Conference Report: ‘Alternative Political Structures for Saudi Arabia’

The Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia

Conference Report: ‘Alternative Political Structures for Saudi Arabia’, February 24, 2005, at Freedom House, Washington DC

Contact the Center:
The Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia
2800 Quebec Street NW
Suite 906
Washington, DC 20008

P: (202) 686-2799
C: (202) 413-0084
F: (202) 686-2799
E: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

A rich text version of this full conference report with visual impressions and additional quotes can be found For more information on the developing situation in Saudi Arabia, please visit


The Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia thanks Freedom House and all conference speakers and participants for their contribution to its conference: “Alternative Political Structures for Saudi Arabia”.

In the wake of President Bush’s confirmation during his State of the Union speech that “the government of Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future,” and two weeks after the first round of the municipal semi-elections in Saudi Arabia of February 10, this conference provided a timely opportunity to discuss the current political situation in Saudi Arabia and explore scenarios for the future of the country. This report offers impressions and summaries of the proceedings of this event, which was held on February 24, 2005, from 9am-12noon, and was co-sponsored by Freedom House.


Thursday, February 24, 2005

9.00-10.20 First Panel:

Mody Al-Khalaf, Saudi journalist, Arab News
And that is how history is made - Written contribution

Dr. Ali Alyami (Director, Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia)
Towards a non-sectarian constitution for a democratic and federated Saudi Arabia

Fahad Nazer (Fellow, Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia)
Saudi reformers: A new approach to the Saudi dilemma

Ambassador Mark Palmer (Vice Chairman, Board of Trustees, Freedom House)
Practical lessons from successful nonviolent movements for achieving democracy in Saudi Arabia

10.30-12.00 Second Panel:

Paul Michael Wihbey (President, Global Water & Energy Strategy Team)
The democratization of Saudi oil: Power and money to the people

Norm Kurland (President, Center for Economic & Social Justice)
Oil power to the people: A first step toward justice in Saudi Arabia

Nina Shea (Director, Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House)
The alternative to Saudi hate export

Dr. Dwight Bashir (Senior Policy Analyst, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom)
A Country of Particular Concern: US policy options in fostering religious freedom in Saudi Arabia

Panel 1: Mody Al-Khalaf – And That Is How History Is Made
Read by Linette Tobin, published in Arab News, February 19, 2005

Last week, Raid Qusti wrote yet another article about women and elections. This was not the first time he tackled the issue, making it clear to all of us, again, that he agrees with the government’s decision to exclude women from participating in the first municipal elections ever to be held in Saudi Arabia. Despite the many letters I had received from female (and even some male) readers countering his arguments in several articles, I have thus far declined because I truly feel the topic has been exhausted. This time, however, I must agree that something must be said.

With all due respect to all those who argue that it is fine to exclude women because Saudi Arabia is “different”, they are missing a crucial point. Of course, Saudi Arabia is different; of course, we are like no other country in the world; and of course, there are many obstacles in the face of women nominating themselves for political positions. That is our main problem. That is why we need to change. That is precisely why it was crucial to give women a chance to revolutionize all that is “different” about us in a perfectly acceptable way. With one bold decision, the government could have given the chance to seven courageous women to change history forever.

As I step into Qusti’s hypothetical situation, I can see this: First, there are no barriers that prevent women socially from voting. I think we all agree to that (him included). As for the “technical reasons” excuse, we all also agree that it can be easily overcome with a little planning. The point I would like to add here is this: Why couldn’t the technicalities have been dealt with before any elections started? Hypothetically speaking, if the government had announced that only women would be allowed to vote this year for “technical reasons”, I am sure that the nation -and the whole world- would have had a field day with the news; it would have been the joke of the century. People here; however, tend to forget that women have just as much right to this country as men do. And, if that means postponing the elections for a year until all facilities are ready, so be it. Half the nation is certainly worth it.

