Saudi Arabia

Last updated: 7 January 2019


Throughout Saudi Arabia’s history, various forms of civil society organizations (CSOs) have emerged and helped facilitate public action and cooperation. These advances were hindered, however, by modern state institutions that adopted a centralized administrative approach and created major obstacles to independent civic action and association. Although there are currently hundreds of CSOs in Saudi Arabia, more than half of these are charities, and most are government-affiliated. Civil society remains underdeveloped, largely because it has been subject to a restrictive legal framework and capricious implementation that allowed some organizations to form and register, but not others. This restrictive environment persists despite Saudi society’s cultural and social heritage, which includes religious laws that call for civic work in various areas.

In recent years, the Saudi Arabian people have increasingly called for expanded civic rights. In response to these demands, the government has offered slow, incremental moves towards reform. The Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs first proposed in 2006 a draft law ([English] [Arabic]) to provide a unified framework for governing civil society organizations.In 2008, the Shura Council approved a revised version of the draft ([English] [Arabic]), and submitted it to the Cabinet. Nearly seven years later, on December 1, 2015, the Cabinet approved a new Law on Associations and Foundations in a session led by King Salman. The new CSO Law went into effect on March 17, 2016, and implementing regulations for associations, foundations, and family funds were published on April 14. Existing associations were given one year since the CSO Law went into effect to come into compliance with the law.

For the first time in the Kingdom’s history, the law and its implementing regulations provide a comprehensive legal framework to govern the establishment, operation, and supervision of associations and foundations. The law and regulations attempt to cut processing time by obliging the Ministry of Labor and Social Development to complete licensing within 60 days, reduce the minimum number of association founders to ten, widen the scope of permissible activities for associations and foundations to undertake, and clarify “public benefit status.” However, the law and regulations also promulgate vaguely-worded phrases to limit CSO registration, including all violations to Islamic Sharia, contradictions to public morals, and breaches of national unity. Further, the law and regulations prohibit foreign foundations and associations from establishing branches inside Saudi Arabia, place constraints on the contact of domestic associations and foundations with foreign organizations, and subject associations and foundations to extensive government interference in internal affairs.

Organizational Forms Associations and foundations
Registration Body Ministry of Labor and Social Development (formerly Ministry of Social Affairs)
Approximate Number There were 852 NGOs in Saudi Arabia in 2017, which represented a roughly 30% increase since 2014 (653). Source: Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (

Barriers to Entry Associations must have at least 10 founders, all of whom must be Saudi citizens. Foundations may be established by a single person, though they must have a board of trustees consisting of at least three members.
Barriers to Activities Broadly-termed restrictions on permissible and impermissible purposes. Invasive supervision and monitoring of internal affairs.
Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy Advocacy organizations, and political activity more broadly, are prohibited.
Barriers to International Contact Domestic associations and foundations must obtain government approval to participate in activities abroad, provide services outside Saudi Arabia, or become members of international organizations. Foreign associations and foundations are prohibited from opening branches inside Saudi Arabia.
Barriers to Resources Associations and foundations may only receive foreign funding with the approval of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development.
Barriers to Assembly No constitutional protection of the right to hold assemblies; punishment for protesters often based on fatwas; excessive force used to break up protests.
Population 32,552,336 (July 2017 est.) (Immigrants make up 37% of the total population, according to 0fficial data (2017). Source: General Authority for Statistics (
Capital Riyadh
Type of Government Monarchy
Life Expectancy at Birth Total population: 75.5 years
Male: 73.4 years
Female: 77.7 years (2017 est.)
Country comparison to the world: 105
Literacy Rate Definition: age 15 and over can read and write
Total population: 94.7%
Male: 97%
Female: 91.1% (2015 est.)
Religious Groups 95% Muslim (85-90% Sunni and 10-15% Shia), 5% other (2015 est.)
Ethnic Groups Arab: 90%; Afro-Asian: 10%.
GDP Per Capita (PPP) $54,800 (2017 est.)

Source: The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2017.

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 39 (2018) 1 – 188
World Bank Rule of Law Index 57 (2018) 100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index 6 (2018) 100 – 0
Transparency International 57 (2017) 1 168
Freedom House: Freedom in the World Status: Not Free
Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 7 (2018)
Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index Rank: 99 (2018) 178 – 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
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Human Rights Declaration Yes 2014

* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty

Constitutional Framework

The Basic Rule of Governance (more commonly known as the Basic Law), adopted in 1992 by a Royal Decree issued by King Fahd, effectively acts as the country’s constitution. Notably, there are no constitutional provisions that specifically support the rights to freedom of association or assembly. Article 26 of the Basic Law provides that “the state shall protect human rights according to Islamic Sharia.” Article 27 also provides that the state shall “encourage organizations and individuals to participate in philanthropic activities.”

