Exposing the reality of repression in Saudi Arabia

Under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the authorities are spending billions of dollars on an image rehabilitation campaign to clean up Saudi Arabia’s reputation on the world stage.  

The Saudi Arabian government is investing massively in sports, business and entertainment to distract the world from its abysmal human rights record. 

Celebrities and athletes are being flown into Saudi Arabia to project an image of a glamorous and transformed country.  

This carefully crafted image is far from reality. 

Since the Crown Prince came to power, the human rights situation has deteriorated drastically. People in Saudi Arabia are facing an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression, including heavy prison sentences for critical commentary on social media. Executions for a wide range of crimes are reaching record levels.  

And now a planned penal code threatens to entrench these terrible violations.

Act now to break the silence and call for their release.

We need your help to stop Saudi Arabia’s PR machine from burying the stories of brave Saudis locked up for speaking out for change in their country.

Zero-tolerance for criticism in Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on expression

Saudi authorities have adopted a zero-tolerance policy for any criticism, no matter how innocuous. They have shuttered all human rights groups, wiping out any form of independent civil society in the Kingdom.  

People are being sentenced to some of the harshest prison terms we have ever documented in Saudi Arabia for expression – others have been sentenced to death.  

Salma al-Shehab, a PhD student and mother of two arrested during a visit to Saudi Arabia from the UK, is serving a 27-year sentence just for tweeting in support of women’s rights

Mohammad al-Ghamdi was sentenced to death in July of 2023 for criticising authorities on Twitter to a follower count of 10.  

Many expression cases are tried by the notorious Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), which is meant to try terror-related crimes, but has been used as a weapon to silence dissent. The SCC hands out harsh sentences after flagrantly unfair trials to human rights defenders, activists, journalists, religious clerics and ordinary people. 

Turkish writer Hatice Cengiz , fiancee of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to a portrait of Khashoggi after unveiling it on the National Mall in Washington, DC USA.
Saudi Arabian authorities are known for silencing those who speak against them. In 2018, journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, sparking global outcry against the Saudi government.
Manahel taking a selfie in the mirror at the gym
Fitness instructor and women’s rights activist.  
She was forcibly disappeared after
being detained for tweeting in support of women’s rights and posting photos without wearing an abaya (traditional loose-fitting long-sleeved dress).  
a photo of Salma
PhD student and mother of two. 
She is serving a 27-year prison term, followed by a 27-year travel ban since January 2023 for tweeting in support of women’s rights. 
a photo of Mohammad al Ghamdi.
Mohammad al-Ghamdi was sentenced to death in July of 2023 for criticising authorities on Twitter to a follower count of 10.  
Mohammed al-Qahtani
a photo of mohammed qahtani in black and white
Human rights defender.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2013 for co-founding a human rights organization and for his activism and human rights work. He is still being detained and forcibly disappeared despite the expiry of his sentence. 
albdulrahman al-Sadhan
Red Crescent aid worker.
He has been imprisoned since March 2018, and he is currently forcibly disappeared. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison to be followed by a 20-year travel ban in April 2020 for his satirical tweets. 

Join the campaign calling for their immediate and unconditional release 

Buying the world’s silence with an image laundering campaign  

In 2017, the Saudi Information Ministry announced a global campaign “to promote the changing face of Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world and improve international perception of the kingdom”.  

PR experts were hired to peddle an illusion of progress and reform and counter negative media coverage of the country. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, which is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, built a multibillion-dollar foothold in the entertainment, sports, and tech industries.   

Businesses, sports and entertainment figures rushed to take advantage of Saudi Arabia’s financial bounty. Forgetting their earlier human rights condemnations, world leaders rolled out the red carpet for the Crown Prince

Meanwhile, the human rights situation in the Kingdom has deteriorated exponentially. As well as their zero-tolerance policy to criticism, in 2022 the Saudi authorities executed 196 people and at least 172 people in 2023, despite promises by authorities to limit the use of the death penalty. The 2022 number is the highest annual number of executions that our researchers have recorded in the country in the last 30 years. 

Right now, there are at least seven young men at imminent risk of execution, who were sentenced to death for alleged crimes committed when they were children. One of them was as young as 12 years old at the time of his alleged crime

Cristiano Ronaldo at a press conference, sitting in front of a banner that says 'welcome to Saudi Arabia'
Portuguese football player Cristiano Ronaldo, who now plays for Al Nassr, is one of many well-known celebrities who have signed contracts in Saudi Arabia as part of the government’s image laundering campaign.

A ‘Manifesto for Repression’ 

In February 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced a package of legislative reforms that aim to “preserve rights, protect human rights” and “bolster the principles of justice”. This included the Kingdom’s first ever set of criminal laws defining crimes and punishments in a penal code. Until now, in the absence of a penal code, judges can define crimes and hand down sentences at their discretion without resorting to a legal text, resulting in discrepancies in punishments for the same crime.  

A draft of the penal code leaked online in July 2022 tells a different story. Our analysis shows that it is a manifesto for repression. Here is what it does: 

  • It codifies the use of the death penalty as a primary punishment for a range of crimes, not limited to intentional killing as international standards dictate.  
  • It punishes freedom of expression and fails to protect the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.  
  • It criminalizes “illegitimate” consensual sexual relations, same-sex relations, and restricts access to abortion by criminalizing both the acts of undergoing an abortion or aiding in performing an abortion.  
  • It fails to protect women and girls from gender-based violence by allowing perpetrators of crimes in the name of “honour” to escape criminal prosecution. 
  • It fails to clearly define all crimes and punishments, allowing judges wide latitude in determining what constitutes a crime and its appropriate punishment. 

Codifying discrimination against women

Another promised law, passed in March 2022, also fails to deliver on the promise of reform. The Personal Status Law codifies discrimination against women in most aspects of family life, including marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance, and perpetuates the male guardianship system.

It fails to adequately protect women from domestic violence. Instead, it entrenches patriarchal gender roles by expecting women to “obey” their husbands and makes women’s financial support from their husbands during marriage conditional on wives “submit[ing]” themselves to their husbands, placing women at risk of exploitation and abuse.  

Exploitation of migrant workers

Additionally, despite introducing limited reforms in 2021 to the labour system governing the millions of migrant workers in the country, our researchers documented how migrant workers contracted to warehouses in Saudi Arabia were subjected to serious abuses which likely amounted to human trafficking for the purposes of labour exploitation, including by:

  • being deceived by recruitment agencies about the nature of their employer and the terms and conditions of their jobs before leaving their home countries,
  • having their wages withheld by third-party contractors,
  • being housed in dirty and overcrowded accommodation,
  • subject to verbal or physical abuse or threats thereof particularly when they raised complaints about their living and working conditions. 

All of these changes are taking place in a context in which free speech is severely restricted and any critical discussion or public debate on the reforms or their human rights impact is criminalized. 

For more information on the impact of these legislative reforms on human rights, and our recommendations of what a rights-respecting penal code should look like , read our report. 

Saudi Crown Prince at a conference in Riyadh, surrounded by other attendees.
Since Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, came to power, the human rights situation has deteriorated drastically.
a woman wearing a headscarf with two children. The children are both wearing blue backpacks.
A new package of legislative reforms in Saudi Arabia will codify discrimination against women. The new penal code entrenches patriarchal gender roles.
a large group of migrant workers, many from Bangladesh, wait together at an airport in Saudi Arabia.
Our research documented how migrant workers contracted to warehouses in Saudi Arabia were subject to serious rights abuses. The country’s new penal code will increase the risk of labour exploitation.

Our silence cannot be bought.

Join the campaign.