Second, regarding women being nominees, Qusti says, “Let’s get practical. Would a woman actually want to place her picture and full name in a street advertisement or newspaper advertisement?” While, I agree that many women have social and cultural restrictions on doing so — there are others who do not have a problem with it and who would readily do it. We all know Saudi women, who do have their pictures next to their newspaper columns, and women who show their pictures in magazines during interviews and on Internet sites. That decision should be left up to the women themselves. I think that women should have been given the chance to show what they are willing to do in order to “reach their public”: From posing for billboards and newspaper ads to setting up tents to address visitors. No one can really say what would have happened, unless they were given a chance.

I personally feel that all the women who nominated themselves are women of extreme courage and determination, definitely not your average, typical, restricted Saudi women. Just the fact that they were willing to be pioneers speaks for itself. We, as a nation, needed to give such women a chance; not just for other women’s sake but also for the whole nation’s sake. Maybe these women would have succeeded in changing much of what is wrong with our society; much of that which makes us “different”. They could have started with the election process itself by breaking all barriers restraining women from appearing in public and ended by actually giving voice to women-related issues on a more political level. They certainly would have started giving more balance to our male-only public society.

Thus, in another hypothetical situation, I see this: I see a woman running in the elections. I see her posting her picture in newspaper ads, and by doing so she breaks the faceless mold many of us live in. I see a woman hosting many events, meeting with people of both sexes, and by doing so she breaks the social phobia we have of allowing such situations. I see some Saudi men and women voting for this woman, because they want change and because this woman embodies “hope of a different tomorrow” to them. I see a woman winning in the elections. I see a woman appearing in public in a press conference, talking to the media and making official announcements. I see a woman becoming a part of Saudi politics, thus paving the way for more female participation at all levels, including other political sectors. I see a woman who stands in the face of many obstacles, yet tackles them all one by one, head on, and rises above them all. I see a woman showing Saudis and the rest of the world that Saudi women are educated, dignified, and determined. I see a woman who has made history.

Unfortunately, however, my hypothetical situation was never put to the test either. No Saudi woman got the chance to run or even vote. Why? Because we are not ready to let anyone “make history”; because we dwell too much on what can and cannot be done “practically”. Something everyone keeps forgetting is this: If you keep doing what you’re doing, you will always be what you are. If we keep saying “society will not allow women to do such and such”, we will always be the frozen society we are.

Panel 1: Dr. Ali Alyami – An Alternative Political Structure for Saudi Arabia

The Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia was established to promote and build support for a non-sectarian political structure, governed by a democratic constitution and a bill of rights where all citizens and non-citizens are treated equally under just and democratic laws and regulations.

Saudi Arabia consists of five major regions, making it a prime candidate for a federal political system. In a federal and democratic Saudi Arabia, each region will have a degree of autonomy to elect officials, develop its local economy and run its daily affairs in accordance with the federal laws. 

The Center proposes and urges the following steps and actions be taken in order to make a peaceful transition to a viable democracy in Saudi Arabia:

- An immediate end to all forms and policies of segregation and discrimination, particularly as related to women and minorities.
- Full regional and national elections to choose regional representative bodies and a national parliament to replace the presently appointed and extremely limited Majlis Al-Shurah, or Consultative Council. The newly elected assembly’s first task will be to select representative members from its ranks to write a national constitution that will represent the interests of the country and the diverse religious and regional backgrounds of the population.
The success of this constitutional process should be secured through a process of intensive and inclusive consultation with the population, civil society representatives, and constitutional experts. A final version of the constitution will need to properly verified and approved by an increased majority of the population and the regional and national elected bodies in a fully transparent process.
- Economic and political decision-making powers will rest with freely and popularly elected legislative and executive bodies
- The establishment of a Religious Council, in which all Muslim countries and groups will be represented, to manage the religious affairs of the two holy shrines in Makkah and Medina. The authority of this council shall not go beyond religious guidance and will have no political power or the right to issue Fatwas that will have bearing on the conduct of people’s daily lives. No brand of Islam shall dominate the council’s interpretation of the Quran or the Sharia, Islamic law. This council will adhere to and be governed by the laws and regulations of the land.
- The creation of an open, independent and transparent national judicial system.
- The establishment of an independent and accountable treasury.
- Free and open markets, with full privatization of all industries, agriculture and all public utilities. Full ownership of the land and its natural resources by the people.
- Removal of all forms of censorship. The freedoms of speech, association, and information must be guaranteed and secured, as well as religious freedom for all citizens and non-citizens of the country.

The Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia is convinced these objectives are attainable. Moreover, these principles of democracy, tolerance and accountability must prevail if extremism, terrorism, discrimination and injustice are to be eradicated. It is in the supreme interests of the international community and the Saudi people that Saudi Arabia is not left to the devices of a group of princes who consider the country, its people and wealth as their private property. Genuine and unconditional political participation in Saudi Arabia is long overdue.

Panel 1: Fahad Nazer – Saudi Reformers: A New Approach to the Saudi Dilemma

In the aftermath of 9/11, it seems that a loose consensus has been reached by some American academics and policy makers regarding US-Saudi relationship. This “conventional wisdom” concludes that the United States must continue to support the Saudi regime in order to avoid a takeover by Islamic militants. Yet this popular consensus oversimplifies the political landscape inside the Saudi Kingdom, a landscape composed not just of extremists and monarchists, but also of democrats of various political stripes.

These liberal Saudis should be considered as a viable alternative, and need the support of the free world. They represent a promising and growing demographic of young, energetic and progressive citizens who are eager to bring transparency and accountability to government. The Saudi royal family has been unwilling to institute legitimate political reforms, and those that have been undertaken have come as a result of pressure from Saudi reformers as well as other governments—primarily the United States. Considering that the House of Saud has a virtual monopoly over the country’s economy and politics, the regime’s reluctance should not come as a surprise.

There are many obstacles facing Saudi reformers, but the tide of history is on their side. After the Gulf War, Saudi citizens began to ask some critical questions: Why do we need hundreds of thousands of foreign troops to defend the Kingdom? Where have those billions in oil revenues gone, if not towards ensuring our basic protection? The aftermath of the Gulf War provided an opening for Saudis to seriously and critically examine their politics and policies. For the first time, Saudis were able to discuss the country’s political structure more openly.

The very presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia also contributed to a change in the political culture of Saudi Arabia, in both a positive and negative fashion. In one respect, their presence incensed extremists and pushed them to transform their rhetoric into acts of terror. More positively, the presence of female troops was an impetus to the oppressed Saudi women. Swept up in the post-war atmosphere of critical self-examination, the exposure to seemingly much more independent American women changed the political climate indelibly, and represented a window of opportunity for Saudi women. In 1990, a group of Saudi women staged a protest against discriminatory laws by driving a procession of cars. The action of these brave women was a crucial turning point for the reform movement in Saudi Arabia, and called much-needed attention to the kingdom’s dearth of civil rights.

In the post-Gulf War years, Saudi citizens increasingly moved from debate to collective action in support of political change. One important step came when 43 intellectuals presented a petition for reforms, particularly in the realm of women’s rights. The Basic Law of 1992 was partly a result of such efforts, as was the establishment of the (appointed) Shura Council. Although neither measure has resulted in widespread genuine reform, they do represent an important first step.

The increased presence of terrorism in the kingdom has provoked still more questions among Saudi citizens, namely: Why has our country become a haven for terrorism? Petitions demanding transparency and accountability have been on the rise since the 2003 terrorist attacks inside the kingdom, and are proving to the world that the contributions of liberals should not be underestimated. The atmosphere through which reformers are spreading their message has become more inclusive and widespread over the past decade.

These reformers must continue to present their visions for an alternative governmental system, and the free world should support their efforts. The regime cannot silence its critics forever—sooner or later the Saudi people will force the government to undertake major reforms. Extremist visions will not gain long-term popularity, for they too will inevitably be exposed for what they really are. With reformers pointing the way towards alternative political structures, their influence will have a moderating effect on the views of Saudis in general, and will help move their society towards a more tolerant and democratic political system.

