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Freedom of Tweet and Freedom to Seat: Reviewing the First Amendment in Saudi Arabia

Author: Fatimah S. Baeshen, Director at the Arabia Foundation


The Arabia Foundation is an independent, Washington, DC-based think tank focused on the geopolitics and socioeconomics of the Middle East with a particular focus on the states of the Arabian Peninsula. Established in 2017, our core mission is to provide insights and encourage debate on the domestic and foreign politics of key regional states and non-state actors as well as their relationships with the United States. We also aim to highlight and contextualize the significant social and economic transformations that are currently taking place within many of these countries. Our reports, analyses, commentary, and events are designed to be a resource for policy-makers, academics, think tank professionals, and media who wish to better understand the complexities of an opaque part of the world that remains critical to global stability. The Arabia Foundation is a registered 501(c)(4) non-profit entity and is privately funded by corporate and individual donations. For more information, follow us on Twitter (@ArabiaFdn) and Facebook. The Arabia Foundation 2101 L Street NW, Suite 800 Washington, DC 20037General Queries Please email us at Media Queries Please email us at or call +1.202.468.9413

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In the Western imagination, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is abhorrent—a medieval relic synonymous with brutal beheadings; a blatant disregard for due process and the rule of law; circumscribed rights for women, minorities, and guest workers; and zero tolerance for the freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. This reputation is not entirely unjustified. Capital punishment, arbitrary detentions, an opaque judiciary, and limited tolerance for dissent are all realities the Kingdom grapples with. However, this does not mean the country’s human rights record can or should be dismissed as an abject failure. Using the First Amendment of the US Constitution as a framing mechanism, this report measures Saudi Arabia’s progress in advancing individual rights while simultaneously contextualizing shortcomings within the Kingdom’s unique, non-Western sociocultural and religious history.

Executive Summary This is the first in a series of studies evaluating Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Here, I use the First Amendment of the US Constitution as a framing mechanism for evaluating the Kingdom’s record on key individual rights. At the same time, I demonstrate how Saudi Arabia’s unique historical trajectory has fundamentally altered how these rights are perceived, interpreted, and adapted/rejected. Critics who claim to hold Saudi Arabia to “universal” human rights standards are disingenuous; while there are internationally accepted norms in the area of human rights, universal has, too often, become a byword for “Western democratic.” As a result of their unique historical trajectory, Western democratic systems view the individual as the fundamental social unit and individual freedoms as the foundation of human rights. Non-Western societies, such as Saudi Arabia, which developed under different historical contexts, view the collective (or some aspect thereof) as the fundamental social unit and, as a result, take a radically different

approach to human rights. That being said, because “universal” human rights have, to a large extent, been influenced by the Western democratic tradition, this study will use one of the most powerful symbols of that tradition, the First Amendment of the US Constitution, as a framing mechanism. How does Saudi Arabia score on the five key freedoms embodied in that amendment: speech, assembly, press, petition, and religion? At the same time, I ask the reader to consider the interpretation, adaptation, or refusal of these five freedoms within the context of Saudi Arabia’s unique history. Within this context, I conclude that Saudi Arabia has made strides in expanding freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press (freedom of tweets) as well as the right to petition (freedom to seat).

Introduction: Human Rights in Historical Context The Kingdom has historically come under fire for its lack of commitment to human rights. On the world stage, Saudi Arabia opposed the United Nations’ General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.1 And, as recently as 1993, it did not participate in the World Conference on Human Rights in Austria, the most significant post–Cold War conference of its type. Actions such as these have cemented the Kingdom’s image as having an indifferent attitude toward human rights.2 While one may be tempted to dismiss Saudi opposition to these initiatives as an autocratic state’s attempt to avoid international oversight of its internal affairs, a careful reading of the Kingdom’s responses to these conferences reveals something larger at work. Saudi Arabia’s stated reservations about the Universal Declaration were that “[1] its call for freedom of religion violated the precepts of Islam, and that [2] the human rights guaranteed by the Islamicbased law of Saudi Arabia surpassed those secured by the Universal Declaration”3 (in other

Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1992: Events of 1991 (1991), accessed July 12, 2017, htm#TopOfPage. 2 United Nations Human Rights, “World Conference on Human Rights, 14-25 June 1993, Vienna, Austria,” OHCHR, accessed July 12, 2017, 3 Human Rights Watch, “Empty Reforms: Saudi Arabia’s New Basic Laws” (1992), accessed July 7, 2017, 1


words, the human rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration would supersede those of Islamic law [i.e., Shari’ah]). This explanation requires historical context. In the seventh century, the Prophet Muhammad’s message helped build a religion that created socioreligious cohesion out of disunity and strife. For every subsequent generation, Islam has been, first and foremost, the binding force that holds together and sustains the umma (the community of believers that constitutes the fundamental social unit in Muslim societies). In the early twentieth century, Islam served as the unifying force behind the formation of the Saudi state. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a wellknown African American civil rights activist, poignantly said, “We are made by history.” Saudi Arabia is no exception. The Kingdom’s founding monarch(s) relied on socioreligious mobilization and religious conservatism to found and consolidate a nation-state. Just like we cannot separate secularism from the American historical narrative, we cannot decouple Islam from the Saudi historical narrative. Historically, many Islamic societies have placed a premium on building and maintaining social cohesion. Offenses seen as disrupting this cohesiveness, for example, adultery, drug trafficking, and calling for dissent, are traditionally viewed as an attack on the socioreligious fabric that underpins communal rights (which are, themselves, considered more important than defending individual rights). In the same way that suppression of free speech in the West is considered a violation of individual rights, undermining the socioreligious foundation of the umma is often viewed as an attack on communal rights. To this extent, the Saudi state generally maintains a hard-line policy when it comes to dealing with those who are seen to be promoting disunity and disharmony.

For example, in the spring of 2016, Prince Mamdouh bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, a Saudi royal and prominent supporter of the Riyadhbased Al-Nasr football club, was immediately banned, by King Salman himself, from any form of public communication because he referred to a Jeddah-based sports writer as “Tarsh [Al Bahar]” (vomit of the sea) on live television.4 The derogatory term, used in the context of a Riyadh–Jeddah rivalry (similar to that between Boston and New York sports teams), generated an immediate backlash on Twitter. While popular outrage was mostly driven by opposition to derogatory language aimed at insulting the people of Jeddah, the King was compelled to act, because deriding the people of Jeddah is tantamount to undermining the social unity of the state.5 The King’s subsequent censorship of the prince demonstrates that even a royal, acting in an apolitical setting, is not above this zero tolerance policy. Saudi Arabia also views Islamic law as superseding any temporal accord—in this case, the UN Declaration of Human Rights. For the Kingdom, human rights are ordained by God and are outlined in the primary sources of Islamic jurisprudence (i.e., the Quran and the hadith). In this context, signing a man-made declaration would be tantamount to acknowledging that the laws of humankind supersede the laws of God. By most Saudi standards, this is not just apostasy but also a degradation of the religio-legal foundation of the state, as the Kingdom, by subscribing to Shari’ah, a divinely perfect system6 (despite occasional flaws in its application),7 already holds itself to the highest possible standard.

Shifting the Rules of Engagement: What the First Amendment Looks Like in the Kingdom The First Amendment enshrines five key rights: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble

Habib Toumi, “Saudi Prince Banned from Media over Racist Slur,” GulfNews (April 27, 2015), accessed July 7,2017, 5 One cannot talk about discrimination in Saudi Arabia without addressing the treatment of the country’s Shia population. That being said, this is far too complex and dense a topic to adequately address within this piece and will be dealt with separately in a subsequent publication. 6 “The term Shari’ah in Arabic can translate as “path to the water source.” Muslim tradition equates it to the “Divine Way.” Shari’ah, then, is a pure morality that learned Muslim scholars obtain through Islamic sources and promulgate to the rest of Islamic society. Shari’ah is not a static system of laws, but rather—theoretically—a series of interpretive accretions obtained by religious scholars who study sources of Islamic jurisprudence. Usul al-fiqh (roots of jurisprudence / the law) is the Sunni framework through which Islamic law is derived. It constitutes the following sources: the Quran (the holy book of Islam), the sunna (the ways of the Prophet Muhammad captured in the hadith), ijma (consensus), and qiyas (reasoning). Scholarly interpretations of the sources sometimes vary because of the different regional cultures across the global Muslim community (Fatimah S. Baeshen, “Islamic Finance in Secular Markets” [unpublished master’s thesis, University of Chicago, June 2009], 10). 7 For example, a leading Saudi cleric recently posited that driving is medically harmful to women, as the incessant sitting position does damage to the hips and ovaries, which, understandably, drew staunch public criticism, given the asinine premise. Sebastian Usher, “Saudi Cleric Says Driving Risks Damaging Women’s Ovaries,” BBC News (September 29, 2013), accessed July 7, 2017. 4


peacefully, and the right to petition government for a redress of grievances. Juxtaposing the presence or absence of these rights onto Saudi Arabia may appear counterintuitive, but it serves as a useful benchmark for highlighting progress, as well as being an instructive reference point for explaining how and why Saudi conceptions of human rights differ from Western ones. Freedom of Speech The Kingdom is viewed as a closed autocratic system where free expression is rarely tolerated (and, on those rare occasions when it is tolerated, it yields little influence on policy). This caricature has some basis in fact. Historically, a finite number of institutions—the Royal Court, the Council of Ministers, and the Shoura Council—have monopolized decision making in the Kingdom, while state-controlled media have worked to win public support for government initiatives. But in the past decade, this has changed significantly; the government now favors allowing a prolonged period of open public discussion on key reforms. In part, this has occurred to allow the government to hear the spectrum of opinions that exist, but it also encourages public discussion and debate, with the aim of generating consensus or, at a minimum, creating adequate time and space to normalize a policy change prior to implementation. The reasoning is simple:if the public is not ready to embrace change, then any top- down initiative will generate insufficient support to sustain the change. Despite being a monarchy, the Saudi government relies on public support for its legitimacy and, consequently, looks to generate consensus whenever it can, especially on controversial issues. This shift has been enabled by a transformation in communications technology, which has opened new channels that empower the public to directly or indirectly influence governmental action. For example, in June 2013, Saudi Arabia changed from a Thursday–Friday to a Friday–

Saturday weekend to align itself with other Middle Eastern economies, this despite pushback from the conservative base arguing that to do so would mimic the Western lifestyle.8 However, the government publicly floated the idea several years prior to instituting the change. They allowed the Saudi public to openly debate the issue via informal channels such as Twitter, op-eds, and coffee shop conversations. Actual implementation of the transformation was quick—Saudis received one week’s notice— but, because this followed years of frank discussion, opposition to the change was limited. Saudi Arabia has made additional strides in the area of free speech. In the last five years alone, social media has exponentially increased public discourse on a myriad of sociocultural, political, and economic topics. The Saudi government not only has tolerated the emergence of informal channels like Twitter but also facilitated the growth of formal channels as public opinion intakes that are used for policy development. For example, three years ago, the then Ministry of Labor launched a platform called Ma’an (meaning “together” or “hand in hand”), an open-source platform, to obtain feedback from the general public on policy development in the areas of the labor market and social affairs.9 Technology has also encouraged the emergence of humor, in the form of parodies, satires, and even soap operas, as a vibrant mechanism for innocuously expressing controversial public sentiment. In contrast with the Egyptian, Syrian, and Turkish programming that dominated Arab television up until the late 2000s, shows of this new wave are entirely Saudi creations. Using traditional platforms, as well as new media platforms such as YouTube, these programs star Saudi actors who speak Arabic with a Saudi dialect and tackle complex issues in culturally authentic settings. In 2013, for example, activist Hisham Fageeh made a parody of Bob Marley’s “No Women, No Cry.” Entitled “No Women, No Drive,” the video, which mocked the women’s driving ban, has, to date, logged nearly fifteen

“Saudi Arabia Changes Its Working Week to Sunday–Thursday,” Reuters (June 23, 2013), accessed July 7, 2017,

