 1410 (23 January 1990).
|Organizational Forms||Charitable societies|
|Registration Body||Ministry of Social Affairs|
|Approximate Number||According to the Charity Commission for England and Wales, "There are approximately 470 charitable societies operating domestically within Saudi Arabia who work under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Affairs. In addition there are approximately 40 foundations set up by Royal Decree, which are also under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Affairs."|
|Barriers to Entry||Minimum membership requirement of at least 20 Saudi citizens.
Inordinate delays in the registration process, which can sometimes take years.
Ministry’s full discretion to grant or refuse registration..
|Barriers to Activities||Narrowly restricted range of permissible activities.
Invasive supervision and monitoring of internal affairs, through government attendance of organizational meetings.
|Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy||Advocacy organizations are prohibited. The only legal NGO forms are charities or missionary organizations, which are narrowly defined.|
|Barriers to International Contact||NGOs must obtain prior approval from the Ministry before communicating with regional and international peer groups. Foreign organizations are prohibited from opening branches in Saudi Arabia.|
|Barriers to Resources||The receipt of foreign funding is prevented in practice (although there is no legal barrier per se).|
|Population||26,534,504 (July 2012 est.)|
|Type of Government||Monarchy|
|Life Expectancy at Birth||Male: 72.37 years
Female: 76.42 years (2012 est.)
|Literacy Rate||Male: 90.4%
Female: 81.3% (2010 est.)
|Religious Groups||Muslim (official): 100%|
|Ethnic Groups||Arab: 90%; Afro-Asian: 10%.|
|GDP Per Capita||$24,400 (2011 est.)|
Source: The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2013.
|Ranking Body||Rank||Ranking Scale
(best - worst possible)
|UN Human Development Index||56 (2011)||1 – 182|
|World Bank Rule of Law Index||56.8 (2011)||100 – 0|
|World Bank Voice & Accountability Index||3.3 (2011)||100 – 0|
|Transparency International||66 (2012)||1 – 180|
|Freedom House: Freedom in the World||Status: Not Free
Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 7 (2012)
|Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
|Foreign Policy: Failed States Index||Rank: 100 (2012)||177 – 1|
International and Regional Human Rights Agreements
|Key International Agreements||Ratification*||Year|
|International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)||No||--|
|Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1)||No||--|
|International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)||No||--|
|Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR)||No||--|
|International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)||Yes||1997|
|Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)||Yes||2000|
|Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women||No||--|
|Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)||Yes||1996|
|International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW)||No||--|
|Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)||Yes||2008|
|Key Regional Agreements||Ratification*||Year|
|Arab Charter on Human Rights||Yes||2009|
* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty
The Saudi Constitution was adopted in 1992 by Royal Decree of King Fahd. Notably, there are no constitutional provisions that support the freedom of association or assembly, or the formation of associations. Article 26 of the Saudi Constitution does, however, require that "the state shall protect human rights according to Islamic law."
National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector
There are many regulations related to civil society organizations in Saudi Arabia. These regulations govern charitable institutions, labor committees and cooperative societies. The most prominent are the following:
- Decision of the Council of Ministers 107 of 25 Jumada al Akheera 1410 (23 January 1990), which governs charitable societies and institutions and addresses establishment requirements; registration requirements; internal governance; termination; and administration.
- Regulations relating to a wide variety of specific organizations including the National Commission for Elderly, the National Commission for Childhood, Human Rights Commission, Handicapped Rehabilitation Programs, National Commission for the Welfare of Prisoners, Nurseries and Social Welfare Foundations, Girls Welfare and Vocational Rehabilitation Programs for the Handicapped.
- A license from the Ministry of Labor is required to form a worker’s committee in any private sector company. All formal and informal workers’ committees are monitored by the Ministry of Labor.
A panel of experts in the Saudi Cabinet is reportedly reviewing the draft NGO law which was first submitted by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2006 and published by the Shura Council in 2007 [English] [عربي], and appears to have been amended by the Council of Ministers in 2008 [English] [عربي]. According to one lawyer in Saudi Arabia, the draft law "will streamline efforts, benefit groups currently under the supervision of multiple authorities, unify these groups' demands, define their functional scope and contribute to their development."
While draft legislation represents a significant step in the formal recognition of NGOs as development partners with the state and the people of Saudi Arabia, as well as codification of their status as legal persons in the Kingdom, previous draft laws have not been so closely aligned with good international practices. Notable among the issues of previous draft laws is the propensity to provide a general rule or guidance, but defer precision in executing such guidance to regulatory action to be taken by a ministry or (usually) the National Authority for Associations and Foundations. Such discretion is often extremely broad, even with general statutory guidance.
