Joint Statement Against the Human Rights Violations of Saudi Arabia

Five years ago on January 2, 2016, the government of Saudi Arabia brutally executed a highly revered Shia Muslim scholar, community leader, and organizer for his outspoken opposition to the injustices of the Saudi government. Sheikh Nimr Baqar al-Nimr was a pillar of the marginalized Shia minority in the country and his arrest and execution was a purely political move by the government seeking to silence any dissent. His state-sanctioned murder sparked protests around the world, including in the United States. [1] This appalling miscarriage of justice is emblematic of a broader campaign of human rights violations carried out by the Saudi regime.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s terrible record on human rights, oppression of women, crackdown on any form of dissent, and the spread of their takfiri * ideology around the world leading to the emergence of violent extremist groups, the US sees Saudi Arabia as a resource-rich strategic ally and a counter to the influence of Iran in the region. This is a short-sighted view that does not take into consideration the complex history of the region and current sentiments of the majority of people on the ground. The Saudi government, empowered by the US, is largely blamed by Muslims around the world for tensions in the region. Saudi Arabia is also largely credited with the financing of violent groups and promotion of a state-sponsored extremist ideology that gives rise to groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda around the world. [2]

It is imperative that the new Biden administration and US policymakers continue to take the opportunity to turn the page on close US-Saudi relations, which have only enabled Saudi Arabia to carry out atrocities including silencing dissent and persecution of minority groups with impunity. This includes addressing the issues of injustice outlined below, as demanded by the dozens of US-based organizational signatories to this comprehensive joint statement.

* Takfiri refers to the extremist ideology that sanctions arbitrary declaration of apostasy on other Muslims, outside of strict Islamic legal process by trained scholars. Takfiris often condone acts of violence as legitimate methods of achieving religious or political goals, which has historically landed on Shia Muslim communities with devastating impact.

Persecution, Incarceration, and Murder of Dissenters and Journalists

Over the years, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has led a secret and widespread campaign to silence dissenters. These initiatives include surveillance, kidnapping, detention, and torture of Saudi Arabian citizens. [3] Many years ago, the Kingdom began a campaign of repression and arrests, all aimed at silencing those critical of the government. Although this ongoing offensive on political freedoms did not begin under the current Crown Prince, it has been escalated to an alarming level at his behest.

In 2018 alone, over 200 Saudi citizens were detained as part of the crackdown. Bloggers, writers, and activists found themselves thrown in prison to silence criticism of the Kingdom. The campaign reached its height when the Crown Prince ordered the brutal killing of prominent critic and Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. His murder in the Saudi consulate in Turkey sent a chilling message to dissidents and journalists alike who dared to speak out against the government of Saudi Arabia. [4]

Saudi Arabia’s fervent efforts to silence independent voices of citizens, journalists, and anyone accused of dissent, is an affront to the very core of political and civil liberty. Its blatant efforts of repression are reprehensible and it is the duty of Americans and all people of conscience to speak out against this persecution.

Women’s Rights

Among its great injustices is Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, particularly activists who strive for greater freedoms. For many years, the Kingdom imposed strict restrictions on women, their dress, their legal status, and their autonomy from the men in their lives. [5] As activists have fought to achieve more liberty and equality, the government has pushed back. Several restrictions were lifted in recent years, but this outward “modernization” and liberation is tempered by the persecution of female activists who have led the fight for freedom.

Female activists who lobbied for lifting the driving ban in 2018 continue to face criminal charges or remain imprisoned as a result of their activism. Loujan al-Hathloul, a prominent reformer, was sentenced to six years in prison under a vague counter-terrorism law in late December 2020. As the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman touts his reforms and brands himself as a promoter of women in Saudi Arabia, countless other activists remain in prison for their role in fighting for basic rights. While Al-Hathloul has been released, other female activists remain imprisoned. Many joined forces to tell Saudi judges that while being interrogated in prison, they were tortured and sexually assaulted by masked men. They were caned, electrocuted, waterboarded, forcibly groped, and threatened with rape. [6]

Many think Saudi Arabia is swiftly moving into a new era but reality paints a picture of a regime committed to social control and subjugation of women while presenting a progressive image to the rest of the world. The Saudi government maintains and propagates this false image by spending millions of dollars every year on a wide network of public relations and lobbying firms in Washington, DC. [7]

The War on Yemen

For the past four years, Saudi Arabia has led a devastating massacre of Yemeni citizens, resulting in what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. [8] The Saudi military, armed with US bombs and fighter jets, launched 19,000 raids between 2015 and 2019 alone, [9] many of which targeted civilian areas. The Yemen Data Project estimates that among all the bombings conducted by the Saudi-led coalition, two-thirds struck non-military and unknown targets, including airports, bridges, roads, farms, schools, and factories. [10] The incessant bombing of Yemen, the region’s poorest nation, by Saudi Arabia has caused the civilian, economic, and medical infrastructure to collapse. The Saudi-led coalition has also callously and frequently targeted civilians at events like weddings and funerals in Yemen, killing dozens each time. [11]