8 9


million views and still draws a lot of attention. Selfie, a popular soap opera starring the famous Saudi actor Nasser Al Qasabi, tackles everything from extremism to government corruption (during the holy month of Ramadan, no less), humorously criticizing the flaws in Saudi society. “Liberal Marriage,” an episode that aired on May 29, 2017, addressed the issue of introducing democracy to Saudi Arabia, pushing the very limits of freedom of expression. The dialogue between the two actors was surprisingly inflammatory, with one countering the argument for democracy by stating, “In all honesty, if we did have democracy, the ones likely to win are either the Islamists or the bedouins, and with either of those in power, best of luck having democratic rule.” Although the episode drew backlash from conservative circles, the show aired uncensored and continues to attract a huge following.10 Admittedly, there is a redline that cannot be crossed when it comes to vocalizing dissent, especially if such dissent falls into one of the major categories that are perceived to be promoting social discord, for example, undermining political stability by demonstrating against the state or subverting the socioreligious order by calling for secularism.11 12 It is important to emphasize, however, that this idea of avoiding social discord is not simply a smokescreen for suppressing antigovernment sentiment. Just two weeks ago, King Salman suspended a journalist who had attributed names usually reserved for God to the temporal monarch, because this particular form of praise undermines the state’s socioreligious foundation.13 14 Freedom to Petition The right to petition the government exists and, in recent years, has been increasingly used without inviting undue punishment for those who sign.15 For example, several women petitioned the then King Abdullah when Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif was jailed for driving in

2011.16 Several government entities, such as the Ministry of Commerce and Investments, have created online platforms to register public complaints.17 In addition, last year, the (now renamed) Ministry of Labor and Social Development established a video call hotline (19911) for employees, employers, and job seekers to report labor complaints directly to the minister.18 To what extent these systems have been leveraged has not been publicly shared, but the fact that these channels exist at all is a significant step forward. Outside the realm of communications technology, Saudi Arabia maintains a traditional forum for redressing grievances that stems directly from the Kingdom’s tribal culture, that is, the majlis (translated as “a place of sitting”). A majlis is an open forum hosted by high-ranking government officials to which the members of the public can come (literally, take a seat) and extend their regards or express their concerns. The majlis predates the founding of the state; for centuries the majlis existed as a forum for individuals to request, food, protection, etc., or formally air a grievance from prominent tribal leaders. The institution was maintained because, prior to the formal establishment of ministries, it filled a bureaucratic vacuum. It persists because it continues to align with the tribal concept of consensus building. Many government officials still host majalis (pl. majlis), and while some members of the public participate in order to socialize, others use the platform to directly convey grievances to the government. These grievances are placed on a piece of paper or verbally conveyed to the host and are subsequently collected and submitted to the Royal Court for review, response, or dismissal. Admittedly, this channel for petitioning can be inefficient, but the fact remains that it is a mechanism of communication between citizen and government. Freedom of Assembly There is a common misconception that it is illegal

“Liberal Marriage,” episode 3 of Selfie, MBC Network, May 29, 2017; this evolved series, formerly Tash Ma Tash, has been known to push the social, cultural, and political envelope on public discourse for the last ten years. 11 According to some Islamic narratives, this refers to the imperative of maintaining social cohesion by following all rulers, even unjust ones. 12 There will be a separate report covering the due process category outlined in the introduction that will discuss several high-profile cases, for example, Raif Badawi and Ali al-Nimr, who are Saudi activists charged with crimes against the state. 13 “Saudi Columnist Suspended for Comparing King to God,” BBC News (July 2, 2017), accessed July 7, 2017, 14 “99 Names of Allah,” IslamiCity (May 30, 2014), accessed July 7, 2017, 15 This has not always been the case, with some previous examples leading to imprisonment. “Saudi Arabia: Court Confirms Jail for Reformers,” Human Rights Watch (July 26, 2005), accessed July 7, 2017, Neil MacFarquhar, “Saudi Arrest Woman Leading Right-to-Drive Campaign,” New York Times (May 23, 2011), accessed July 7, 2017, world/middleeast/24saudi. html. 17 18 “Queries or Grievances? Talk to Labor Minister Directly via Video Call,” Saudi Gazette (December 7, 2015), accessed July 7, 2017, article/144038/?page=2. 10


to assemble in Saudi Arabia. It is not. Groups may assemble, for example, industry-focused workshops taking place at a hotel;19 however, the law stipulates that any group activity that is considered a formal assembly must preregister with the relevant public entity, and obtain a permit from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) if the group is of mixed gender. Political opposition is, however, not tolerated. This approach is supported by some currents of Islamic thought holding that maintaining the integrity of the social and religious spheres is considered an imperative; (perceived) despotism is, by far, the lesser of two evils when compared to anarchy, because ultimately all politics are considered transient.

