By Jalal Uddin Ahmad

This week saw an unprecedented incident in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. At what the rulers are calling it the “Davos of the Desert”, the Future Investment Initiative summit saw the unveiling of a robot which was given the citizenship of Saudi Arabia.

Sophia, the robot created by Hanson Robotics of Hong Kong, was granted the citizenship of Saudi Arabia. “Thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said the robot, when she learnt of her ostensible citizenship. “It is historic to be the first robot in the world granted citizenship.”

What came to focus in the immediate aftermath was not the surreal incident, but rather the hypocrisy which highlights how the same right granted to a robot is not granted to many human beings in the kingdom. According to independent watchdog Freedom House, Saudi Arabia was ranked 10th worst country for civil liberties and political rights.[1]

Women’s rights situation

Saudi Arabia has not the best record, if to say kindly when it comes to women’s rights. Just this year it granted women the right to drive, which is to become effective from next July. In 2015 women were allowed to vote and participate in municipal elections.Till 2013, domestic abuse was not even seen as a crime under Saudi law. And it was only in 2011,women were allowed to serve in the Consultative Assembly (Majlish-e-Shura) of the King. Even today, a woman cannot travel, obtain an ID card or a passport without the company and approval of her Mahram (husband,father or brother). She cannot even get married without her guardian’s approval or go abroad to study on a government scholarship.

So it was no surprise, that this conferment of citizenship on a robot, who is unveiled, also an offence for women under Saudi law and have been given the citizenship – was seen as nothing but pure and utter hypocrisy. The Arabic hashtag #Sophia_calls_for_dropping_guardianship was circulating on Twitter, and has been used nearly 10,000 times to date.[2]

“Sophia has no guardian, doesn’t wear an abaya or cover up – how come?” commented one Twitter user.[3] While another posted an image of the robot’s face with a black headscarf and face veil drawn on, with the caption: “How Sophia will look after a while”[4]

Migrant workers rights situation

Journalist Murtaza Hussain posted: “This robot has gotten Saudi citizenship before kafala workers who have been living in the country their entire lives”[5]

Under Saudi law, foreign workers can’t leave the country without the permission of their employers – just one element of the Gulf system of kafala, which limits the rights of foreign workers.

The Gulf Kingdom relies on hundreds of thousands of domestic workers from abroad. However there is a thriving black market in runaway migrant workers who have fled their employers, but find themselves unable to leave the country due to the country’s exit visa law.

“A humanoid robot called Sophia got Saudi citizenship, while millions linger stateless,” responded Lebanese-UK journalist Kareem Chahayeb. “What a time to be alive.”[6]

According to a spokesperson from HRW, Saudi Arabian law does not provide strong legal protection for migrant workers and housemaids. As such, they face “arbitrary arrests, unfair trials and harsh punishments” and may falsely be accused of crime.[7] Amnesty International reports that those charged are often unable to follow the court proceedings, as they are often unable to speak the language and are not given interpreters or legal counsel.[8] Foreign workers have been charged with various crimes, including theft, murder and “black magic”.[9]

Even the children of Kafala workers born and raised in Saudi Arabia are not granted the citizenship.


Let us call spade a spade. This is nothing but utter hypocrisy from the Saudi government. Half of its entire population do not have the basic human rights and hundreds of thousands of workers  who have given their all for its economy linger without dignity and respect – the Saudi government confers citizenship upon a robot. Prince Salman maybe able to achieve his Vision 2030 goal of economic development and economic independence from oil – but unless this issues are addressed his recently stated goal of making Saudi Arabia into a moderate Islamic country will not come true.


[1] Saudi Arabia becomes first country to grant a robot citizenship – and people are saying it already has more rights than women – Natasha Salmon,October 28,2017

[2] Does Saudi robot citizen have more rights than women? – RozinaSini,October 26,2017



[5] Supra 2

[6] Supra 5

[7] Saudi Arabia’s treatment of foreign workers under fire after beheading of Sri Lankan maid –  The Guardian,14 January,2013.

[8] Ibid

[9] Hundreds of Indonesians on death row – The Jakarta Post,14 January 2013.