Since the forming of the Saudi-led coalition in 2015, the United States has been an active supporter lending weapons, intelligence, and training to the effort. The war has also displaced millions of people, both internally and externally. The United Nations estimates that 20 million Yemeni are food insecure, about two thirds of the total population. The Kingdom has bombed hospitals and schools and is directly responsible for half the population being on the brink of starvation and death. [12] The U.S. based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project has recorded upwards of 100,000 deaths due to lack of food, medical services, and infrastructure since the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s campaign. And the war itself has claimed another 130,000 lives with no end in sight. [13] In addition to directly destroying medical facilities and other essential services in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has purposefully blocked Yemen’s access to basic food, medicine, and supplies that humanitarian organizations have attempted to introduce into the country. [14] The UN calls the degree of suffering in Yemen “nearly unprecedented.”

The United States has remained complicit in promoting Saudi Arabia’s agenda in Yemen. The Trump Administration labeled the Houthi group in Yemen as terrorists, making it more difficult for humanitarian aid to reach civilians in the Houthi-controlled areas of northern Yemen. [15] Experts said this designation by the US scared off investors, foreign businesses, and banks, thereby preventing the economy from making any semblance of recovery while also undermining the ongoing peace negotiations. [16] While President Biden has reversed this designation, more action is needed to address the crisis in Yemen.

Persecution of Shia Muslim minorities

From the start of 2016 through the end of 2019, at least 84 Saudi Shia men were executed or killed in raids by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. None of the 84 families has received a body for burial, while one’s beheaded remains were pinned publicly to a pole as a warning to others. [17] Amnesty International reported that they were convicted "after sham trials" that relied on confessions extracted through torture. [18] This included the highly revered Shia Sheikh Nimr. [19]

Discrimination against Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia also includes the refusal to permit Shia houses of worship outside limited Shia-majority areas, curtailment of Shia religious practices, no right to work in a number of public sector professions including high political office, lack of access to state services, an education curriculum that stigmatizes Shia religious beliefs, and the imposition of a justice system that often displays anti-Shia bias. [20] Saudi courts have sentenced Shia citizens for hosting private group prayers in homes and even convicted a Sunni man of “sitting with Shia.”

According to Human Rights Watch, the statements of Saudi clerics, courts, and textbooks demonstrate that it is Saudi government officials and institutions that have incited hatred and persecution of its own Shia citizens, and that the hostility that exists against Shias in Saudi Arabia and beyond its borders is a direct result of these writings. These discriminatory statements have also targeted Jews, Christians, Sufis, Zoroastrians, and others. [21]

Desecration of Islamic Heritage

Saudi Arabia’s past, present and planned destruction of historic sites threatens to eradicate Islamic heritage that is meaningful to millions of Muslims around the world. The demolition has selectively targeted shrines, mausoleums and cemeteries of particular significance to Muslims who do not practice the extremist takfiri, government-mandated form of Islam. Research estimates that more than 90 percent of Saudi Arabia’s historical landmarks and archaeological heritage have already been demolished and that the rate of destruction has increased over the last few years. [22]

In particular, the demolition of the Jannat ul Baqi cemetery in the city of Medina first in 1806 by extremist takfiris and then again on April 21, 1925 by the Saudi government inspired by the same ideology has been a source of deep pain for Shia Muslims around the world for decades. The Baqi cemetery houses the graves of some of Islam’s most sacred figures, including the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, Lady Fatima Zahra; the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Imam Hasan Ibn Ali; as well as other family members and friends of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Shia Muslims, in particular, consider the destruction of Jannat ul Baqi and the continuous, unreasonable, and arbitrary restriction of access for pilgrims, an international violation of religious freedom. + The global Shia Muslim community’s religious rights continue to be violated by Saudi Arabia due to the appalling condition of this holy site, which should bring peace to pilgrims rather than dismay.

+ The government allows a limited period for visitation of two hours per day but prohibits prayer at the site.


Now that the United States has ushered in a new president, it is imperative that our nation hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its egregious actions, both domestically and abroad. Turning a blind eye to Saudi’s blatant injustices and gross violations of human rights has allowed persecution, destruction, and mass murder to flourish. It is a crucial duty of the United States to do its part to curb these abuses and put an end to the US policy on Saudi Arabia that has allowed the country to commit these acts with impunity. We, the undersigned, call on US government officials to acknowledge and address these abuses by committing to a shift in US policy regarding Saudi Arabia that abandons the complacency that has long defined the relationship.

