Since the anointing of King Salman in Saudi Arabia in 2015 by a small royal cabal, the country has seen a dramatic and unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of his son, Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman or MBS. MBS has exercised his power to conduct wide scale arrests against those perceived to have independent power centers in the country, including the country's intellectual and independent religious leadership, the business and media establishment community, royal rivals, and civil society reformists. MBS has established security and intelligence services answerable only to himself, circumventing existing institutions in the defense and interior ministries. He has confiscated billions of dollars in assets of previously independent businesses and individuals through a secretive campaign generically described as an "anti-corruption" effort. He has kidnapped and in some cases killed activists and royal family members abroad. He has also held hostage foreign government leaders, including Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and nominal Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, and jailed the family members of political exiles abroad.
Saudi Arabia's laws prohibit freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. There are no independent civil society organizations in the country. The country is ruled as an absolute monarchy with no constitution or legal protections for the rights of citizens. Elections for local municipal councils with no real power were held in 2015 but have not been held since. The "Shura council", an appointed assembly, has no actual power to pass laws or require accountability from the monarchy and its agencies.
Reforms in 2018 and 2019 allowed women the right to drive and ended certain aspects of the "male guardianship" system, but those who have long campaigned for these changes languish in prison and have faced sexual harassment, torture, electrocution and imprisonment by the government. The Personal Status Law, which the government passed on March 8, 2022 and touted as a major reform, codified discrimination against women and perpetuated the male guardianship system over Saudi women. The law requires women to acquire the consent of their male guardian for marriage, and clarified that it expects women to "obey" and "submit" themselves to their husbands for financial support. While the law granted men the right to unconditional divorce, it denied the same rights to women, stating that women can separate from their husbands only after the husband's consent and the wife's return or repayment of her dowry. The law also failed to criminalize marital rape.
Repression inside Saudi Arabia continues to accelerate at a dramatic pace. MBS and his loyal officials shattered any remaining semblance of legality and institutional integrity of the Saudi Arabia's judiciary by blatantly interfering in its affairs. MBS pressured the judiciary to detain prisoners past their sentenced release dates, arbitrarily increase prison sentences deemed too "lenient," and routinely violate basic due process and prisoner rights. Not even MBS' allies are safe: in February 2023, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh used to prosecute "terrorism" cases in Saudi Arabia, charged six former prominent SCC judges and four former judges of the High Court, the country's supreme court, with "high treason" – a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia – for being too "lenient." Several of these judges had themselves previously carried out violations at the orders of MBS. Their arrests and trial sends a chilling message to all those whom MBS deemed not loyal enough to follow his erratic and increasingly brutal directives.
The Saudi government also ended an unofficial 21-month-long moratorium on executions for drug related offenses in November 2022 and resumed executions on almost a daily basis. The UN called the resumption of these executions "a deeply regrettable step" and "incompatible with international norms and standards." State executions disproportionately target the country's Shi'a Muslim minority and migrant workers, many of whom received death sentences after trials that lacked any semblance of due process. Several Saudis executed since November 2022 were under 18 years of age when they allegedly committed the "crimes" that resulted in their death sentences, representing a clear violation of international law.
Saudi repression is also increasingly transnational. Saudi officials regularly rely on social media to surveil and harass dissidents living abroad. On November 7, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice charged two former Twitter employees with spying for the government of Saudi Arabia in exchange for payment. These two individuals accessed the firm's data on over 6,000 users. Additionally, a Saudi agent, Ibrahim Alhusayyen, pled guilty to lying to FBI agents about social media accounts he used to intimidate Saudis in the US and Canada and a U.S. federal court sentenced him in 2022 to two months in prison followed by deportation.
The country has engaged in belligerent but largely failed military campaigns to extend its influence in the region, including a disastrous war against the Houthi armed group in Yemen, which came to power in 2015. Under King Salman's leadership, Saudi Arabia, purportedly in a coalition with a number of other Arab states, has indiscriminately and deliberately bombarded civilians and civilian sites – particularly critical infrastructure such as schools and hospitals – throughout Yemen and imposed a land, air, and sea embargo on the country. By the end of 2021, the United Nations Development Programme estimated that 377,000 Yemenis died as a result of the war, through both direct and indirect causes such as lack of access to food, water, and healthcare. Over 150,000 of these deaths were the direct result of armed conflict, including over 15,000 civilian deaths, the majority of whom were killed due to air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition By February 2021, over four million Yemenis remained displaced because of the war. Since a ceasefire in 2022, aerial bombardment has largely ceased and as of April 2023, a peace agreement between Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, and the Saudi-led coalition appears imminent.