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

The most prominent laws and regulations affecting civil society organizations are the following:

  • Law on Associations and Foundations, Royal Decree No. M/8, 19.2.1437H (1 December 2015)
  • Charity Associations and Foundations Bylaw (22 March 2016)
  • Family Fund Rules (24 March 2016)
  • Implementing Regulations for Associations (14 April 2016)
  • Implementing Regulations for Foundations (14 April 2016)
  • Implementing Regulations for Family Funds (14 April 2016)
  • 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

We are unaware of any pending legislative/regulatory initiatives affecting CSOs in Saudi Arabia. Please help keep us informed; if you are aware of pending initiatives, write to ICNL at

Organizational Forms

Civil society organizations in Saudi Arabia can be registered as either an association or a foundation. Both associations and foundations are not-for-profit forms. According to the Implementing Regulations on Associations, an association may be established to achieve: (1) benevolence, solidarity, public services, or welfare, (2) a religious, social, cultural, health, environmental developmental, awareness-raising, technical, or seasonal activity, (3) an educational, pedagogical, scientific, research, professional, or training activity, (4) purposes related to professions, skills, creativity, youth, women, childhood, tourism, or voluntary work, (5) an activity related to protection of consumers and family protection, (6) providing assistance in crises or disasters and ensuring safety of the society, (7) family and social development, or (8) any other civil activity as decided by [the Ministry of Labor and Social Development]. The Implementing Regulations on Foundations define foundations as not-for-profit entities aiming to achieve one or more public or private benefit goal, and depending on funds, endowments, donations, grants, wills, returns of investments, or zakat allocated by the founders. Both family and civil funds are considered foundations for the purposes of these regulations. In October 2016, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs issued an announcement confirming that companies in Saudi Arabia may establish philanthropic foundations.

Associations and foundations are supervised primarily by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, which conducts registration procedures and monitors the financial accounts, activities, and programs of CSOs. If the work of an association or foundation involves an activity regulated by another government entity, the entity’s approval will be additionally necessary for registration and the entity will have a secondary, monitoring role over the technical requirements facing the association or foundation. Saudi law does not recognize informal, unregistered organizations. Branches of foreign associations and foundations may not be registered in Saudi Arabia.

Associations and foundations acquire legal personality as of the date of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development’s decision approving the application or the lapse of sixty days since the submission of the registration application. An association or foundation may carry out its activities as soon as it receives its license. The law is silent as to whether associations and foundations which have not yet received their license, but for which the sixty day period has expired, may likewise carry out activities.

Public Benefit Status

The CSO Law and implementing regulations for associations provide that an association may obtain public benefit status if it satisfies the following requirements:

  • It serves an objective that benefits the public, such as education, health, or safety;
  • Its activities or services are provided to its entire targeted society and not a select group of persons;
  • It is licensed to pursue its public benefit objective;
  • Its membership is open;
  • It has not committed any financial, technical, or administrative violations;
  • Its board includes two experts in philanthropy who have advanced degrees and at least five years’ experience.

Following registration, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development may grant this status to an association that meets all of the aforementioned requirements; there is no application process detailed in the law. The Ministry may withdraw the status if the association later fails to meet any of the required criteria. Public benefit status affords a number of advantages, including the ability to manage public projects, eligibility for certain contracts with government and private entities, and the ability to collect donations directly.

Barriers to Entry

There are multiple barriers to the formation and existence of CSOs:

  • In order to be registered, associations must have at least ten founding members, all of whom must be Saudi citizens who are at least 18 years old, have full legal capacity, and have no criminal record for a crime of dishonesty or moral turpitude, unless the criminal record has been cleared.
  • Although a foundation, unlike an association, may be established by only one person (also a Saudi citizen who is at least 18 years old, has full legal capacity, and has no criminal record for a crime of dishonesty or moral turpitude, unless the criminal record has been cleared), it must also be governed by a board of trustees consisting of no less than three members. Additionally, the founding members of a foundation must deposit 5 million Saudi Riyals (approximately $1.3 million) into the foundation’s bank account within its first year of operation or register assets under its name that yield annual revenues amounting to the same.
  • An application for the registration of an association will be denied if its founding bylaws involve principles that are inconsistent with Islamic Sharia, infringe upon the public system, contradict public morals, breach national unity, or contradict the laws and regulations of the system. The authority to deny such applications is specific, rather than discretionary.
  • If the work of an association or foundation involves activities regulated by another government entity, the entity’s approval will be necessary for registration in addition to that of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development.
  • Branches of foreign associations and foundations may not be registered in Saudi Arabia.

Barriers to Operational Activity

According to the CSO Law and regulations, CSOs face legal restrictions on their activities as well. Foundations and associations may not provide services outside of the geographic area or region in which they are registered to conduct approved activities. They may open branches outside of their approved region and inside Saudi Arabia only with the approval of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development.

On a procedural level, the CSO Law stipulates extensive detail governing the internal affairs of an organization and allows the Ministry of Labor and Social Development extensive monitoring rights. Associations and foundations must provide the Ministry of Labor and Social Development with annual financial statements, as well as general assembly meeting minutes and voting records. Ministry representatives may attend meetings, though they do not have the right to vote.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Development may impose sanctions on associations and foundations gradually, first by sending a warning to the organization to rectify a situation within thirty days and then by sending a second and a final warning with a similar thirty-day grace period. If the organization does not heed the warning, the Ministry can then order the suspension of a staff member, prevent the staff member from working at another CSO, temporarily suspend activities, merge the CSO with another CSO, or dissolve the CSO.

An association can be ordered suspended, terminated, or merged by the Ministry if the total number of members falls below five; the association exceeds its scope of activities or commits “grave” contraventions of the CSO Law and regulations or the association’s bylaws; the association is unable to meet its payment obligations; the association used funds for unlicensed causes; the association fails to comply with public order, public morals, or Islamic Sharia; or the association commits an act that will adversely affect national unity. Additionally, if an association gravely breaches a contract with the government, the Ministry may suspend the contract until the breach is rectified or may terminate the contract altogether.

A foundation may be dissolved if it is unable to meet its financial obligations; it is unable to perform its objectives; or it fails to commence its activities within one year of its license.

Barriers to Speech / Advocacy

Although there is no explicit provision under Saudi law, it is established practice that associations and foundations may not engage in political activity. There is no specific legal definition as to what constitutes political activity.

Furthermore, a counter-terrorism law that took effect in February 2014 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

Foreign associations and foundations are prohibited from opening branches in Saudi Arabia.

Domestic associations and foundations may not participate in activities abroad, provide services outside Saudi Arabia, or become members of international organizations without the prior approval of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and any relevant government entity. Approval is obtained by submitting an application with information about the desired activity, membership, or service and its relationship to the CSO’s scope of services. Foundations may not open branches abroad. Associations may establish branches abroad with the prior approval of the Ministry.

Barriers to Resources

The CSO Law prohibits CSOs from receiving foreign funding from outside Saudi Arabia unless they seek and obtain approval from the Ministry of Labor and Social Development.

Domestic sources of funding for associations include membership fees; revenue from permissible economic activities; investment revenue; and zakat, if services are being provided to the poor and needy. Associations must obtain prior approval from the Ministry of Labor and Social Development before they may fundraise and receive donations. Associations that enjoy public benefit status may also earn revenue from managing public projects. Government funding is also available. To access government funding, which all associations are eligible to receive, an application to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development is generally submitted after registration is complete. Applications for such assistance are generally accepted one year after the association is established, alongside proof that it is well-managed and active in society. Financial support for training programs is also available.

Domestic sources of funding for foundations mainly come from funds, grants, waqfs, wills, and zakat from the founders. Foundations may also make revenue from investments or waqfs registered in the foundation’s name. Foundations do not receive government aid. They are also not permitted to collect donations except with prior approval of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development.

Barriers to Assembly

Lack of Legal Protections.
While the Basic Rule of Governance effectively acts as the country’s constitution, it does not enshrine a protection on 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.”

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.”

Authorities have responded to recent, small demonstrations occurring largely in the Eastern Province by issuing a most-wanted list of activists and violently dispersing the gatherings.

UN Universal Periodic Review Reports Universal Periodic Review: Saudi Arabia (2013)
Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs Saudi Arabia
USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes Not available
U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017: Saudi Arabia
Fragile States Index Reports Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index 2018
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

Saudi Arabia seeks death penalty against female human rights activist (August 2018)
Saudi Arabian prosecutors are seeking the death sentence for five human rights activists, including a woman who is thought to be the first female activist in the country facing execution, rights groups have said.