In Solidarity,

The American Muslim Bar Association

Shia Muslim Council of Southern California

Shi’a Association of North America

Muslim Foundation, Inc. (Masjid-e-Ali)

Green Party of New Jersey


[1] Farah Pandith, Extremism is Riyadh’s Top Export, Foreign Policy (March 24, 2019 8:00 AM), https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/24/farah-pandith-saudi-how-we-win-book/.

[2] Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr: Saudi Arabia Executes Top Shia Cleric, BBC (Jan. 2, 2016), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35213244; Fighting, While Funding, Extremists, New York Times (June 19, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/opinion/saudi-arabia-qatar-isis-terrorism.html; Jon Stone, EU Adds Saudi Arabia to ‘Dirty Money’ Blacklist in Crackdown on Terrorism Financing, Independent (Feb. 16, 2019, 4:35 PM), https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/eu-saudi-arabia-dirty-money-terrorism-funding-blacklist-panama-nigeria-a8777676.html.

[3] Mark Mazzetti & Ben Hubbard, It Wasn’t Just Khashoggi: A Saudi Prince’s Brutal Drive to Crush Dissent, New York Times (March 17, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/17/world/middleeast/khashoggi-crown-prince-saudi.html.

[4] Miriam Berger, Saudi Arabia’s Crackdown on Dissent Keeps Going. Here are the Latest Arrests, Washington Post (Nov. 26, 2019 2:24 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/11/26/saudi-arabias-crackdown-dissent-keeps-going-here-are-latest-arrests/.

[5] Kassidy Kruft, Restrictions of Women in Saudi Arabia, ESRI, https://www.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=e5b12de11c1d415291f587e286403cb3.

[6] Id.

[7] Catherine Ho, Saudi Government Has Vast Network of PR, Lobby Firms in U.S., Washington Post (April 20, 2016, 11:53 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/04/20/saudi-government-has-vast-network-of-pr-lobby-firms-in-u-s/.

[8] Zachary Laub & Kali Robinson, Yemen in Crisis, Council on Foreign Relations (July 29, 2020), https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/yemen-crisis.

[9] Death From Above, Al Jazeera (March 25, 2019), https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2018/Saudi-Arabia-air-raids-on-Yemen/index.html.

[10] Zachary Laub & Kali Robinson, Yemen in Crisis, Council on Foreign Relations (July 29, 2020), https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/yemen-crisis.

[11] Shuaib Almosawa, Wedding Is Hit By Airstrike in Yemen, Killing More Than 20, New York Times (April 23, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/23/world/middleeast/yemen-wedding-bombing.html.

[12] Id.

[13] Moyer JD, et al., Assessing the impact of the war on development in Yemen, United Nations Development Programme report (2019), https://tinyurl.com/YemenUNDP.

[14] Deadly Consequences: Obstruction of Aid in Yemen During Covid-19, Human Rights Watch (Sept. 14, 2020), https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/09/14/deadly-consequences/obstruction-aid-yemen-during-covid-19.

[15] Alex Ward, Labeling Yemen’s Houthis as Terrorists Could Hurt Millions of People, Vox (Jan 11, 2021, 2:06 PM), https://www.vox.com/platform/amp/2021/1/11/22224799/yemen-houthi-terrorist-pompeo-humanitarian.

[16] Press Release, House Armed Services Committee, Smith Criticizes State Department Decision to Designate Houthis as Foreign Terrorists Organization (Jan. 11, 2021) (available at https://armedservices.house.gov/press-releases?ID=218B022A-1A50-48C4-A24F-09AD64B590D6).

[17] Cong. Research Serv., RL33533, Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations (2020) (available at: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33533.pdf).

[18] Farah Pandith, Extremism is Riyadh’s Top Export, Foreign Policy (March 24, 2019 8:00 AM), https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/24/farah-pandith-saudi-how-we-win-book/.

[19] Edward Clifford, Financing Terrorism: Saudi Arabia and Its Foreign Affairs, Brown Political Review (Dec. 6, 2014), https://brownpoliticalreview.org/2014/12/financing-terrorism-saudi-arabia-and-its-foreign-affairs/.

[20] Farah Pandith, Extremism is Riyadh’s Top Export, Foreign Policy (March 24, 2019 8:00 AM), https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/24/farah-pandith-saudi-how-we-win-book/.

[21] Adam Maida, Hate Speech by Saudi Officials, Human Rights Watch (Sept. 26, 2017), https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/09/26/they-are-not-our-brothers/hate-speech-saudi-officials.

[22] Sarah Dadouch, Saudi Arabia Executed Them After Questionable Trials. Now it Won’t Give Up the Bodies for Proper Burial, Washington Post (April 8, 2020, 5:00 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/saudi-arabia-executed-them-after-questionable-trials-now-it-wont-give-up-the-bodies-for-proper-burial/2020/04/07/d708e646-7505-11ea-ad9b-254ec99993bc_story.html.