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Modernization spurs Saudi Arabia's criminal reform

Lewis Sanders IV | Siham Ouchtou
April 28, 2020

The kingdom has broken new ground with its decision to rein in controversial sentences involving flogging and the death penalty for crimes committed by minors. But are the changes all they are cracked up to be?

Two young women walk in front of a portrait of King Salman
Image: AFP/F. Nureldine

Over the past three decades, Saudi Arabia's reform agenda has been driven by a singular guiding principle, summed up in the early 1990s by veteran policymaker and former Saudi Ambassador to the US Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud: "We Saudis want to modernize, but not necessarily Westernize."

This mantra has paved the way for kingdom's economic, political and even judicial reforms, including the government's recent decision to suspend flogging as a form of punishment for many offenses and ban the execution of people imprisoned for crimescommitted before they were 18 years old.

These legal changes under King Salman are part of a larger modernization project that began with his predecessor. In 2007, then-King Abdullah announced a series of judicial reforms aimed at disentangling the judiciary from the executive.

King Salman, who took power in 2015, took up the judicial reform project and expanded certain specific instances for appeal.

"We're talking about 13 years of gradual, slow-paced legal reforms that have been taking place," said Bader al-Saif, nonresident fellow at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and professor of history at Kuwait University.

King Salman sits at a fancy desk
King Salman (center) has been leading the country since 2015Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Nabil

Blurred lines

However, the flogging and death sentence reforms break new ground, as they mark the government's inroads into religious matters, once considered a hands-off domain.

"Saudi Arabia is founded on the whole notion of preserving monotheism and upholding God's law. However, there has always been a reservation from the political establishment to weigh in on religious matters due to its founding history," al-Saif said.

The Saudi state's origins date back to an 18th-century agreement that established a delicate power balance between the Saud dynasty and religious officials in the kingdom's conservative strain of Islam, known as Wahhabism.

"What we see with King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is an upending of this. They're trying to bring Saudi Arabia closer to harmonizing with international standards. The criminal justice reforms fit in with the overall picture of Saudi's Vision 2030, of opening up to the world," al-Saif said, referring to the crown prince's plan aimed at bolstering Saudi Arabia internationally, among other things.

The harmonizing process also contributes to Riyadh's longer-term project of polishing its image for the international community, said Guido Steinberg, senior research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. The country has faced particularly strong global criticism following the 2018 assassination of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate.

Vision 2030 in letters on the wall of a building with the face of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Vision 2030, announced in 2016, sees a Saudi Arabia that is economically diversified and open to international businessImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Nabil

Under the guise of reform

For human rights activists, the new criminal justice reforms are far from perfect. While some observers welcomed the progress on the longstanding issues of flogging and executions, others suggested that the reforms actually hide opportunities for their continued use.

Exiled Saudi lawyer Taha al-Haji told DW that the royal decree banning the execution of minors does not cover convicted terrorists. In this way, it could still be used against minors who have committed offenses deemed political, al-Haji said. 

"In Saudi Arabia, terrorism is a very broad concept since the state may prosecute as terrorism any party who opposes its decisions or criticizes it," he explained.

Thus, while the latest death penalty reform addresses an issue at the core of human rights enterprises, the end of a cruel and unusual punishment, the extent of pratical application appears to remain in question. 

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