Saudi Arabian FlagNGO Law Monitor: Saudi Arabia

Introduction | At a Glance | Key Indicators | International Rankings
Legal Snapshot | Legal Analysis | Reports | News and Additional Resources
Last updated 14 February 2014

Update: The Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, which took effect on February 1, 2014, contains a vague and overly-broad definition of terrorism. The law gives the Ministry of Interior sweeping authority to order searches, seizures, arrests, and detentions with little or no judicial oversight and enables Ministry officials to hold suspects in detention without charge or trial for six months – including up to three months without contacting a lawyer or family members – and provides no possibility of appeal. Human rights organizations have denounced the new law as clearly violative of individual rights, including the rights to due process and a fair trial.

Introduction

Although there are hundreds of civil society organizations working in various fields in Saudi Arabia, the vast majority of them are government-affiliated, and there are few, if any, truly independent organizations. Civil society remains underdeveloped, due in large part to a restrictive legal framework that limits organizations’ activities and funding and a lack of expertise in establishing effective and sustainable institutions. This environment exists despite Saudi society’s cultural and social heritage, including religious laws that call for civic work in various spheres.

Throughout Saudi Arabia’s history, various forms of civil society organizations appeared and contributed to bringing the public's efforts together for volunteer projects. However, these advances were hindered by the establishment of modern state institutions that adopted a central administrative approach and effectively prohibited independent civic action.

In recent years, the Saudi Arabian people have increasingly called for expanded civic rights. In response to these demands, the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs first proposed in 2006 a draft Law on Associations and Foundations to provide a unified legal code for civil society organizations. On 18 January 2008, the Al Watan newspaper published what was reported as the most recent version of the draft law [English] [Arabic]. Since then, no action has been taken by the Saudi government. As recently as October 2013, a consortium of civil society groups called on the government to adopt a new and enabling CSO law, but there has been no indication that the government will do so any time soon.

As a result, Saudi civil society continues to be regulated by the Saudi Basic Law of Governance and the restrictive and outdated Decision of the Council of Ministers 107 of 25 Jumada al Akheera 1410 (23 January 1990).

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At a Glance

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).

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Key Indicators

Population 26,534,504 (July 2012 est.)
Capital Riyadh
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.

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International Rankings

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale
(best - worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 57 (2013) 1 – 182
World Bank Rule of Law Index 61 (2012) 100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index 3 (2012) 100 – 0
Transparency International 46 (2013) 1 180
Freedom House: Freedom in the World Status: Not Free
Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 7 (2013)
Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
Foreign Policy: Failed States Index Rank: 102 (2013) 177 – 1

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Legal Snapshot

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

Constitutional Framework

The Saudi Constitution, also known as the Basic Law of Governance, was adopted in 1992 by a Royal Decree issued by King Fahd. Notably, there are no constitutional provisions that specifically support the rights to freedom of association or assembly. Article 26 of the Saudi Constitution provides that "the state shall protect human rights according to Islamic law." Article 27 also provides that the state shall “encourage organizations and individuals to participate in philanthropic activities.”

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

Saudi Arabia lacks a single unified law to govern civil society organizations. Instead, organizations are subject to a number of different regulations, which 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.
  • In addition, 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.

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

A draft NGO law was first submitted by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2006 and published by the Shura Council in 2007 [English] [Arabic], and appears to have been amended by the Council of Ministers in 2008 [English] [Arabic]. As of October 2012, a panel of experts in the Saudi Cabinet was reportedly reviewing the most recent draft. 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 closely aligned with good international practices. Notable among the issues presented by 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. This approach would afford government officials excessive discretion in their decisions and actions related to civil society organizations.  

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Legal Analysis

Organizational Forms

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 CSOs:

  • To be registered, organizations are required to have at least twenty founding members, all of whom must be Saudi citizens.
  • The registration process may take considerable time, often up to one year or more. Unsuccessful applicants are generally not provided clear justification for the registration delays.
  • An organization’s field of work must be approved by the Ministry of Social Affairs, and its geographical zone of work must not overlap with other societies or institutions.
  • The Minister has full discretion to grant or refuse registration based on the Minister's full discretion.

Barriers to Operational Activity

NGOs face legal restrictions on their activities as well. 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, government authorities may compel the founders of the organization to discontinue them.

