Order Code RS21913
Updated October 13, 2004
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Saudi Arabia: Reform and U.S. Policy
Jeremy M. Sharp
Middle East Policy Analyst
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, in which 15 of the 19
airline hijackers were Saudi citizens, there has been a renewed concern over Islamic
extremism in Saudi Arabia and its possible national security implications for the United
States. The 9/11 Commission Report recommends that Saudi Arabia and the United
States undertake a commitment to political and economic reform in Saudi Arabia, which
some believe could mollify social unrest. Others believe that attempted reforms,
particularly if advocated by Western governments, might empower Saudi radicals. This
report provides an overview of the reform issue in Saudi Arabia, and issues surrounding
U.S. policies to support liberalization in Saudi Arabia. For further information on Saudi
Arabia, see CRS Issue Brief IB93113, Saudi Arabia: Current Issues and U.S. Relations,
and CRS Report RL32499, Saudi Arabia: Terrorist Financing Issues. This report will
be updated periodically.
Since terrorists of Saudi origin were involved in the Al Qaeda attacks of September
11, 2001, and since domestic terrorist violence has been increasing in Saudi Arabia, there
has been concern over the stability of Saudi Arabia’s political and social system and the
need for the long term reform of its institutions. Despite increased Saudi security
measures aimed at thwarting Islamic militants, many analysts, including the authors of the
9/11 Commission Report,1 believe that the root causes of terrorism in Saudi Arabia are
complex and cannot be eradicated by security policies alone. However, there is currently
no consensus in Saudi Arabia or in the West on the path toward reform and how it will
help alleviate Saudi Arabia’s terrorist problem. Some experts suggest that liberal-minded
reform policies would alienate moderate Saudi religious leaders needed in the fight to
undermine an underground culture of Islamic militancy in Saudi Arabia.
See, “What To Do? A Global Strategy,”The 9/11 Commission Report, section 12.2, p.374.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Political and Social Conditions in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy with royal power vested in the descendants of King Abd
al-Aziz Al Saud (known more commonly as Ibn Saud), the founder of the modern Saudi
state. For over two centuries, Saudi Arabia’s ruling family has relied upon religious
leaders to help bolster its legitimacy among Saudis, and leading conservative Muslim
clerics have gained extensive influence over Saudi social policy. As a result of this tacit
alliance between the ruling family and the religious hierarchy, clerics practicing a
puritanical version of Islam, known as Wahhabism, have been able to institute a number
of social restrictions, such as the segregation of the sexes, the prohibition of the sale and
consumption of alcohol, and a ban on women driving.2 Some analysts believe that such
social restrictions have fostered a climate of extremism in Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials
have issued statements insisting there is no association between Islam and terrorism. For
many years, Saudi officials and some outside observers did not place Islamic militancy
at the top of their policy agendas, believing that the Kingdom’s Islamic roots immunized
it from extremist elements.
Human Rights & Freedom of Information. As the U.S. State Department
observes in its latest country report on human rights, Saudi Arabia has no elected
representative institutions, and its human rights record remains poor.3 Government
security forces and the religious police continue to mistreat both citizens and foreigners
through intimidation, abuse, and arbitrary detention. Regarding the judiciary, most trials
are closed and defendants usually lack legal counsel. According to the report, the
government restricts freedom of speech. The Saudi Information Ministry heavily censors
the Saudi press and forbids criticism of the royal family and religious establishment. This
policy is strictly enforced at the domestic level, and extends to censoring local editions
of the traditionally more open Saudi-owned pan Arab newspapers published in London.
Although most local newspapers are privately owned, the government approves and
appoints editors and can arbitrarily dismiss journalists who cross the government’s
threshold for criticism. The government owns all broadcast media, but there are many
regional satellite stations that are more open and have forced the Saudi authorities to
allow the written press a little more freedom. Since 1999, the Saudi government’s Internet
Service Unit (ISU) has blocked over 2,000 websites, many of which contain sexually
Reform in Saudi Arabia
In Saudi Arabia, reforms that have been undertaken have been instituted from the top
down and many Arab and Western critics believe that the process has been mostly
symbolic in order to placate democracy advocates abroad. Others believe that Saudi
Arabia’s conservative society, which is heavily influenced by Arab tribal customs and a
puritanical interpretation of Islam, necessitates that its rulers move more slowly in
liberalizing the Saudi political and educational system.
See CRS Report RS21695, The Islamic Traditions of Wahhabism and Salafiyya, Aug. 9, 2004.
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2003, U.S. State Department’s Bureau of
Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, February 25, 2004.
“Saudis Block 2,000 Webistes,” BBC News Online, July 31, 2002.
Many individual Saudi voices are calling for reform. According to a recent
International Crisis Group report on Saudi reform, “Reform [has been] a common mantra,
echoed by royalty, government officials, Shura [Consultative] Council members,
businessmen, academics, liberals and Islamists alike. There are clear elements of
convergence: virtually all want to preserve the country’s Islamic orientation while ridding
it of some of its more intolerant and restrictive mores, and most claim to favor continued
rule by the al-Saud as a guarantee of unity and stability while urging gradual movement
towards more representative government institutions.”5 More extreme reform advocates,
particularly Saudi exiles abroad who do not appear to have large followings, believe that
Saudi Arabia should evolve from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy
with an elected parliament. Many fear that this would risk an Islamist takeover of the
Saudi political system. According to one Saudi intellectual, “I don’t think the U.S. will
like the outcome of democracy here.”6
Saudi Shiites, who compose approximately 5-10% of the total Saudi population and
reside in the oil-rich Eastern Province, also are found in the ranks of Saudi reformers. As
non-Sunnis, Shiites suffer from official discrimination and are second-class citizens in
Saudi Arabia.7 A petition presented by Shi’ite representatives was followed by an
audience with Crown Prince Abdullah on April 30, 2003, indicating that both the
government and the Shi’ite petitioners want to continue the more cooperative approach
pursued over the last decade.
Previous Saudi Government Attempts at Reform. Despite the attention
given to Saudi Arabia’s political environment in the wake of the September 11, 2001
attacks, the prospect for political reform in Saudi Arabia was first raised in earnest after
the defeat of Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.8 At the time, there was both internal and
external pressure on Saudi leaders to expand political participation, as some Western
officials had been criticized for allegedly going to war against Iraq in order to protect
wealthy autocratic regimes in the Persian Gulf. Saudi pro-Western liberals pressured the
royal family from within and demanded that the government open up the political system.
Saudi leaders cautiously responded, and in 1992-1993, promulgated and established a
“Basic Law,” to serve as a precursor to a future Saudi constitution. They also created
local and national consultative councils (Majlis al-Shura) to serve as advisory boards to
the government. The Basic Law banned arbitrary arrest and harassment.9 It did not alter
the Islamic character of the Saudi governing system, which bases its legal system on
Sharia or Islamic law. The Consultative Council, which was initially comprised of 60
appointed Saudi elites from the academic, business, and religious communities, was given
limited powers to question cabinet members, propose laws, and provide recommendations
“Can Saudi Arabia Reform Itself?” Middle East Report #28, International Crisis Group, July
“Reform With an Islamic Slant,” Washington Post, March 9, 2003.
In 1993, Saudi officials improved relations with the Saudi Shiite community and allowed some
of its exiled leaders to return to the kingdom.
Saudi leaders considered steps to reform the political system at earlier periods in Saudi history,
though the royal family took no concrete steps toward instituting reforms until 1992.
Many observers note that Saudi security services routinely ignore the provisions in the Basic
to the Saudi government.10 Currently, the Majlis al-Shura has no budgetary authority, and
its legislative proposals can be vetoed by the Saudi government. The Consultative
Council does have the power to delay legislation it opposes, such as a recent proposal by
the Saudi government to establish highway tolls. According to Dr. Abdullah bin Saleh
Al-Obaid, a professor and member of the Consultative Council, one of the challenges the
Majlis al-Shura faces is the lack of understanding in Saudi society over the respective
roles of the executive and legislative branches of government.11
Recent Reforms and Setbacks. Saudi Arabia has recently taken steps to expand
political participation and loosen some restrictions on freedom of speech, while
simultaneously cracking down on the most vocal reformists in order to deter future
activities. In July 2004, the government announced that elections for local municipal
councils will be held in early 2005, though Saudi women will not have the right to vote
or run for office.12 Crown Prince Abdullah started a “National Dialogue Forum,” allowing
reformers to hold open discussions on previously taboo subjects, such as women’s rights,
official corruption, and abuses by religious police. The government also permitted the first
visit of an international human rights organization (Human Rights Watch), and authorized
the country’s first indigenous human rights organization. Crown Prince Abdullah has
established a higher committee for education reform, which has been tasked with
reviewing the Saudi curriculum and making recommendations to modernize the Saudi
school system. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has imprisoned several reformers on
charges of “incitement.” Some were released after promising not to engage in future
activities, while others were put on trial. Until recently, political prisoners in Saudi Arabia
have not been given access to an attorney, nor have they been put on trial before a judge.
Some analysts note that a recent trial of Saudi reformers actually worked to their benefit
in that some reformers want the Saudi judicial system to be more open and transparent.
The Saudi government has since suspended public trials of reformers.
Prioritizing the Fight Against Terrorism. Many regional analysts believe that
domestic counterterrorism operations and the need to placate religious moderates may
supersede reform efforts in Saudi Arabia. In an environment of increasing “homegrown”
Islamic militancy modeled on the activities of Al Qaeda, particularly in Saudi Arabia,
many governments in Arab and Muslim-majority countries are under pressure to detain
suspects without due process. At the same time, they are routinely criticized by
international human rights groups for their aggressive interrogation techniques,
detentions, and mistreatment of prisoners.
In dealing with the latest manifestation of Islamic militancy, Saudi government
officials have focused less on reform-oriented policies and more on co-opting Saudi
religious officials in order to undermine the culture of Jihad, which some analysts believe
On August 20, 1993, King Fahd appointed a 60-member consultative council. It’s membership
increased to 90 in 1997 and to 120 in 2001. Women are only permitted to serve as observers at
Consultative Council meetings.
Meeting with members of the Saudi Consultative Council, CRS staff visit to Saudi Arabia,
A new Saudi election law does not explicitly prevent women from voting or running for office;
however, an election implementation committee has ruled against women’s participation in the
upcoming municipal elections.
has long simmered in parts of Saudi Arabia. Over the past year, Saudi officials have
asked clerics to preach against terrorism in their weekly sermons. More religious figures
have spoken out against Islamist militancy on Saudi state television. The government also
has offered amnesty to some members of militant groups. Some fear that by pursuing
reform-minded policies, Saudi officials would alienate religious leaders, whose
cooperation is needed in the fight against terrorism.
Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia. The combination of Arab tribal tradition and
the integration of Wahhabi or “unitarian” tenets in the Saudi political system has limited
women’s rights outside of the home. Many Western observers believe that Saudi Arabia’s
strict social regulations oppress women. Women are prohibited from driving and must
be veiled when in public. Although women are permitted to work in certain professions,
such as health care and teaching, there continues to be high female unemployment despite
a large pool of well-educated female college graduates. Physical abuse also is prevalent;
one Saudi female television announcer was recently beaten by her husband, and allowed
a television station to broadcast her injuries to the Saudi public in order to raise awareness
of the issue. Saudi women also face strict dress codes, enforced by the religious police
(Mutaween), which require women to be covered in public.
Crown Prince Abdullah has permitted some small steps toward greater awareness for
women’s issues. In June 2004, the government sponsored a conference on women’s
issues, and the Council of Ministers recently stated that more jobs should be set aside for
Saudi women.13 In September 2003, 300 prominent Saudi citizens, including 51 women,
submitted a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah calling for further reforms.
Findings of the 9/11 Commission
In its findings on the connection between the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks
and the phenomenon of growing Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia, the 9/11
Commission Report states that “the United States and Saudi Arabia must determine if
they can build a relationship that political leaders on both sides are prepared to publicly
defend — a relationship about more than oil. It should include a shared commitment to
political and economic reform, as Saudis make common cause with the outside world.”