expanded coverage of issues that were once deemed too sensitive, controversial, or even taboo to publicly report or exchange viewpoints on is the most significant development in Saudi media over the past five years. Print, radio, and television media all now regularly engage in candid discussions of sensitive social, cultural, and even religious issues, such as bullying, suicide, drug addiction, sexual abuse, spouse abandonment, and atheism. Admittedly, this liberalization remains limited and the media must still adhere to strict regulations; there are prohibitions, for example, on insulting public officials, including religious figures, or undermining the dignity of any individual.20

Freedom of the Press

The Kingdom has also made strides in diversification of media. For decades, Saudi Arabia only had two television channels; the first was state-owned and -operated and was used to disseminate official narratives, whereas the second aired heavily censored foreign programming. However, in the early 2000s, Al Arabiya, a Saudi-backed, Dubai- based twenty-four-hour Arabic news network, was launched. Part of the MBC Group (Middle East Broadcasting Company), Al Arabiya News Channel offered, relatively speaking, a more modern and authentic platform than its state-run competitors by covering more issues in greater depth and offering more critical reportage (again, within limits) of its subject matter.21 22 For these reasons, as well as offering a more moderate pan-Arab counterpoint to Al Jazeera’s propagation of extremist ideology, Al Arabiya was able to gain a sizable regional following. “Our issue has always been: give a chance to understand the other point of view,” Al Arabiya’s first general manager, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, said in an interview four years after the station’s 2004 founding. “I think there is a sense now, in the Arab media, that both sides should be shown, and this is a major victory.” 23

Saudi Arabia has liberalized (within limits) its reportage and diversified the types and number of media outlets available. In terms of content,

There has also been a proliferation of print outlets. In particular, Arabic-language Al- Hayat (London-based but Saudi-backed) has become

That being said, I would argue that informal channels facilitating political assembly do exist; opposition expressed on Twitter that gets hashtagged or extensively retweeted sometimes creates enough of a (virtual) critical mass to create change. The Nakheel Mall incident, which will be discussed in the Freedom of the Press section, is a clear example of this. Freedom of Religion Freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia, at least not at an institutional level. But the state makes a clear distinction between interactions in the public space and what takes place in the privacy of people’s homes. The state considers the latter sacrosanct and, in general, will not intrude into that space, even if it knows that practitioners of other faiths are congregating there. In other words, while Saudi Arabia may prohibit churches, it does not prohibit Christianity, as long as it is practiced in the home.

“Riyadh Economic Forum,” SUSRIS, accessed July 7, 2017, “Reactions to Amended Saudi Press and Publications Law Banning Insults to Public Figures,” MEMRI (June 1, 2011), accessed July 12, 2017, reports/reactions-amended-saudi-press-and-publications- law-banning-insults-public-figures. 21 Although it functions as a private company, the network is backed by several members of the Royal Family. The launch of Al Arabiya’s twenty-four-hour news channel was followed by the establishment of both Arabic- and English-language websites. “About Al Arabiya English,” Al Arabiya English, accessed July 12, 2017, 23 Robert F. Worth, “A Voice of Moderation Helps Transform Arab Media,” New York Times (January 4, 2008), accessed July 12, 2017, world/africa/04iht-profile.1.9026494.html. 19 20


the leading pan-Arab daily paper, while the English-language Saudi Gazette and Arab News have become important resources for the Kingdom’s non-Arabic-speaking population. In the realm of new media, the accessibility and affordability of mobile technology— Saudi Arabia having one of the globe’s highest mobile phone penetration rates—with its ability to rapidly record, comment, and disseminate, has given rise to citizen journalism on an unprecedented scale. Take for example the Nakheel Mall incident. In early 2016, a young woman, covered from head to toe in accordance with both law and religious tradition, was thrown to the street by a religious policeman acting under the authority of CPVPV.24 An onlooker caught the entire incident on video, and that video went viral on social media. The authorities could not ignore the groundswell of public pressure that followed, and soon after the CPVPV was stripped of its power to question, ask for identification, pursue, arrest, or detain. This video, in effect, played an instrumental role in transforming one of the most omnipresent institutions in the Kingdom into an organization with limited powers.25 26

