Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Issues Statement on Saudi Arabia

On Thursday, January 19, 2017, Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ), said that the Saudi Government’s “bold and ambitious plans to transform its economy provide a unique opportunity to improve the human rights of women and the poor.”

Alston’s statement came at the conclusion of a twelve-day official visit to Saudi Arabia with CHRGJ researcher Christiaan van Veen, senior advisor to the mandate. This is only the third time that a Special Rapporteur has visited Saudi Arabia in the past thirty years, with the last visit taking place more than eight years ago.

“Despite the plethora of serious human rights issues in Saudi Arabia, the radically new approach reflected in Vision 2030, the National Transformation Program 2020 and the Fiscal Balance Program recognize the need to encourage full female participation in the labour market, which will drive the cultural changes needed to enable women to become both more economically productive and more independent,” Alston said at the end of his official visit to the country.

Most Saudis are convinced that their country is free of poverty, but the reality is that there are very poor areas in both the large cities and remote rural areas, and there is major neglect of the plight of many non-Saudi long-term residents. Only in 2002 was the existence of poverty in the Kingdom first acknowledged by the then Crown Prince Abdullah.

While Government programs have proliferated and charitable organizations working on poverty have flourished since then, Alston described the current social protection system for the poor as “a veritable hodgepodge of programs which is inefficient, unsustainable, poorly coordinated and, above all, unsuccessful in providing comprehensive social protection to those most in need.”

Alston reports that, in meetings with him, the Government was severely self-critical of the shortcomings of its current social protection system and appears to be making genuine attempts at reform. In the last year, the Government has announced dramatic reductions of fuel, electricity and water subsidies but aims to cushion the negative impacts of those reforms by introducing a cash transfer program called the Household Allowance. This will be part of an overall Citizen Account system, which will be accompanied by a greatly expanded data gathering capacity—essential for evidence-based decision-making.

Alston called upon the Government to recognize social protection as a human right, which he said would be in line with the Saudi Basic Law and Islamic principles and obligations. He also warned that the existing timetable for reform was unrealistically ambitious in light of experience from other countries showing the risks of major backlash against radical subsidy reforms.

Alston urged the authorities to use Vision 2030 to enhance gender equality, especially for women and girls in the poorer segments of society. Saudi Arabia has been much criticized internationally for its record on women’s rights and the Special Rapporteur highlighted the deep and enduring disadvantage caused by the persistence of many features of the guardianship system and the refusal to let women drive cars. But he also noted that economic imperatives as well as increasing demands by Saudi women have led to a number of improvements in recent years.

“Vision 2030 recognizes that Saudi women represent ‘a great asset’ which is currently under-utilized. The need to recognize women’s rights points in the same direction. The 2012 decision allowing women to work in the retail sector transformed the lives of millions of women who were finally able to work outside the home.  So too should the current economic transformation lift existing restrictions on women’s economic and other forms of independence.” Alston said.  “The driving ban should be lifted,” he added, “and women should no longer need authorization from male guardians to work or travel.”

During his twelve-day visit to Saudi Arabia, Alston met ministers and other senior officials, as well as experts from the non-profit sector, academics, activists and individuals living in poverty in Riyadh, Jeddah and Jizan.

The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report with his full findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council, 35th session, in June 2017.

Read the Special Rapporteur’s full end-of-mission statement here.

Read the full OHCHR press release in English and Arabic.