Restrictive Policies Hinder Saudi Civil Society

In countries with limited democratic processes, civil society organizations are essential outlets through which citizens engage with their communities, contribute their ideas on the state, and address domestic human rights issues. However, in Saudi Arabia authorities repress what little opportunity citizens have to participate in nongovernmental associations (NGOs) through an onerous and restrictive licensing policy designed to hinder independent institutions.

In Saudi Arabia, unless an organization is officially licensed with the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA), holding associational gatherings is illegal. But registering with the government is nearly impossible for autonomous rights organizations. In December 2011, the Adala Center for Human Rights, an NGO dedicated to monitoring human rights abuses including torture inside the kingdom, applied to register with the proper MoSA authorities. Six days later, ministry officials rejected their application on the grounds that the association’s objectives were not “in line with the regulation on charitable foundations and associations.” Adala fought the rejection in a cumbersome, 13-month appeal process. However, Saudi courts upheld MoSA’s decision, forcing Adala to close.

When civil society organizations forgo the official licensing process, the outcome is similarly grim. Upon its establishment in 2009, the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA), appealed directly to the late King Abdullah for recognition.  ACPRA defended the cases of political prisoners, immigrants, and activists of all persuasions, in addition to promoting a vision for greater political and judicial reform. In response, Saudi officials charged ACPRA’s founders for “participating in setting up an unlicensed organization” and tried many of the human rights defenders in the country’s terrorism-related Specialized Criminal Court. Today all 11 of ACPRA’s core members are serving lengthy sentences for their activism.

Even apolitical, non-human rights groups suffer from Saudi Arabia’s tedious licensing process. Despite having the backing of government patrons, it took three years to establish the Saudi Cancer Foundation. Worse, the Saudi Diabetes Association waited a mindboggling 17 years before receiving government approval. While formal, government-connected health groups are eventually accepted, many voluntary groups established in the same field are deemed illegal and closed.

In December 2015, Saudi ministers issued the new Law on Associations and Foundations to provide a unified framework for registering and governing civil society groups. Much like an NGO applying for a government license, it took roughly a decade for the legislation to go from proposal to policy. Rather than ease the restrictions imposed on civil society, the law maintains the MoSA’s strict control over the licensing process, as well as their ability to unilaterally dissolve organizations.

When deputy crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, debuted his ambitious development initiative, Saudi Vision 2030, he lamented the lack of non-profits and associations in the kingdom while stressing the need to “give everyone the opportunity to have their say so that the government can serve them better and meet their aspirations.”  But fostering civil engagement requires change on civil society laws and policies. To truly build a robust and active society, Saudi Arabia can start by reforming the policies which stifle citizen organization.

Leah Schulz is an advocacy fellow at ADHRB.