Panel 1: Ambassador Mark Palmer - Practical lessons from successful nonviolent movements for achieving democracy in Saudi Arabia

The title of today’s conference poses a provocative question. What type of alternative political structures can replace the existing status quo in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Before we get on to this central question, it is vital to ask ourselves: Why is it important to talk about alternative political structures?

In my book, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, I explore the factors that enable the rise and fall of dictatorships. If we are to understand what it takes to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy, we must first understand why dictatorships are able to survive. Simply put, dictators remain in power so long as people -willingly or not- cooperate. As Gandhi and Martin Luther King have shown us, as soon as this cooperation is withdrawn, the edifice crumbles. Yet the powerful combination of inertia, fear, and a lack of understanding of political alternatives tend to keep dictators in power.

During my time as Ambassador to Hungary, in its last years in the Eastern Bloc, I met regularly with members of the democratic opposition. What struck me most was how disheartened the opposition was, how beaten down they were. They clearly did not think democracy was around the corner. At the same time, history shows us that peaceful and broad coalitions of civil society -led by dedicated democrats- greatly increase the possibility of building a stable democracy.

The critical step the people of Saudi Arabia must take now is to think about which alternative political systems can lead them to this desired point of success and stability. One of the best ways to get there is to launch national dialogues using the mass media, in the form of televised roundtables or radio shows. This technique worked well in Hungary and Poland, not just in an academic sense, but because it was the mechanism through which political change and the transfer of power occurred. One important thing missing is a Saudi radio show run by Saudis for Saudis, representing a diversity of opinions. Radio, television and internet operated by and for Saudis will create a virtual democracy—an important step towards Saudi Arabia’s political transformation. 

Saudi Arabia can transition as Hungary did, as long as various political perspectives are willing to come together to formulate a specific game plan. Should Saudi Arabia remain a monarchy? How can it best make the transition to a constitutional monarchy? These are the types of questions which must be asked and answered by the Saudi citizens.

However, we must not forget that the present political realities of Saudi Arabia are major obstacles to an honest appraisal of its political future.  Saudi Arabia is a truly feudal society —the royal family literally owns the entire country. One possible step forward might be to form an international association of constitutional monarchs to advise and ease the transition in Saudi Arabia from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

In addition, the free world can assist in Saudi Arabia’s political reform by insisting that the concept of dictatorship itself is a crime, and a crime punishable by international jurisprudence. The link between routine human rights offenses and anti-democratic regimes must be emphasized and condemned by the international community, which will have the effect of de-legitimizing the Saudi regime. If the free world demonstrates its seriousness in this realm, dictators will have no where to run. At the end of the day, dictators are afraid of everyone and do not trust anyone. In this sense, the cards are very much in the hands of those nations, organizations and individuals who are willing to call the dictators bluff. We must make them understand that if they want to avoid The Hague, they’d better start the reform process.

Let’s return to that word ‘de-legitimize’, because this should be a key concept for Saudi reformers. How did Gandhi throw the British out of India? He de-legitimized the status quo by peacefully shedding light on its political ineptitudes and essential moral bankruptcy. Just as Gandhi revealed the rotten center of British imperialism, NGO’s and other non-profit groups must expose the corruption and genuine evil behind Prince Bandar’s glamorous fetes. We must expose the phony charade for what it is—the PR machine of a regime that oppresses its own people, and actively engages in activities against the interests of the United States.

Finally, an important practical measure currently under Congressional consideration is the ADVANCE Democracy Act of 2005, sponsored by Senators Lieberman and McCain, and Representatives Wolf and Lantos on the House side. This bill would, in a sense, transform the State Department into Freedom House, and lend much-needed financial and active support to groups like the Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. The ADVANCE Democracy Act would also provide for the establishment of democracy transition centers -like the one currently planned for Budapest- to provide support and expertise to burgeoning democracies.