The law also allows the state to intervene in the internal affairs of organizations. For example, representatives of various official agencies monitor most meetings held by societies. Governmental representatives attending general meetings may even 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 they can pursue are narrowly defined.

Furthermore, the recently adopted counter-terrorism law creates a number of new restrictions on potential speech. The definition of terrorism crimes under the law is so broad as to criminalize peaceful expressions of dissent – including advocating for political reforms, exposing official corruption, and insulting the monarchy. Such acts are punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Barriers to International Contact

NGOs must obtain prior approval from the Ministry of Social Affairs 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, in practice Saudi NGOs are prevented from receiving any foreign funding.

Domestic funding is limited to cash donations from Saudi Arabians. 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 supporting activities considered to be “terrorist” in nature.

Many organizations and institutions carry out investment projects to increase their income, although there are several restrictions that limit speculation or getting involved in high-risk investments.

Barriers to Assembly

Lack of Legal Protections. There is no constitution in Saudi Arabia; thus there is no constitutional protection of the right to hold assemblies. Instead, the Ministry of Interior has issued a circular prohibiting assemblies altogether, and threatening to punish individuals who participate in them. Cultural and literary assemblies and other forums are also banned. The counter-terrorism law may also be used to ban and criminalize assemblies, as acts deemed to “disturb the public order.” The highest religious authority in the state, the Commission of Senior Scholars, has issued a statement declaring that assemblies are religiously prohibited as well.

Spontaneous Demonstrations. Spontaneous demonstrations are not allowed. Individuals who take part in spontaneous demonstrations are subject to a range of punishments including imprisonment, flogging, and travel bans. The punishments are usually based on fatwas, or religious edicts, issued by the Commission of Senior Scholars.

Criminal Penalties. Criminalization and punishment is usually based on fatwas issued by the Commission of Senior Scholars and circulars from the Ministry of Interior. Penalties can include imprisonment, flogging, travel bans, and dismissal from employment.

In addition, the Cyber Crime Regulation includes a provision that can be used to penalize organizers or supporters of assemblies. Article 6 of the Regulation provides for a term of imprisonment and fine for anyone who uses the Internet or a computer to “compromise the public order, religious values, public manners, or private lives.”

Enforcement. The state often uses excessive force to disperse assemblies, including water hoses, tear gas, rubber bullets, flash grenades, and live ammunition to scatter demonstrators. People have been killed or seriously injured from the dispersal of assemblies.

Article 7 of the Statute of the Internal Security Forces provides that Internal Security personnel may use arms “to scatter the assembly or the hostile demonstration, which is comprised of five people or more who threaten public security, after warning the demonstrators to scatter. The order to use arms in this case shall be issued by a commander who must be obeyed. It should be considered in all of above-mentioned incidents that firing should be the only method to achieve the above-mentioned purposes.”

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Reports

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 2013 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

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News and Additional Resources

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 ngomonitor@icnl.org.

Saudi Arabia: New Terrorism Law is Latest Tool to Crush Peaceful Expression (February 2014)
Amnesty International said that Saudi Arabia’s recently adopted counter-terrorism law will “entrench existing patterns of human rights violations and serve as a further tool to suppress peaceful political dissent.”

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.

News Archive

Arrest and incommunicado detention of human rights defender Mr. Fadel Mekki Al-Manasef (October 2011)

Drop Charges Against Human Rights Lawyer (September 2011) 

Detainees disappear into black hole of Saudi jails (August 2011) 

Stop Trial of Journalist (August 2011) 

Amnesty: Saudi plans anti-terror law to stop dissent (July 2011) 

Women Activists Prepare to Defy Saudi Arabian Driving Ban (June 2011) 

Why Is the Story Different in Saudi Arabia? (April 2011)

Dissident Writer Arrested (April 2011)

Saudi Shiites Call for Withdrawal and Shiite Religious Leaders Incriminate Massacres in Bahrain (March 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) 

National Declaration for Reform Saudi Intellectuals Appeal to Saudi Government for Political Reform (February 2011) 

UN rights chief encouraged by positive changes in Persian Gulf (April 2010) ‎

Saudi Arabia: Free Forgotten Prisoners (April 2010)

Saudi Arabia: Women lawyers may soon be allowed in courtrooms (February 2010)

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The foregoing information was collected by ICNL LLC Middle East / North Africa Regional office in Amman, Jordan.