• “Looser Rein, Uncertain Gain” (September 27, 2010) is Human Rights Watch’s assessment of the reforms that King Abdullah has implemented in Saudi Arabia over the past five years.
  • The most egregious examples of Saudi Arabia’s systematic and endemic abuse of human rights are downplayed in the report, such as violence and discrimination against women, the lack of freedom of speech or religion, and the role of the religious police.
  • The recommendations for Saudi Arabia are ambiguous and lack concrete guidelines for implementation. (Compare with HRW’s numerous reports on Israel which include harsh recommendations, such as calls for severe sanctions by the United States, the European Union, and UN.)
  • As a study of this very closed society, the lack of detail and depth in “Looser Rein” reflects limited access and information regarding the situation in Saudi Arabia.
  • This report should be read in the context of the Middle East division Director Sarah Leah Whitson’s May 2009 fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia, which focused on HRW’s role in attacking Israel.
  • The 52-page report, presented as a compilation based on five years of research, contrasts sharply with HRW’s seven lengthy publications on the 3-week Gaza war of January 2009. This illustrates the disproportionate agenda and allocation of resources in HRW’s Middle East division.
  • The soft approach reflected in “Looser Rein” is further evidence in support of HRW founder Robert Bernstein’s conclusion that the NGO has abandoned its “original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters.”


On September 27, 2010, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report on Saudi Arabia, entitled “Looser Rein, Uncertain Gain,” claiming to assess the human rights reforms that King Abdullah has implemented in the past five years. The publication highlights HRW’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division’s very different treatment of open, democratic societies, in contrast to closed, totalitarian regimes that systematically abuse human rights.

Under the ideological direction of Sarah Leah Whitson and Joe Stork, as has been documented in detail, MENA has understated the systematic and endemic human rights violations committed by the Saudi Arabian regime. (In May 2009 Whitson went to Saudi Arabia to raise money from “prominent members of Saudi society,” including a member of the governing Shura Council. She focused on HRW’s leading role in the political war against Israel, instead of the daily human rights violations facing Saudi citizens and foreign residents.)

MENA’s “soft sell” approach to closed societies such as Saudi Arabia is clearly illustrated in the recommendations section of “Looser Rein, Uncertain Gain.” Instead of the type of language of derision and prosecution that characterizes HRW publications on Israel, the organization merely urges King Abdullah to enact legislation, enforce equal rights and freedoms, and hold accountable those who are violating human rights or perpetrating their continued abuse. The report does not, however, include any concrete guidelines to carry out these amorphous recommendations, which are exclusively directed to King Abdullah.

In contrast, reports on Israel include harsh recommendations to the governments of Israel, as well as specific suggestions on pressuring Israel for the United States, the European Union, and UN bodies. In some cases, HRW recommends concrete international intervention: boycotts of Israel, US and EU “leverage… to press Israel,” and that the UN Security Council “refer the conflict to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.” In May 2010, at a news conference, MENA Director Sarah Leah Whitson repeated support for anti-Israel boycotts. No such activist recommendations are made in the case of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s Dismal Human Rights Record

According to Freedom House, Saudi Arabia is far from being a free country. The government and judicial system are based on state-sponsored Wahabism, which mandates extreme gender and religious discrimination. The 2009 U.S. State Department report on human rights in Saudi Arabia states that disappearances, torture and physical abuse, and arbitrary arrest all occur in the country. There are severe restrictions on civil liberties, such as freedoms of speech (including the Internet), assembly, association, movement, and religion. Political parties are forbidden. Yet most of these dimensions are missing or understated by HRW.

Similary, academic freedom is restricted, including prohibitions on teaching secular philosophy and religions other than Islam. Violence against women, violations of children’s rights, and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, sect, and ethnicity are common, as are corruption and lack of government transparency. Sexual freedom is also suppressed. Women may not legally drive cars, cannot travel within or outside the country without a male relative, and must be represented by a male in Saudi courts.

Saudi Arabia is also engaged in violent conflicts. In November and December 2009, Saudi Arabia targeted alleged rebel bases in northern Yemen, killing civilians in the cross-border bombings. Yet this aspect, and the potential for war crimes, is also missing in HRW’s “research report.”

Overview of “Looser Rein”

“Looser Rein, Uncertain Gain” mentions “systematic violations” of human rights in Saudi Arabia, but gives unjustified attention to very limited reform in the areas of women’s rights, freedom of expression, judicial fairness, and religious tolerance. Rights of foreign workers are singled out as a severely neglected area.

HRW’s study concludes that while King Abdullah has implemented some incremental changes, the reforms are “symbolic,” and have not been institutionalized or legislated. According to HRW, this merely amounts to “changes in atmosphere,” which can be easily undone without institutional reform.

Five Years, Only 52 Pages

The 52-page report is reportedly “based on five years of Human Rights Watch research and reporting on Saudi Arabia,” primarily by Christoph Wilcke, senior researcher in MENA. (By comparison, HRW issued seven reports on the 3-week Gaza war of January 2009; the five that focused on allegations of Israeli violations totaled 351 pages.)

Most of the issues discussed in the U.S. State Department and Freedom House reports, including some of the most egregious examples of human rights violations, are not mentioned in “Looser Rein.”

The inverted nature of HRW’s agenda and unprincipled priorities were illustrated in the May 2009 Saudi fundraiser, at which Sarah Leah Whitson declared that the organization “is facing a shortage of funds because of the global financial crisis and the work on Israel and Gaza, which depleted HRW’s budget for the region.”

Lack of Access Leads to a Weaker Report

The publication’s ideological bias is compounded by its methodological flaws. HRW presents its report as comprehensive, but, as a closed society, Saudi Arabia prevents access and criticism from without. Saudi citizens who cooperated with HRW could face harassment, or worse.

In fact, the majority of examples of abuse in the report are based on news articles, which are also extremely limited. HRW notes that US media correspondents have only obtained “glimpses of Saudis society” through “occasional, short visits to the kingdom.”

HRW’s access does not appear to be more substantive: according to his profile on the Guardian (UK) website, Christoph Wilcke visited Saudi Arabia twice in 2006 and once in 2007. HRW does not provide any record of subsequent research visits. (Sarah Leah Whitson travelled there in May 2009 on her fundraising trip.)

In contrast, the open and democratic nature of Israel enables obsessive advocacy and criticism. For instance, a lengthy press release entitled “Israel: Grant Status Long Denied to Arab Village in Central Israel” (October 8, 2010), which focuses on an unrecognized Israeli-Arab village in central Israel, featured highly detailed minutiae on alleged discrimination against a small village.  (HRW has not taken such a microscopic approach on human rights issues that affect Jewish Israelis.)

The Pivotal Role of Sarah Leah Whitson

MENA Director Sarah Leah Whitson, who edited “Looser Rein, Uncertain Gain,” led a May 2009 fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia. There, she used HRW’s testimony “about Israeli abuses to the US Congress” and accusations of “systematic destructive attacks on civilian targets,” and the specter of the pro-Israel lobby to solicit funds from “prominent members of Saudi society.” According to the original news report of the event, Whitson criticized Saudi Arabia for failing to safeguard the rights of migrant workers.

The mild tone of “Looser Rein,” with an emphasis on positive changes and optimism, may reflect Whitson’s attempts to develop ties within Saudi Arabia and other totalitarian regimes, rather than combat the countries’ human rights abuses. Whitson adopted a similarly sanguine approach in an op-ed she wrote following her visit to Libya (“Postcard From…Tripoli,Foreign Policy In Focus, February 11, 2010). Although HRW’s Libyan press conference was cut short by government agents and ended in “pandemonium,” Whitson spun her trip and the event in an entirely positive light.

Conclusion: Open vs. Closed Societies

The ideological double standard that produces HRW’s and MENA’s moral outrage regarding open societies versus its light-handed approach to closed societies belies the universality of human rights.  In an October 2009 New York Times op-ed, HRW founder Robert Bernstein criticized the organization for “cast[ing] aside its important distinction between open and closed societies” and for abandoning its “original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters.”

One cause is the post-colonial ideology and anti-Israel bias that pervades the MENA division.

Another element may be the perception that a light hand conveys an advantage in dealing with closed societies. “Looser Rein” quotes Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who recommends that the US “recognize and encourage Saudi government reforms; [and] work quietly at country team level to aid Saudi reformers.”

But, there is no evidence that HRW’s “soft” approach to Saudi Arabia has any positive impact. In contrast to HRW’s obsessive condemnations and campaigns targeting Israel, this report creates the impression that Saudi Arabian violations are both less important and less problematic.

“Looser Rein, Uncertain Gain” also confirms Robert Bernstein’s conclusion that HRW “has lost critical perspective” in its approach to the Middle East. Without a dramatic change in the MENA division, HRW will continue to lose any remaining credibility.