Panel 2: Paul Michael Wihbey - The Democratization of Saudi Oil: Power and Money to the People

In his 2005 State of the Union address, President Bush announced that the government of Saudi Arabia should “demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future.” But what does President Bush’s statement mean in practical terms, or in terms of the political culture of Saudi Arabia? Moreover, what role can Saudi Arabia play in the transformations taking place across the Arab world?

One of the major complications in the discussion of democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia is the country’s oil revenue and management. Consider the figures: Oil accounts for 90% of Saudi Arabia’s export earnings, 80% of its budgetary revenue, and 40% of its GDP. Yet despite this energy wealth, the average income and unemployment rates in Saudi Arabia remain grossly disproportionate to seemingly poorer nations. This is mostly because the temptation by the political elite to use oil revenue without any level of accountability or transparency has created enormous corruption, which has contributed to the climate of economic malaise. The economic disparity between the handful of people who control oil wealth and ordinary Saudis has created an environment that is ever more receptive to demagogues like Osama Bin Laden. If economic reforms are not undertaken, bitter and undereducated Saudis will become even more susceptible to the false promises of fanatical Islam, and will increasingly direct their anger against their own people and against the United States.

We are all familiar with the royal family’s lip service concerning human rights violations. It should come as no surprise that they use the same tactics to obfuscate their massive corruption of the oil industry. For instance, Prince Bandar has claimed that some of the unaccounted for billions have been used to develop Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure. Of course, Saudis have no way of knowing if this is true precisely because there are no measures of transparency or accountability in their oil industry. Saudi Arabia is a patrimony of natural resources, and the longer the wasting of oil wealth through abuse and mismanagement continues, the worse the economic and social conditions in Saudi Arabia will be.

In Iraq, there is an ongoing debate regarding the desired structure of the oil economy. Should the industry be state owned? Should it be open to foreign investors? Should local individuals be allowed to build up the industry, so that its operations will diffuse through the population? These are the types of questions that must be debated within Saudi Arabia if genuine reform is to be undertaken.

There are -thus far unconfirmed- reports that in order for the Saudi family to maintain its geopolitical standing, particularly with the United States, they may have begun to use environmentally abusive techniques to maintain oil production. Significant damage may have been done to the oil reservoirs, making oil levels unsustainable in the long term. The Saudi people need to know what this means to them in terms of oil revenue, and this will never be the case unless the oil economy is opened up to external examination, auditing and accountability.

The seriousness of these issues cannot be overstated, and it must not be left in the hands of a small autocratic elite. Saudis must have access to the truth regarding possible damage to their oil reserves, and must be given the chance to take legal action if this has been the case. My basic recommendation would be to open the oil industry up to the private sector, while also setting up an oil trust fund for Saudi Arabia.  In many oil producing countries, developing countries in particular, oil trust funds have been set up and used specifically for social or economic programs, and have proven effective.

Finally, NGOs should start to monitor the transparency of all oil producing countries and alert the world to signs of corruption. The United States in particular has an obligation to maintain its commitment to economic reform as part of its overall commitment to democratization in the region. We have already seen enlightened leadership in some of the Gulf States’ supervision of their oil economies. It is time for Saudi Arabia to follow its neighbors’ leads, and it is time for the United States to support the efforts of NGOs in monitoring corruption.

Panel 2: Norman G. Kurland – Oil Power to the People
A Step to Justice in Saudi Arabia, a Big Leap Forward for Humanity

In addressing the future of freedom and democracy in a Saudi Arabia where total power resides with a family plutocracy, we must first ask whether freedom, peace and political democracy are sustainable or even attainable in a society that breeds religious hatred and suicide terrorists, if fundamental human rights do not rest on a solid foundation of economic democracy, and economically self-reliant citizens.  Another way of making this point is that a just political order must follow a just economic order.

And can that occur without creating a level playing field in which every Saudi male and female has an equal opportunity to become an economically independent capital owner, starting with the sharing of ownership, profits and governance of a de-nationalized Saudi Arabian Oil Company?  What would such plan for a just free market economy look like?