Human Rights Watch: Submission to the Universal Periodic Review of Saudi Arabia (May 2018)
According to HRW, Saudi Arabia continues to commit widespread violations of basic human rights. The most pervasive violations affect persons in the criminal justice system, women and girls, migrant workers, and religious minorities, though peaceful dissidents and independent human rights advocates are also persecuted.

Saudi Arabia: Intensified Repression of Writers, Activists (February 2017)
Saudi Arabia has stepped up arrests, prosecutions, and convictions of human rights defenders, including Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for “participating in an unlicensed association,” among other charges. Al-Shubaily is a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), an entity which documents human rights abuses.

Saudi Arabia in U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (April 2017)
In its 2017 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that the U.S. State Department designate ten countries as “countries of particular concern,” among them Saudi Arabia.

Saudi human rights activist sentenced to 9 years in prison (April 2016)
Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, established to try cases of terrorism and national security, sentenced Issa al-Hamid, the founding member of the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (HASEM), to nine years in prison and nine years of travel probation thereafter, on charges related to his civil rights work.

Saudi court sentences poet to death for renouncing Islam (November 2015)
Palestinian poet and artist, Ashraf Fayadh, was sentenced to death for renouncing Islam. He had first been detained by religious police in August 2013 for reportedly cursing God and the Prophet, insulting Saudi Arabia, and distributing a book of his poems that promoted atheism. The case ultimately went to trial in February 2014.

Long Prison Terms for Activists (October 2015)
A Saudi court sentenced three men to prison terms ranging from eight to ten years, for peaceful activism. Abd al-Kareem al-Khodr and Dr. Abd al-Rahman al-Hamid, were two of the co-founders of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA).The third, Abd al-Aziz al-Snaidi, is an independent opposition activists.

Saudi Arabia – Country of Concern (March 2015)
An updated report by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office identifies continuing challenges faced by CSOs and human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, as well as violations of freedom of expression and assembly. The report adds: “To date, no fully independent organisation working on civil and political rights has registered successfully.”

Saudi Arabia Increases Jail Sentence for Human Rights Lawyer (January 2015)
A judge in Saudi Arabia increased the prison sentence for a prominent human rights lawyer by five years, adding to his original 10-year sentence for sedition. The lawyer, Walid Abu al-Khair, is the founder and director of Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA); he was convicted in 2014 of charges including disloyalty to King Abdullah, disrespecting authorities, and creating an unauthorized association.

Saudi Arabia – Country of Concern (October 2014)
An updated report by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office identifies continuing challenges faced by CSOs and human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, as well as violations of freedom of expression and assembly. Assessing the legal and political environment in the Kingdom, the report concludes that “civil society organizations will continue to find it difficult to operate in Saudi Arabia.”

Journalists Association “Fails Miserably,” Says Members (August 2014)
A number of Saudi journalists say the Saudi Journalists Association (SJA) has “failed miserably” to realize their aspirations. Criticizing the body’s inaction and poor performance, they called for serious steps to make it an effective body so it can address their problems and secure their rights. Salim Al-Thunayyan of Al-Hayat daily stated that the SJA is oblivious to their needs and circumstances: “SJA is supposed to be one of the most important Saudi civil society organizations but we have not seen any major initiative from the body taken on behalf of journalists since its inception 10 years ago.” Abdullah Al-Jahlan, secretary-general of SJA, however, said “in its capacity as a referral body for journalists, [SJA] demanded several times to review provisions of the governing regulations for media work in the Kingdom,” but to no avail.

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.”

News Archive

Article on Civil Society in Saudi Arabia (July 2013)

CIVICUS highlights escalating crackdown on civil society in Saudi Arabia (May 2013)

Social Affairs Justifies Refusal to Register “Adalah”: Objectives “Contrary to the System” (January 2013)

Saudi Arabia Prosecuting Peaceful Protesters (October 2012)

Saudi Arabia Shura Council amends draft law on civil society organizations (October 2012)

Cabinet panel of experts considering draft law regulating CSOs (October 2012)

Saudi Arabia condemns Russian comments on human rights (July 2012)

Saudi rights campaigner given 4 yrs’ jail: activists (April 2012)

Saudi Arabia: Christians arrested at private prayer (February 2012)

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)

The foregoing information was collected by ICNL’s monitoring partner in Saudi Arabia.