Civil society organizations in Saudi Arabia can be registered as either a "charitable society" or a "charitable foundation." Charitable societies and foundations carry out charitable and voluntary work, including helping the poor, improving residences, providing financial aid to needy people; preparing youth for the labor market through training programs and coordination with employers; and providing healthcare, educational and social services. All of these organizations are governed by Decision of the Council of Ministers 107 of 25 Jumada al Akheera 1410 , and are supervised by the Ministry of Social Affairs in terms of registration procedures, monitoring the elections of the board of directors, financial accounts and their activities and programs. Charitable societies also receive annual financial support from the Ministry, depending on the budget size of each society.
Public Benefit Status
There is no law or regulation that distinguishes public benefit organizations from other organizations.
Barriers to Entry
There are multiple barriers to the formation and existence of civil society organizations:
- To be registered, organizations are obligated to have at least twenty founding members who must be Saudi citizens.
- The registration process may be protracted, and sometimes takes years; unsuccessful applicants are not provided rational justifications for the registration delays.
- An organization’s field of work must be approved by the Ministry of Social Affairs, and its geographical work zones must not overlap with other societies or institutions.
- The Minister has the right to grant or refuse registration based on the Minister's full discretion.
Barriers to Operational Activity
First, an NGO’s activities are strictly confined to those which were approved during the registration process, and the range of permissible activities is narrowly construed. A NGO must obtain prior approval from the Ministry of Social Affairs before undertaking additional activities. Moreover, the Ministry of Social Affairs and intelligence authorities strictly monitor the activities of NGOs; if an NGO engages in unapproved activities, then government authorities compel the founders of the organization to sign pledges to discontinue these activities.
Second, the law allows the state to intervene in the internal affairs of organizations. For example, representatives of various official agencies monitor most meetings held by societies. Indeed, governmental representatives attending general meetings may also approve resolutions.
Barriers to Speech / Advocacy
Advocacy organizations are prohibited. The only legal organizational form for civil society is the charity or missionary organization – and the permissible purposes which they can pursue are narrowly defined.
Allegedly, a draft anti-terrorism law - the Draft Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes and Financing of Terrorism – is being prepared, which would allow the authorities to prosecute peaceful dissent with harsh penalties as a "terrorist crime." Under the draft law, the definition of terrorist crimes is so broad that legitimate dissent would, in effect, be criminalized. Questioning the integrity of the King or the Crown Prince would carry a minimum prison sentence of 10 years.
Barriers to International Contact
NGOs must obtain prior approval from the Ministry before communicating with regional and international peer groups. Foreign organizations are prohibited from opening branches in Saudi Arabia.
Barriers to Resources
Although there are no specific rules or regulations that address the receipt of funds from abroad, it is known that Saudi NGOs are prevented, in practice, from receiving any foreign funding.
Domestic funding is limited to cash donations from Saudis. In recent years, the government has instituted a plan that includes many restraints and procedures for monitoring NGO fundraising in an effort to impede groups who support terrorist activities.
Many organizations and institutions carry out investment projects to increase their incomes although there are several restrictions that limit speculation or getting involved in high risk investments.
|UN Universal Periodic Review Reports||Universal Periodic Review: Saudi Arabia (2009)|
|Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs||Saudi Arabia|
|USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes||Not available|
|U.S. State Department||2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Saudi Arabia
Advancing Freedom and Democracy Reports, 2010: Saudi Arabia
|Failed States Index Reports||2012 Foreign Policy Failed States Index|
|IMF Country Reports||Saudi Arabia and the IMF|
|International Commission of Jurists||Not available|
|International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library||Saudi Arabia|
While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change. If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at email@example.com.
Article on Civil Society in Saudi Arabia (July 2013)
"The Arab uprisings have had an interesting, if not contradictory, effect on civil society in Saudi Arabia. Popular protests in neighbouring countries inspired Saudi activists to launch several online campaigns demanding reform in the conservative Kingdom..."
CIVICUS highlights escalating crackdown on civil society in Saudi Arabia (May 2013)
The Saudi government is resorting to a systematic crackdown on critical voices through the denial of registration to human rights groups, imposition of travel bans on activists and intimidation of human rights defenders through politically motivated legal proceedings. CIVICUS urges the Government of Saudi Arabia to take all necessary measures to ensure the creation of a safe and enabling environment for civil society groups in the country. At a minimum, the Saudi Government must (i) allow space for the registration of independent human rights groups; (ii) remove arbitrary travel bans on pro-democracy activists; and (iii) immediately and unconditionally release all civil society activists, including Dr. Abdullah Al-Hamid and Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani.
Social Affairs Justifies Refusal to Register "Adalah": Objectives "Contrary to the System" (January 2013)
Lawyers for the Ministry of Social Affairs respond to a lawsuit seeking registration from the Adala Center for Human Rights by telling the court that "the principle of the rule of law, which is one of the objectives of the Adalah center, is contrary to the regulations of the country and the Islamic Sharia."
Saudi Arabia Prosecuting Peaceful Protesters (October 2012)
On October 17, 2012, the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution charged 19 men with “instigating chaos and sedition” and “gathering illegally” after they participated in a peaceful protest on September 23 outside Turfiya prison, in Qassim province in central Saudi Arabia. They were seeking the release of family members, some of whom have been held for years without charge. On October 18, a criminal court sentenced 15 of the men to between 3 and 15 days in prison, along with suspended sentences of between 50 and 90 lashes and suspended jail terms of between two and five months. The trial of the remaining four is scheduled for November 4. “Instead of addressing the protesters’ concerns, the Saudi government has used the judicial system to punish them,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Saudi Arabia Shura Council amends draft law on civil society organizations (October 2012)
Saudis currently await the verdict from a panel of experts in the Saudi cabinet on a draft law regulating civil society organizations in the country. The Ministry of Social Affairs submitted the bill in 2009 and it was recently amended by the Shura Council.
Cabinet panel of experts considering draft law regulating CSOs (October 2012)
Saudi Arabia currently awaits the verdict from a panel of experts in the Saudi cabinet on a draft law regulating civil society organizations in the country. The Ministry of Social Affairs submitted the bill, which was recently amended by the Shura Council for consideration, three years ago. Political expert Mohammed al-Salehi said the law, if passed, would regulate the work of all NGOs, including human rights, voluntary, charitable, professional and scientific organizations.
Saudi Arabia condemns Russian comments on human rights (July 2012)
Saudi Arabia condemned comments by Russia's human rights envoy on the situation in the Kingdom as "hostile" and an unjustified interference in the Kingdom's internal affairs, the Saudi state news agency (SPA) reported. The rare public exchange appeared to reflect tensions over the 16-month-old uprising in Syria where Russia has resisted introduction of Western- and Arab-backed sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi rights campaigner given 4 yrs' jail: activists (April 2012)
A court in Riyadh has sentenced prominent Saudi rights campaigner Mohamad al-Bajadi to four years in prison, activists said on Tuesday. Bajadi was detained in March 2011 after voicing support for families demonstrating outside the Interior Ministry in Riyadh to demand the release of jailed relatives, according to fellow activists. They say he has been on hunger strike for a month. "Last Tuesday, after the news of the hunger strike came out, they took him to the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh and he objected to the legitimacy of the court ... and despite that the judge sentenced him," activist Fowzan al-Harby told Reuters.
Saudi Arabia: Christians arrested at private prayer (February 2012)
Thirty five Ethiopian Christians are awaiting deportation from Saudi Arabia for “illicit mingling,” after police arrested them when they raided a private prayer gathering in Jeddah in mid-December, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. Of those arrested, 29 were women. They were subjected to arbitrary body cavity searches in custody, three of the Ethiopians told Human Rights Watch.
Drop Charges Against Human Rights Lawyer (September 2011)
Detainees disappear into black hole of Saudi jails (August 2011)
Stop Trial of Journalist (August 2011)
Why Is the Story Different in Saudi Arabia? (April 2011)
Dissident Writer Arrested (April 2011)
Saudi police open fire on pro-democracy protesters (March 2011)
Saudi authorities urged to allow peaceful protests (March 2011)
A Saudi Prince’s Plea for Reform (February 2011)
Rights watchdog urges Saudi to release activists (February 2011)
Nearby Uprisings Stoke Saudis' Political Passions (February 2011)
Saudi royal concern over growing regional unrest (February 2011)
Saudi Arabia: Free Forgotten Prisoners (April 2010)
Saudi Arabia: Women lawyers may soon be allowed in courtrooms (February 2010)
The foregoing information was collected by ICNL LLC Middle East / North Africa Regional office in Amman, Jordan.