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Saudi Arabia's executions thwart trust in reforms

February 3, 2023

Despite a push for transformation in Saudi Arabia, analysts say a political opening remains out of sight. But being host to future international sporting events could make a difference for the the kingdom.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman smiling
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took over as de facto ruler in 2017Image: IMAGO/Le Pictorium

Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, took over the reins as de facto ruler in 2017, Saudi Arabia has been marked by two conflicting developments. 

In a far-reaching modernization process, dubbed Saudi Vision 2030, the government has started to diversify its economy from oil, has opened the country to tourism and improved women's rights

At the same time, however, the government in Riyadh is resorting increasingly to counterterrorism laws to clamp down further on society, targeting rights activists and other members of civil society who are not in line with its policies, including certain religious scholars.

There has also been a considerable rise in the number of executions. A recent report by the international anti-death penalty organization Reprieve and the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) highlighted that the number had almost doubled since 2015. It stated that an average of 70 executions had been carried out between 2010 and 2014, while the number had increased to 129.5 between 2015 and 2022.

"The average number of executions has risen by 82% even as the country has projected a modernizing image to the outside world," the report said.

In an interview with DW, ESOHR's director Ali Adubisi explained the reasons for this conflicted development. "The concept of modernization practiced by MBS is selective and subject to political moods," he said. "The executions are an essential pillar of MBS' repressive behavior through which he practices intimidation against his people to ensure as much silence as possible."

This view was confirmed by Julia Legner, executive director at ALQST, a London-based human rights organization that focuses on defending and promoting human rights in Saudi Arabia. "If the authorities were genuine about reform, they would allow the Saudi population to be at the center of it," she told DW. "However, in a place with no free civil society, reforms by the authorities are a political tool to silence criticism inside and outside the country."

Sebastian Sons, a senior researcher for the Germany-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient, agreed that despite Saudi Arabia's economic diversification and ongoing social liberalization, there was little sign of political opening. "In fact, quite the contrary has become the norm as repression has turned into an integral part of Saudi rule under MBS," he said.

He added that the government had also repeatedly emphasized that those being sentenced to death were terrorists and that their trials were internal affairs that the West should not interfere in. He said Saudi Arabia frequently argued that the trials were imperative for guaranteeing national and international security. 

Saudi religious scholar Salman Ouda remains in prison
Saudi Arabia has been clamping down on religious scholars, including the popular cleric Salman Ouda, who remains in prisonImage: AFP

Lack of legal definition for terrorism

Though the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 caused widespread outrage around the world and led to a temporary isolation of Saudi Arabia, most trials against activists or critics of the government fail to draw international attention.

Such trials take place regularly at the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over terrorism and cases related to state security.

But in 2022, judges there sentenced two women — ­Salma al-Shehab and Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani — to 35 years and 45 years respectively for retweeting posts by women's rights activists. 

"The Saudi definition of terrorism effectively provides the judiciary with a discretion to levy harsh sentences, including the death penalty and unprecedentedly long prison sentences against individuals for simply criticizing the government," Ramzi Kaiss, a legal and policy officer at the Swiss-based MENA Rights Group, told DW.

He added that the definitions were unclear. "For example, the counterterrorism law defines a terrorist offense as, among other things, any act that seeks to disturb public order, destabilize national security or state stability or threaten national unity. But it doesn't really define any of these terms."

ESOHR's director Adubisi said he was extremely worried about the near future. "Currently, there are several alarming indications in the execution file with more than 60 men threatened with death, including minors," he said. "It is very likely that Saudi Arabia will soon carry out individual or mass executions."

These worries come in the wake of a mass execution that took place last March. Despite a royal order dating back to 2020 which decreed that executions should only take place in discretionary cases that did not involve the counterterrorism law, 81 prisoners were executed after being charged with violating this very legislation.

Coaches pose during the football draw ceremony for the Australia and New Zealand 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup
Saudi Arabia has come under fire since announcing it would be an official sponsor of the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2023Image: William West/AFP

Leverage of human rights

Sons from the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient told DW that he was convinced the Saudi palace was keeping a close eye on all international reactions to human rights violations, and that there would be "an increase in how international criticism is seen in Saudi Arabia," given that the country is in line to host upcoming global sporting events.

"The debate about human rights could pick up speed inside Saudi Arabia quite soon," he said.

Earlier this week, the Saudi tourist authority announced that Saudi Arabia would be an official sponsor of the FIFA Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in July. Australia and New Zealand's sports associations have both protested and filed complaints with FIFA, arguing that Saudi Arabia used to ban women from playing football and even from entering stadiums before 2017.

Saudi Arabia is already slated to host the Asian Football Cup in 2027, the Asian Winter Games in 2029, and if its bid with Greece and Egypt is successful, the FIFA Men's World Cup in 2030.

The office of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did not respond to DW's request for comment.

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Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa