Saudi Arabia and the Death Penalty

This year, Saudi Arabia has executed at least 151 people, the highest on record for twenty years. The kingdom isn’t by any means the only one to carry out regular executions, nor does it carry out the most, China has that rather dubious honour, although Saudi Arabia would still beat them on a per capita basis. Some have even drawn uncomfortable parallels between the number of executions in Saudi Arabia and the actions of the self-styled and self-aggrandising Islamic State, a group whose ideology in part stems from the Saudi regime’s strict Wahhabism*.


Number crunching – unpleasant but preferable to hearing your vertebrae crunching as the sword comes down.

The pro-capital punishment arguments, chiefly that it is the only thing which acts as a true deterrent have largely been debunked, but even setting aside why the death penalty is a terrible idea, the way in which Saudi Arabia applies it is riddled with flaws which (intentionally) leave it open to abuse.

The list of crimes which carry the death penalty is pretty extensive, from murder and treason to adultery, drug dealing, apostasy, homosexuality and sorcery, the majority of them non-violent crimes. The most recent international outcry came when a poet was sentenced to death after his poems were deemed to be blasphemous.

Of this year’s 151 executions, 71 were of non-Saudi nationals. Saudi Arabia has a foreign population of around 30%, reasonably high but grossly disproportionate to the nearly 50% of people being executed. The majority of these immigrants come from poor backgrounds in south Asian countries and are often recruited for work in Saudi Arabia and other gulf nations under false pretences. Many of them have poor Arabic and aren’t provided adequate translation at their trials.

Saudi Arabia also breaks with international law in its execution of people under the age of 18. Ali al-Nimr generated a brief flurry of retweets earlier this year when he was sentenced to crucifixion along with Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood Hussein al-Marhoon for taking part in a demonstration calling for political reform whilst the Arab Spring was still in full flow in 2011. All were seventeen at the time. Unfortunately for them, the world turned, a new meme cropped up and whilst human rights groups still campaign for their release, the internet has quickly lost interest in the Shia boys in a Sunni-ruled country who were sentenced by a special terrorism court and claim they were tortured into confessing. They have recently been moved into solitary confinement, sparking fears that their crucifixions are about to be carried out. In Saudi Arabia, this realistically means that they will be beheaded and their corpses strung up to be displayed in public. Anyone hoping for a last minute reprieve should remember that as recently as 2013 seven minors were executed in Abha for armed robbery.


Ali al-Nimr. Tragic, but no “clock boy“.

So why the sudden increase in executions? It could be that the new King Salman, who took charge on the death of his brother earlier this year, is simply flexing his muscles and trying to appear tough. Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a number of slow-burning crises; the plummeting price of oil, a messy involvement in the civil war in Yemen and the constant failure to properly manage the Hajj, including the stampede this year which killed over 1,400. The King’s role as custodian of the holy mosques is important to his political and religious legitimacy as the Qur’an makes no mention of royal families or the state of Saudi Arabia. These mounting problems led to the apparent call for a palace coup by a senior royal family member, though not everyone believes the story and anyway the number of executions have been on the rise for several years. Another theory is that recent judicial reforms have sped up the Saudi court system, allowing them to clear a “backlog” of trails. Although the idea that more people aren’t being killed, they’re just being executed more efficiently isn’t particularly reassuring.

Despite the opprobrium the Saudi regime deserves, British politicians and royals continue to give them tacit support by accepting the hospitality of the Saudis and indeed returning the favour, only occasionally paying lip service to condemning their methods of punishment when a British national is involved. Perhaps their silence helps avoid the uncomfortable truth that the USA or new BFFs China also persist in executing people.


“I will be King. I don’t care about which country anymore but I will be King goddamnit.”

As if the sound of Britain’s silence on the matter wasn’t deafening enough, [we can’t use that phrase without reminding people of Netanyahu’s bizarre UN General Assembly speech this year] it emerged this year that the UK had actively encouraged the Saudis’ behaviour, making a secret deal to give each other votes for membership of the UN human rights council and to which they were both elected. To think that we would be so fawning as to nominate a country which so flagrantly abuses human rights, of which the meting out of capital punishment is just one facet, is sickening.

But when you think about it, is it any worse than the arms deals which we make with Saudi Arabia? Is putting military hardware in the hands of this regime not as much of a death sentence for whomever they turn them on? For the Yemeni civilians, 2,000 of whom have so far been killed in Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign, supposedly against Houthi rebels? For the protesters in Bahrain who had their revolt crushed by invited Saudi troops during the Arab Spring? Or by Saudi protesters shot dead by their own security forces the same year? By facilitating these killings we are supporting a death sentence of a different kind, one which doesn’t even require the pretence of a trial to go ahead.


“Hi, we’re your neighbours. We’ve just come to borrow a cup of sugar and brutally crush your dreams of a better tomorrow.”

Perhaps it’s really time to take a long hard look at ourselves and decide whether we really value human rights or not. The current government has admittedly sent out some very mixed messages on the matter but it is within our ability to hold them to account on the matter and decide how strong our commitment to justice really is.

*For more on the rise of Saudi Arabia as a regional, global and religious power, and their influence on militant Islamic groups, we recommend watching Adam Curtis’ excellent Bitter Lake which was still available on the BBC iPlayer at the time of writing.



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