As phase one of a comprehensive long-term national transformation strategy proposed in my paper on this issue, the Saudi National Oil Company would be converted into a professionally managed joint stock corporation. Initial shares would be issued at no cost to every oil worker and Saudi citizen -uniting members of the Saudi family with all economically dependent Saudi men and women in one fell swoop- and guarantee each of them first-class shareholder rights to the profits and voting control of the company.  This plan avoids the top-down model of the Alaskan Oil Fund, a democratic socialist model where the elite who control government control how oil profits will be spent and decide the level of ‘dividends’ that trickle-down to property-less citizens.

Initial shares in the denationalized oil company would be non-transferable in “Capital Homesteading” accounts for 10 to 20 years, except for inheritance upon death.  Such accounts would also fund viable new and growing existing enterprises, using zero-interest credit money supplied through the discount window of the Saudi central bank, with asset-backed, insured loans and repaid by the projected dividends on the newly issued shares.

Future government revenues for carrying on minimal government functions would be raised by taxing at a single rate all incomes above the poverty line from increased citizen incomes.  This would reduce non-accountable top-down political control by any wealthy Saudi or foreign elite, or by foreign oil interests.

This bottom-up source of revenues would not only fund education, health care, security, the judiciary and other government functions now funded by the Saudi Royal Family, but would be available for funding the transformation of governance to a democratic political process, the development of a constitution that protects fundamental human rights and the transition to a representative government with appropriate checks-and-balances. 

Independent democratic institutions would be funded by the people, relieving the people from institutions that oppress them today.  The profits from oil would lubricate the wheels of justice, universal human rights, and freedom for every man, woman and child in Saudi Arabia.

Panel 2: Nina Shea – The Alternative to Saudi Hate Export

There is a pervasive myth that human rights reforms can only follow economic reforms. But how can we expect any real change in countries like Saudi Arabia if democrats continue to be flogged and persecuted for advocating their cause? Genuine political progress cannot be made until the citizens of Saudi Arabia are free to criticize their government. This is the essential first step.

This first step cannot and will not be taken as long as the free world continues to tolerate, and even welcome, the millions of dollars used to propagate the Saudi ruling family’s agenda of religious intolerance and extremism.

The Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House undertook a study, “Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Fill American Mosques”, published last month, to answer the question: Has Saudi Arabia exported hate-filled fundamentalist propaganda to the United States? We were aware that this was the case in Pakistan and Nigeria, for instance. But the study concluded this is also happening in our own mosques.

For example, over the past forty years the Saudi embassy has funded and distributed a free pamphlet that sanctions “spilling the blood” of homosexuals and adulterers. Even though the vast majority of American Muslims reject such hate speech, the Saudi regime continues to distribute this propaganda in the name of all Muslims. Acting as the protectors of Islam, they advocate violence inside and outside of Saudi Arabia.

Their message is being received. The Saudi Institute in Virginia continues to use the same curriculum as the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia, and almost all of its content is permeated by willful falsities, religious intolerance and hatred. Under the guise of education, this propaganda encourages Muslims to see the world in dualistic terms: Muslims vs. Infidels. The goal is to create communities of expatriate Muslims who will act as if they are living behind enemy lines, and who consider objection to the Wahhabi interpretation of the Koran as apostasy.

Propagandistic materials are funded by a variety of sources within the Saudi government, including the Ministries of Culture, Religion and Education. According to the Treasury, the Saudi government has spent upward of 75 billion on these ‘educational’ activities, making the Saudi regime the key propagandist for an ideology that not only doesn’t help in our war against terrorism, but promotes it by laying the intellectual foundation for it.

What should we do about this? Obviously, NGOs and the US government should expose the inconsistencies of the royal family’s “commitment” to the war on terrorism—which they recently proclaimed in a two-page advertisement in The New York Times as part of their extensive PR campaign.

If the Saudi government wishes to live up to this promise, it needs to take a few important steps: 1. Stop funding publishing houses which export an ideology of hate; 2. Start reforming government offices that deal with religion, beginning with the Grand Mufti. Saudi Arabia has an obligation to promote peaceful causes and religious tolerance—it is about time they started living up to that responsibility. 

