While Saudi Arabia has attempted to undergo a PR makeover in recent years — owing to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s gradual opening up of his country to global leaders and foreign investors — those familiar with the kingdom’s inner workings tell a different story, one that counters bin Salman’s depiction of a “vibrant society.”

Jailed human rights defenders continue to receive long prison sentences and arbitrary travel bans under shady charges, while everyday people live in fear of being targeted by authorities online. In addition, marginalized communities continue to experience limited rights and severe punishment for engaging their civil liberties.

With more external stakeholders doing business with the kingdom, it has never been more important to listen to the researchers, human rights defenders, and organizations dedicated to monitoring Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations.

“Saudi Arabia is opening up to the world but closing off to its own citizens,” Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and advocacy at ALQST, told Global Citizen. “Saudi civil society means constantly living under fear, trials held behind closed doors, prisons shrouded in secrecy — all  while other people are seeing a different Saudi Arabia through sports and entertainment.”

That’s where ALQST for Human Rights comes in. Founded in 2014 by Saudi Arabian human rights defender Yahya Assiri, the NGO has emerged as a prominent voice in shedding light on violations, providing support to victims, and demanding accountability.

“The abuses in Saudi Arabia are mounting to such a degree that it is simply not possible for only Amnesty or Human Rights Watch to be doing this work,” Joey Shea, researcher for Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates at Human Rights Watch, told Global Citizen. “We need an entire organization dedicated to monitoring civic space in the country and getting a real grasp of the extent of the abuses that are happening on the ground.” 

3 Key Things to Know About Civic Space in Saudi Arabia

  1. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, which rates the state of civic space in every country around the world, Saudi Arabia is “closed.” This means that the ability to speak freely, assemble in likeness or protest, or raise concerns about society is entirely obstructed. 
  2. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s top executioners. In 2022, the kingdom executed 196 people, the highest annual number of executions ever recorded in the country.
  3. Over the past several years, Saudi Arabia has cracked down on free speech online, utilizing extensive censorship and surveillance systems to target activists, journalists, government employees, and everyday people.

How does ALQST monitor human rights in Saudi Arabia?

The word 'Al-qist' means 'justice' in Arabic, and justice is at the heart of ALQST’s mission to document and raise awareness of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, hence the name.

While the organization initially focused on advocating for the release of political prisoners unjustly targeted by authorities, it has since broadened its focus to document other abuses, particularly as the crown prince involves more external stakeholders in his plans for a bigger and wealthier Saudi Arabia.

“We do our best to focus on what people in Saudi are experiencing to show the reality on the ground,” Abdullah Aljuraywi, monitoring and campaigns officer at ALQST, told Global Citizen. “Everyone in Saudi is endangered, even for something as small as tweeting. You could be imprisoned. Someone we monitored, they had received over 30 years imprisonment for tweeting on social media.”

Currently, Saudi Arabia refuses access to independent human rights monitors and organizations, creating dangerous conditions for civil society leading ALQST to be founded in the UK. Having left their home country to advocate for reforms, both Aljuraywi and al-Hathloul — as well as the larger team at ALQST— hope to utilize their position in the UK to push for greater access in the kingdom.

“Being based [in the United Kingdom] allows us to be particularly active with the UK government, which is important given the UK’s cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Joshua Cooper, deputy director at ALQST, told Global Citizen. “Lots of Saudis are in the UK now as more are leaving the country seeking asylum, so the UK has the opportunity and responsibility to realize the situation on the ground and push for genuine reforms.”

“Hopefully one day we could do the work from within [Saudi Arabia], but our protection comes from being based abroad and having the protection of the international community, standards, and laws,” al-Hathloul added.

Tracking human rights violations associated with Neom

Despite being based in the UK, ALQST’s ability to maintain networks within Saudi Arabia has allowed the organization to share information about human rights violations with the outside world. One example where this information has been invaluable has to do with Saudi Arabia’s megacity project, Neom.

Launched in 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s sprawling project will cost over $500 billion before its completion and includes innovative technology, tourist attractions, and sustainable infrastructure. Saudi Arabia is attempting to woo foreign investors to join the vision for Neom, investing over $1 trillion on sports and sporting competitions, particularly as the country aims to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup. Amidst this plan-in-action, ALQST has documented the series of human rights violations taking place within the country that are working to keep Neom on schedule.

“We’re directly in contact with people on the ground, with the families of detainees, to learn how things are going. It’s getting more difficult to monitor the situation because of the repressions and threats against people there,” al-Hathloul said.

Last year, ALQST published a report detailing Saudi Arabia’s unjust treatment against the Indigenous Huwaitat tribe as part of the construction process for Neom, informed by first-hand testimonies from victims and witnesses. Some residents of the land earmarked for Neom experienced forced displacement, lengthy prison terms, and travel bans; others have been killed or received the death penalty for resisting eviction.

The team at ALQST carefully documents this information with cyber security and privacy in mind, hoping to limit the potential of Saudi individuals being targeted for sharing information; however, they’ve found that some people are willing to take the risk.

“Some people lost their houses due to the demolitions [associated with Neom]. They already lost their houses, their family members — what more could they lose?” al-Hathloul said. “So they feel more confident talking with us to document what is happening, or their family members who live outside of [Saudi Arabia] will share court information with us.”

Those experiencing the crackdown on civic space trust the team at ALQST to share important information with others, hoping that bin Salman’s resources and growing influence do not allow the world to ignore what is happening.

ALQST views this mission as particularly important in preparation for the 2034 FIFA World Cup, which the organization worries is already allowing external stakeholders to forgo due diligence and gloss over the abuses taking place in Saudi Arabia. In addition to the forced evictions as part of Neom, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record includes the exploitation of migrant workers, continuation of male guardianship over women, and the continued lack of accountability for the murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

“There is a link to be made with people and industries accepting Saudi money, and accepting to be silenced in exchange,” al-Hathloul said.

Monitoring new trends in Saudi Arabia

Many of the trends ALQST tracks as part of its monitoring efforts have to do with freedom of speech and expression; as the Saudi kingdom continues to invest in smart technology, ALQST is also concerned about surveillance and data privacy. 

“They call it ‘smart cities’ but in the end, they’re surveillance cities. Given that all of our work is online, naturally we have to be thinking about surveillance,” al-Hathloul said. “At the end of the day, [Saudi Arabia] is a police state and we cannot know what they’re doing with the data.”

This year marks ALQST’s 10-year anniversary, over the last decade the organization has grown its reputation among the international community and built trust with those living within the kingdom.

Their insight has been essential to uplifting important human rights cases, especially when submitting to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This semi-regular review process presents an important opportunity for members of civil society to address specific violations and hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its actions.

“Lina, Abdullah, and the whole team at ALQST play an absolutely vital role in bringing to light cases that [the world] would have never heard of,” Shea told Global Citizen. “I think that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia would likely be worse if ALQST did not exist.”

By supporting ALQST’s work in amplifying the voices of people in Saudi Arabia, Global Citizens everywhere can be part of raising awareness of the country’s human rights practices. To get in touch with the organization or learn more about their advocacy and monitoring efforts, donate to ALQST or subscribe to their newsletter here.

To learn more about the specific requests and recommendations from civil society concerning Saudi Arabia’s UPR, take action with Global Citizen here.


Demand Equity

This Organization Wants the World to Know About Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Violations

By Jaxx Artz