This recommendation is based largely on the notion that after the 9/11 attacks, in which
15 of the 19 airline hijackers were Saudi citizens, Saudi Arabia’s domestic political
environment is of great concern to U.S. national security. Traditionally, the United States
has tread lightly on the issue; the U.S.-Saudi relationship has long been based on a tacit
understanding that the United States would refrain from interfering in Saudi domestic
affairs in return for Saudi cooperation on energy and security issues in the Persian Gulf.
The Commission’s report recognizes that Saudi Arabia itself faces unrest and terrorist
activity by Islamic radicals and that Saudi Arabia must address the extensive influence
of its religious establishment and stagnant socio-economic conditions, which some
believe are fostering religious extremism.14 The 9/11 Commission Report insists that the
U.S.-Saudi relationship must evolve from its current state and that leaders on both sides
“In Rare Public Dialogue, Saudi Women Talk Rights,” Christian Science Monitor, June 14,
Although the Saudi government has a record budget surplus in 2004 due to the high price of
oil, rapid population growth has caused a drop in per capita GDP over the last decade.
must agree on a common framework for addressing reform in Saudi Arabia without
unintentionally causing an extremist backlash against either government.
U.S. Policy to Support Reform in Saudi Arabia
Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration has pushed
for U.S. programs and policies to support democracy and reform in the Middle East;
however, many observers feel that both U.S. and Saudi officials remain reluctant to push
the sensitive issue of Saudi reform to the forefront of the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship.
Instead, U.S. and Saudi authorities have cooperated on “hard” security issues, such as
tracking Al Qaeda terrorists and local Saudi extremists and bolstering Saudi Arabia’s antimoney laundering capabilities. From the U.S. standpoint, officials have given top priority
to security-related cooperation, which itself has been difficult to secure from Saudi
officials. In addition, there are few independent reform groups inside Saudi Arabia that
are both tolerated by the Saudi government and willing to work with U.S. groups. From
the Saudi perspective, there is a deep-seated fear that extremists will use U.S.-Saudi
cooperation on reform as a rallying cry to recruit more Saudi nationals to Jihadist groups
bent on overthrowing the Saudi royal family.
U.S. diplomatic efforts to promote reform in Saudi Arabia have largely been
conducted by the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia and the State Department’s Middle East
Partnership Initiative (MEPI) Office in Washington. During 2003, the U.S. Embassy
encouraged visits to Saudi Arabia by human rights representatives, and helped arrange a
visit by the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in July.
Also during 2003, the Embassy arranged orientation trips to the United States and
workshops for Saudi journalists, scholars, officials, and members of the private sector, in
some cases under the auspices of the International Visitors program and the MEPI
program. Some officials have noted that security concerns inside Saudi Arabia have
hampered U.S. embassy personnel from conducting more extensive reform-related
Legislative Response to the 9/11 Commission Recommendations. In
proposing legislation in response to the 9/11 Commission Report, the House and the
Senate have included in their respective bills findings and statements regarding the U.S.
relationship with Saudi Arabia. H.R. 10 (passed by the House), the 9/11
Recommendations Implementation Act, contains a reporting provision, under which the
President is required to submit to two specified congressional committees within one year
a strategy for collaboration with the people and government of Saudi Arabia on subjects
of mutual interest. According to H.R. 10, the strategy is to include a framework for
security cooperation against terrorism with emphasis on combating terrorist financing; a
framework for political and economic reform in Saudi Arabia; an examination of steps
to reverse the trend toward extremism in Saudi Arabia; and a framework for promoting
greater tolerance and respect for cultural and religious diversity.
S. 2845 (passed by the Senate), the National Intelligence Reform Act of 2004, also
contains a reporting requirement describing the U.S. strategy for expanding collaboration
with Saudi Arabia, including on issues relating to political and economic reform. S. 2845
calls on the President to consider undertaking a periodic, formal, and visible dialogue
between U.S. Government officials and their Saudi counterparts to address challenges to
their relationship and identify areas for cooperation.