Last updated on June 3 2020
This information has been complied by SAJP's Executive Director Bethany Al-Haidari, who is a PhD candidate in International Human Rights Law focusing on Saudi Arabia, and holds a Masters Degree in Islamic Studies. This is based on extensive review of Saudi legal documents and several dozens of court cases from the personal status courts of Saudi Arabia ranging from 2011 until 2020. What is written is often not what is practiced in Saudi Arabia. This information should not be mistaken as legal counsel, and it is imperative that you seek licensed local legal counsel if you are in need of legal advice.
Saudi Arabia has a wonderful and incredibly diverse population and a vibrant culture, and we understand why so many fall in love with this country and its people. However, what cannot be ignored is the dire systemic discrimination that is engrained into Saudi Arabia's legal system. Any woman seeking to marry or have children with a Saudi national or resident should be aware of Saudi law and practice, and understand that by marrying a Saudi they submit to the possibility of being subject to these laws, regardless of residency outside of Saudi Arabia.
Inside of Saudi Arabia:
1. It is technically illegal for citizens of Saudi Arabia to marry foreigners. A Saudi national must obtain an "exception to the law", granting permission from their government to marry a foreigner. It can be an extremely difficult, emotional and time consuming process, which may take several years to receive response, or may never be approved at all. The process is not straight forward, and each application process appears to require different documentation. Saudi authorities reject foreign marriage contracts and Islamic marriage contracts done outside of Saudi Arabia, they must be either approved or pardoned by the Saudi government or are considered invalid.
2. Due to Saudi exit/entry procedures for residents, one cannot simply exit the country on a passport as they would in most countries. Every legal resident is under a sponsor, and is unable to exit without an online exit being issued by their sponsor in the country (either an individual or a company). In the case of a foreign spouse of a Saudi citizen, the Saudi spouse is the sponsor in the country. As a wife of a Saudi citizen residing within Saudi Arabia, you will not be able to exit the country without your husband issuing an exit visa for you. Your exit procedures out of the country are only available in his Absher account, and he can cancel your permission to exit the country any any time without your knowledge by simply logging in and removing permission . He can register to be informed via text every time you pass through customs. The exception is for divorced mothers of Saudi citizens residing in Saudi Arabia, who are their own sponsors. Though this status is revoked upon remarriage.
3. You may place "conditions" within a marriage contract for your husband to approve, however, do not equate Saudi marital "conditions" with foreign prenuptial agreements, they are not legally binding and are often thrown out in courts by judges. Particularly because "conditions" require the approval of the husband, and he can revoke such an approval at any time. A husband in Saudi has the right to take another wife without approval or knowledge of the other wives, regardless of any conditions that may have been set in a marriage contract.
4. Your residency status in the country depends on your sponsor, and is their legal responsibility to renew and keep up to date. Even if you wish to renew your ID, it is not possible. If a sponsor fails to renew your residency, you will be considered illegal, barred from access to your bank accounts, unable to access health care, subject to possible arrest, and unable to exit the country.
5. Disobedience to your husband (or guardian) is illegal and can be used against you in court, and is considered a serious offense in family courts in Saudi Arabia. If you move out of your husbands home without his permission, he can register you online as a runaway , which could lead to your arrest. Only your sponsor can sign to exit you from prison.
6. Evidence is so important, but so difficult for women to use in court. If you have been subject to abuse in Saudi Arabia, report it to the police and get paper record of your reports. Beware that the standard practice is that police will make the abuser simply sign a pledge not to abuse you, and you may be placed in harm with them again. In the case that you are placed in a "protection unit" due to abuse, you will not be permitted to exit that unit without your husband's permission. This is particularly problematic if your husband is your abuser. Medical reports of abuse can be beneficial as evidence, however are sometimes disregarded in courts. Though recording someone without permission is illegal, in some cases judges will permit the admission of video evidence in a case. Therefore, it is best to record and obtain as much evidence as possible. If you are being subject to domestic abuse or you suspect someone else is being subject to abuse, dial 1919 in Saudi to launch an investigation. If you are in an emergency situation, call the police at 999. Please note that this places you at risk of being placed in a holding facility where you cannot be easily released without your husband or male guardians permission.
1. Divorce (Talaq) is incredibly simple and easy for men in Saudi Arabia, it does not require a hearing, and the husband can register it in a matter of hours. You will be served your divorce by SMS in Arabic from the Ministry of Justice. On several occasions, woman have said their service of process was not sent to the correct phone number, so they were never properly served or aware of their divorce.
2. For women, obtaining a divorce in Saudi Arabia is extremely complex and requires the approval of a judge. Lawsuits requesting divorce from women must be made in Arabic online and submitted to the personal status court in person. Women have two options for divorce; Fasikh or Khula. In an annulment of the marriage contract (Faiskh) you will not be required to repay the dowry or pay fines requested by the husband, but you must prove to the court that your husband failed to fulfill his duties. Remember that your word alone will not count as testimony, any video evidence of abuse that you present can be used against you in a countersuit for "filming without permission", and any witness of a crime requires a Muslim male to have seen it to be considered admissible evidence (Either 2 Muslim male witnesses or two Muslim females and one Muslim male witness). Judges have been known to disregard medical reports and police reports, and offer men the opportunity to "swear an oath", taking the oath over evidence. Additionally, if the husband is angered by your faiskh request, he can simply swear that he divorced you prior to your request for divorce, backdate his divorce, and claim from whatever day he chooses that you were not his wife. If the judge determines that you do not have enough evidence of his failures to fufil his duty, he will declare it as a divorce without justification or "Khula" divorce, where you must first repay the dowry you were given by the husband, and any additional fees the husband requests and the judge deems fair in order to be granted a divorce. All judges in Saudi Arabia are Saudi men, who have studied Islamic law in all-male Saudi government Universities.
3. If you are divorced without children, you must find a job and company to sponsor you to stay within Saudi Arabia, and will require the permission of your husband to switch your residency to their sponsorship from within the country. Divorced women have no rights to spousal support. If you are divorced with children, you have the right to a "mother of a citizen" residency. It will require your ex-husbands compliance to get the required documentation to switch to that residency status.
4. In the case that you are trapped in Saudi without children, wanting to get out, contact your nearest embassy or consulate for assistance.
1. Children of Saudi men are considered their fathers property. By law, Saudi children take their fathers first name as their middle name, regardless of gender. Fathers are automatically granted legal guardianship over their children at birth and only fathers have access to their children's rights to exit and reenter the country through their online Absher account. This means, even after divorce, the father of your children still completely controls your life in Saudi, regardless of his level of fitness to parent. Dual nationality is not recognized in Saudi Arabia, children of Saudi citizens can only exit the country on a Saudi passport, and with the exit permission of the father registered in the system, regardless of if he is the custodial parent or not. Children of Saudi citizens cannot exit the country on their foreign passport alone.
2. Saudi custody law is not codified, and therefore, everything depends on the judge you get in court. When you file for "custody" you are only filing for physical custody (hathana). Legal guardianship of children is the right of the father, and foreign mothers do not have the right to travel with children even if they are granted full custody by the court.
3. As a foreign mother, without legal custody of your child, you cannot get your Childs ID's, cannot enroll your child in school, and cannot get full access to health care for the child.
4. The typical document of reference for custody law according to the Ministry of Justice and several case references is the Custody Chapter in Kashaf al-Qena'a. According to Kashaf al-Qena'a, custody typically is the right of the mother until the children are 7 years of age, however the mother can be deemed unfit to parent if she is sick, works full time, if she has a foreign culture, if she has remarried, if she doesn't speak Arabic, if she doesn't cover her hair or face, and if witnesses testify that she doesn't pray. Mothers also lose custody if the father chooses to relocate to a new city and requests custody, or if the mother moves to a new city without the fathers permission. According to this document, If you are not Muslim, you do not have custody rights to your children.
5. If you are granted custody of the children, child support (nafaqah) is generally well below poverty level and is not codified, so left up to the discretion of the individual judges in the courts and their "council of experts". According to case studies, judges award an average of $100-$400 US per month per child (please note in the case where the judge awarded $400 or 1500 SR per month, the fathers monthly salary was above $24,800 US). If the father remarries or has more children, he will pay less in support. You will not be able to afford custody without a job, yet, having a full time job can deem you unfit for custody.
6. Custody rulings are not final, and can be re-litigated at anytime. Any simple "morality" mistake can cost a mother custody of her children. If you are deemed unfit to parent, your mother or sisters can request custody if they are residents in Saudi Arabia, Muslim, and speak Arabic. If the father is deemed unfit to parent and you have no female relatives with custody rights, the paternal grandmother of the father or his sisters may also contest your custody rights at any time. It is extremely difficult for a court to find a man unfit to parent in Saudi. We have seen cases where preference was given to the family that was more "Arab & Islamic" despite confirmed drug use and abuse within the record of the court hearings, over a foreign mother who did not cover.
7. If you lose custody of your children in Saudi Arabia you may file for visitation rights. Your nationality, your religious interpretations, remarriage, and your "immorality" may all be used in court to require you have supervised visitation with the children in a facility. Visitation rights can only be granted within Saudi Arabia and in the city where the father resides.
8. If the father has court ordered visitation with children in your custody, and it is enforced by the court. In the case that you fail to do a visitation, an arrest warrant will be issued against you. If you are detained, he can revoke your custody rights. There are third-party facilities who serve as witnesses of visitations, otherwise, if the father brings two witnesses to the enforcement court he can falsely claim you didn't do visitation and issue an arrest warrant against you. You will not necessarily be served of this arrest warrant. It requires logging into your Najez online account to verify, you need an active Saudi phone number to do so.
9. It is illegal to leave your children in the Saudi Arabia in the care of any other than a blood-relative of the child. If you travel outside of the country and leave the child with a friend or nanny, the family can claim neglect or abandonment and revoke your custody rights. Even if you travel on vacation and leave the children in their fathers care, he could file a case of parental abandonment if you are gone for too long (the amount of time is not defined).
From Outside of Saudi Arabia:
If you have children with a Saudi national and are residing outside of Saudi Arabia, the father can easily issue a travel document to return the children to Saudi Arabia without your knowledge or permission, even if the children are not Saudi citizens. Once the children are in Saudi Arabia, they will only be returned if the father wants. Saudi courts do not enforce foreign orders for the return of kidnapped children. The U.S. Embassy will not be able to intervene on behalf of your children once they are on the ground in Saudi Arabia, especially if they have Saudi passports. The father can issue a Saudi passport for the children in a matter of days without your knowledge or consent, and the U.S. embassy will not have access to that information unless the Saudi government voluntarily provides it to them.
If you have a foreign order of return, you can attempt to hire a local Saudi law firm to try to enforce it with the enforcement court (or a Saudi national who will represent you). You will have to issue a power of attorney to the law firm or Saudi national (POA in Saudi can be given to Saudi individuals who are not lawyers and they can represent you in courts with it). For a power of attorney to work in Saudi Arabia it must be authenticated by the Saudi Embassy or consulate. According to the basic law of governance (the prevailing legal document in Saudi Arabia) Saudi judges have the right to reject jurisdiction of non-Muslim judges or courts. The "best interest of a child" according to Saudi law is that it would be "raised in the Islamic creed", with "love for and pride in the homeland and its leaders" and to maintain "Arab and Islamic values". The basic law of governance outrightly rejects freedom of religion and expression. Additionally, Saudi Arabia is not a signatory of The Hague Convention on Kidnapping, and has no existing agreements with Western nations for the return of kidnapped children. The father as the male guardian of children, is seen as the custodian of any children regardless of international law and legal norms.
In the case that your children have been kidnapped to Saudi Arabia, your children are unlikely to be returned unless you get the fathers permission, or go to Saudi Arabia. You will need residency in Saudi Arabia, and even in the case that you are granted custody or visitation, you will not have the right to exit the country with the children unless the father permits it. Saudi mothers with full custody have the right to travel with their children, foreign mothers do not. While it is said that judges can issue travel permissions to foreign mothers with custody, we have not heard of a case where it was granted. Typically, they were told to bring Saudi males working in a government position to serve as a representative who would go to prison if the mother wasn't to return.
SAJP is a diverse community of women who have personally experienced this system in varying and difficult ways. Please reach out if you are in need help to Bethany Alhaidari at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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