Panel 2: Dwight Bashir – A Country of Particular Concern: US Policy Options in Fostering Religious Freedom in Saudi Arabia

The government of Saudi Arabia engages in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief.  Despite the U.S. State Department reporting in its 2004 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom that there were slight improvements regarding Saudi government efforts at fostering greater moderation and tolerance of religious diversity and taking limited measures to remove objectionable material from its education curriculum, the report again concluded that freedom of religion “does not exist.” 

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent bi-partisan federal agency, has recommended for five consecutive years that Saudi Arabia be designated a “country of particular concern,” or CPC.  In September 2004, the State Department for the first time followed the Commission’s recommendation and designated Saudi Arabia a CPC.

The Saudi government continues to engage in an array of severe violations of human rights as part of its official repression of freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief.  These violations include: torture and cruel and degrading treatment or punishment imposed by judicial and administrative authorities; prolonged detention without charges and often incommunicado; and blatant denials of the right to liberty and security of the person, including coercive measures aimed at women and the broad jurisdiction of the Muttawa (religious police), whose powers are vaguely defined and exercised in ways that violate the religious freedom of others.

The recent designation of Saudi Arabia as a CPC provides the U.S. government with an opportunity decisively to respond to severe religious freedom violators. According to the statutory requirements of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), the U.S. government must:

(1) request consultations with the government on the violations that gave rise to the designation, and consult with humanitarian and other U.S. organizations on the potential impact of actions that could be taken;

(2) either (a) conclude a binding agreement to cease the particularly severe violations, or (b) take an action from one of several options specified in the statute (or a “commensurate” action); and

(3) report to Congress on the action taken.

The consultation process is currently underway and the deadline for taking action with respect to the three countries is March 15, 2005*. The Commission, in accordance with its statutory obligations, recommends the following actions by the U.S. government in response to the designation of Saudi Arabia as a CPC. In doing so, it should be emphasized that these actions are initial steps that should be taken, in concert with diplomatic efforts at all levels, to urge the government of Saudi Arabia to abide by their international human rights commitments and cease severe violations of freedom of religion or belief. It should also be recognized that IRFA authorizes more stringent actions that could be taken should severe violations continue.

With regard to the new CPC designation of Saudi Arabia, the Commission recommends that the U.S. government should:

(1) identify those Saudi agencies and officials thereof who are responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom and vigorously enforce section 604 of IRFA with respect to Saudi Arabia, rendering inadmissible for entry into the United States any Saudi government official who was responsible for or directly carried out such violations;

(2) issue a proclamation, under the President’s authority pursuant to section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 USC 1182(f)), to bar those Saudi government officials from entering the United States who have been responsible for propagating globally an ideology that explicitly promotes hate, intolerance, and human rights violations;

(3) issue a demarche urging the government of Saudi Arabia to cease funding or other support for written materials or other activities that explicitly promote hate, intolerance, and human rights violations, including the distribution of such materials in the United States and elsewhere outside of Saudi Arabia; and

(4) order the heads of appropriate U.S. agencies, pursuant to section 405(a)(13) of IRFA, not to issue any specific licenses and not to grant any other specific authority for the export of any item on the U.S. Commerce Control List of dual-use items [Export Administration Regulations under part 774 of title 15] to any agency or instrumentality of the government of Saudi Arabia that is responsible for committing particularly severe violations of religious freedom. In FY 2004, the Commerce Department approved approximately $67 million worth of articles for Saudi Arabia, including, for example, such items as thumb cuffs, leg irons, shackles, and other items that could be used to perpetrate human rights violations.

Acknowledgements and more information:

The Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia wishes to thank all speakers and participants at this conference. The Center also wishes to thank Freedom House for hosting and co-sponsoring this event.

For more information on this conference, this report, or any of The Center’s activities, please do not hesitate to contact us (; .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)). Upon request, a conference DVD and video clips of individual presentations may be made available.

Report prepared by: Micha van Waesberghe and Julia Pettengil, The Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia