Saudi Arabia: Valid Executions or Politics?

The last year has been an interesting one for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It started off quite well, with the very successful visit to the West by the country’s ambitious young Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), followed by the lifting of the decades old ban on women drivers, and the initiation of Vision 2030 that will see the country move away from its dependence on oil and turn their focus on technology and commerce. However, due to some serious miscalculations on the part of the Crown Prince himself, it seems that all the goodwill garnered from these endeavors has been lost, as the Kingdom tries to move in to the new age, all the while keeping a foot permanently planted in the past.

The ill-advised escalation in the inexplicable war in Yemen, the recent publicization of the archaic male guardianship laws for women, and the use of excessive force to clamp down on dissent both within and outside the country have managed to tarnish the positive image that MBS had been trying to peddle to the world at large. The horrifying murder of Jamal Khashoggi in particular was a cause for grave concern, especially for King Salman, who was severely disappointed in the way his successor handled the entire episode.

After an apparent reprimand that resulted in a widespread reshuffle of government personnel, it seems that MBS is now finally back in his father’s good graces. However, despite his assurances that he will lead the Kingdom in to a new age of development by embracing progressive ideals like equal rights for women and minorities, and his plan to open the country to a new breed of tourists from around the world, it appears that MBS is still having trouble letting go of the autocratic tendencies of the Saudi Kings of old. This was evidenced by the recent executions of 37 men for alleged terror related crimes, which is the largest mass execution drive the Kingdom has witnessed since January 2016, when they executed 47 people on similar charges of terrorism and extremist ideology.

According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), “the death penalty was implemented on a number of criminals for adopting extremist terrorist ideologies and forming terrorist cells to corrupt and disrupt security as well as spreading chaos and provoking sectarian strife”. Another Saudi official told CNN that “the convicted criminals who were executed today had their day in court and were found guilty of very serious crimes” and that “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had long ago adopted a zero tolerance policy towards terrorists who spilt the blood of the innocent, threatened the national security of the kingdom and distorted our great faith”.

While there are currently over 50 countries around the world where capital punishment is regularly carried out, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia have a disproportionately higher rate of executions as compared to other states. Even though the rationality behind the effectiveness of capital punishment is in itself a complicated study, Saudi Arabia has come under fire due to their propensity to target specific communities in particular.

As per Amnesty International (AI), the majority of people executed in the country over the past few years have been overwhelmingly from the small Shi’ite community in Saudi Arabia, and protesters and dissenters that dared to standup to the powerful Royal Family. AI have long documented the persecution that has been suffered by these subjugated groups, and have highlighted their plight in the international community for years. In light of the recent spate of executions, AI completely dismissed the notion that the victims were provided due process, calling the legal proceedings “sham trials” that in their opinion “violated international fair trial standards which relied on confessions extracted through torture”. As per the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 33 of the 37 men executed were from the Shi’ite community, prompting HRW’s Middle East deputy director Michael Page to worry that, “Mass executions (like these) are not the mark of a ‘reformist’ government, but rather one marked by capricious, autocratic rule”.

Each trial was conducted in secret, and of the 37 people executed, 11 were convicted of being Iranian spies, while at least 15 others were convicted over various violent offenses that occurred during their participation in anti-government protests in the kingdom’s challenging Eastern Province. One of the victims was also reportedly crucified and his body was strung up in public, so as to serve as a reminder and a warning to those that may presume to challenge the might of the House of Saud.

Additionally, while the exact cause for these executions was questionable to say the least, one important factor that stood out was that allegedly a few of the victims had been arrested while they were underage, in complete contradiction to international law. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, the UN had repeatedly expressed serious concern about a lack of due process and fair trials in each case, adding that “It is particularly abhorrent that at least three of those killed were minors at the time of their sentencing”. These included Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, who had been arrested at the age of 16 a few years ago, as well as Mujtaba al-Sweikt, a 17-year-old who was arrested from the airport while on his way to the Western Michigan University, USA, in 2012.

If MBS is actually sincere about his promise of ushering in a new age within Saudi Arabia, and wants to witness actual progress, then he needs to understand that the autocratic and bigoted ideals of his forefathers do not have a place in this changing world. Persecution of small minority groups, and the indiscriminate killing of dissenters cannot be kept silent for long, and will ultimately have a detrimental effect on the future aspirations of its young Crown Prince. In order to move forward, an innovative and open approach is required, one that unites the people of the Kingdom under a shared goal, and one that every community within the country can support.