the Kingdom, as this work endeavored to show, has its own indigenous mechanisms that facilitate some of the rights enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, despite the radically different historical foundations of Saudi Arabia and the United States. In particular, the past decade has witnessed an extraordinary expansion of political discourse and public influence through freedom of tweets (i.e., freedom of speech, press, and assembly) and freedom to seat (i.e., freedom to petition). Only last week, the Kingdom received MSCI Emerging Market status.27 Let’s give it a chance to continue on its own development trajectory. And, if we are going to continuously compare the country’s progress to that of nations whose historical narratives are rooted in Western democratic ideals, let us at least recognize its progress in those areas on its own terms. The yardstick we use to measure the Kingdom’s progress must be localized in order to be fair, but until we get to fair, let’s at least aim for a more balanced assessment.


Every country, including the United States, draws hard lines on what it considers to be acceptable speech. Kathy Griffin, the controversial female comedian who tweeted an offensive picture of a decapitated POTUS, was relentlessly attacked for “going too far” and was ultimately dismissed from one of her prime time gigs at CNN. A white male comedian, Bill Maher, was accused of exacerbating racial divides by referring to himself as a “house n*gger,” a racist slur that dates back to the Civil War, and received a slap on the wrist from HBO. The Kingdom has always been up front about what it is: a monarchy with Islam as the state religion and the Quran as its constitution. On that measure, it is authentic. Founded under the auspices of religious and tribal conservatism,

Avi Asher-Schapiro and Reem Saad, “Saudi Arabia Just Arrested the Religious Policemen Who Attacked a Woman at a Mall,” Vice News (February 23, 2016), accessed July 7, 2017, 25 The Haia, as the CPVPV is referred to locally, may now only observe, report, and advise. Lauren Said-Moorhouse, “Saudi Arabia Curbs Its Religious Police,” CNN (April 14, 2016), accessed July 7, 2017, 26 This circumscription of power has continued; on June 4 of this year, the Shoura Council voted to recommend merging the CPVPV with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. 24

Filipe Pacheco and Matthew Martin, “Saudi Arabia Seen Luring Billions with MSCI Upgrade in Sight,” (June 20, 2017), accessed July 7, 2017, https:// 06-20/saudi-arabia-seen-luring-billions-with-msci-indexes-now-in-sight. 27



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———. Human Rights Watch World Report 1992: Events of 1991 (1991). Accessed July 12, 2017.

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MacFarquhar, Neil. “Saudi Arrest Woman Leading Right-to-Drive Campaign.” New York Times (May 23, 2011). Accessed July 7, 2017. “99 Names of Allah.” IslamiCity (May 30, 2014). Accessed July 7, 2017.

Pacheco, Filipe, and Matthew Martin. “Saudi Arabia Seen Luring Billions with MSCI Upgrade in Sight.” (June 20, 2017). Accessed July 7, 2017.

“Queries or Grievances? Talk to Labor Minister Directly via Video Call.” Saudi Gazette (December 7, 2015). Accessed July 7, 2017.

"Reactions to Amended Saudi Press and Publications Law Banning Insults to Public Figures.” MEMRI— The Middle East Media Research Institute (June 1, 2011). Accessed July 7, 2017.


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Said-Moorhouse, Lauren. “Saudi Arabia Curbs Its Religious Police.” CNN (April 14, 2016).

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Bibliography Cont.


Freedom of Tweet and Freedom to Seat: Reviewing the First Amendment in Saudi Arabia  

In the Western imagination, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is abhorrent—a medieval relic synonymous with brutal beheadings; a blatant di...

Freedom of Tweet and Freedom to Seat: Reviewing the First Amendment in Saudi Arabia  

In the Western imagination, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is abhorrent—a medieval relic synonymous with brutal beheadings; a blatant di...