Saudi Arabia under King Salman and MBS also provided immediate economic assistance of $8 billion dollars and $23 billion dollars in loans to support the military coup in Egypt, later coupling this with further assistance: for example, in 2022, Saudi Arabia deposited $5 billion in Egypt's Central Bank and is expected to invest another $10 over the coming years. Additionally, Riyadh and its allies imposed a blockade on Qatar from June 2017 to January 2021 as punishment for the country's refusal to submit to Saudi Arabian political control. In attempting to become a regional military superpower, Saudi Arabia now maintains the highest defense budget in the world after the U.S. and China. Riyadh is expected to spend $67.6 billion on its military in 2023 alone. The Saudi government, under MBS, has also continued its arms purchasing spree, obtaining advanced weapons systems primarily from the United States: the U.S. provided Riyadh with $64.1 billion worth of weaponry between 2015 and 2020. Saudi Arabia has also increased its weapons purchases from China. For example, in November 2022, Chinese media reported that Saudi Arabia purchased $4 billion worth of Chinese weapons at the Zhuhai Air Show that took place that same month in China.
Saudi Arabia under MBS spends millions on whitewashing the Kingdom's image to international audiences. Saudi now hosts a number of nightclubs, concerts, and cinema venues created to project an image of modernity and progress internationally. Under the guise of Vision 2030, MBS's government spends hundreds of millions of dollars building futuristic cities and projects, the latest of which, the Mukaab, was announced on February 16, 2023. The Mukaab is a sprawling mega-project spanning over 4,695 acres of land in Riyadh. It comes after the authorities began construction of The Line, a vertically layered city that is part of MBS's NEOM mega-project in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia. In both Tabuk and in Jeddah, Saudi authorities continue to use demolitions and forced evictions to make way for construction. Over 1.5 million people in Jeddah have been impacted by the government's demolitions, many of whom were evicted without adequate prior warning and are now homeless. Approximately 63 neighborhoods – many of them inhabited by poor Saudis and foreign migrant workers – are set to be demolished and replaced with expensive homes, upscale restaurants, and public venues. Only after a public outcry did the Saudi government take minimal steps to compensate some of the Jeddah residents forcibly displaced.
Sports is also one such venue Saudi Arabia has sought to whitewash its image. The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) is the central tool used by Riyadh as part of its sportswashing efforts. In October 2021, the PIF bought Newcastle United F.C., one of England's largest and most prestigious football clubs. The PIF acquired NUFC after falsely "…providing assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control…" the club. MBS is chairman of the PIF, and Governor Yasser Alrumayyan, a Minister in Saudi Arabia's government, is NUFC's Non-Executive Director. In February 2023, a California court ordered Alrumayyan to appear in court as part of a lawsuit brought by the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) against the newly created and Saudi-bankrolled LIV Golf, which is headed by Alrumayyan. Alrumayyan's lawyers argued that U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over the PIF, and forcing him to appear in a U.S. court would "violate Saudi law." LIV Golf, and therefore the Saudi government and MBS, has paid former U.S. President Donald Trump millions of dollars to host its tournaments. The PIF is also a contender to purchase the World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., an American professional wrestling promotion company that has branched out into other fields, including films, American football, and other business ventures.
Disregarding Saudi Arabia's atrocious human rights record, the US government is the largest seller of weapons to Saudi Arabia. The US has provided extensive military and intelligence support for Saudi Arabia's war with Yemen, making it a party to the conflict under international humanitarian law, despite widespread and well-documented war crimes committed by the Saudi military. The United States also maintains close security and diplomatic cooperation with the Saudi monarchy, strengthening the Saudi government's capacity to repress its citizens and ensuring its compliance with the US government's strategic priorities in the region, including the US rivalry with Iran and support for Israel.
The Biden administration continues to renege its pledges to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its gross violations, including for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden continues to approve considerable arms packages to Saudi Arabia despite their human rights record. Worse, in November 2022, the Biden administration recognized MBS as head of government in Saudi Arabia following a temporary order in Saudi Arabia appointing MBS as prime minister, thereby suggesting he is immune from prosecution i in a lawsuit brought against him by Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi's fiance, for the murder of Khashoggi. Biden's inaction toward Saudi Arabia's deteriorating human rights record under MBS led to Democratic and Republican senators introducing a joint resolution in March 2023 designed to force the administration to prepare a report on Saudi Arabia's human rights record and possibly lead to a broader reassessment of U.S. security assistance to Riyadh.