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Demonstrators hold signs while participating in the Times Square rally. Nearly 1000 members of the Muslim-American community from New York, Illinois, and Michigan rallied in Times Square against the Saudi Arabian government's recent execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 followers, the recent massacre in Zaria, Nigeria and the pending execution of Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzay. (Photo: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia: A Masterclass on How to Not Reform Through Mass Executions

Saudi Arabia regularly receives a pass from world leaders and most media outlets given its unique relationship with the United States and importance to global oil flows.

Saudi Arabia's March 12 announcement that it executed 81 men marks the country's largest mass execution since 2019, indicating Riyadh's continued disinterest in reforming its flawed and arbitrary judicial system. The decision to commit the mass execution of detainees on a range of vague and broad charges offers yet another example of the Riyadh's rejection of basic human rights and again disproves Mohammed bin Salman's (MbS) "reformer" charade. Unfortunately, world leaders and policymakers in Washington will continue to coddle the Gulf monarch while denouncing the same actions of equally brutal leaders across the Arab world.

The Riyadh-Washington dynamic has for decades given the Saudi royal family a pass to chart its own path as some of its neighbors, who commit equally as autocratic and horrifying human rights violations, receive international condemnation.

Riyadh's announcement confirmed it has "implemented the Sharia court's rulings against 81 individuals convicted of terrorist cases," according to the Saudi Ministry of Interior. Accusation of terrorism are typical individuals unfortunate enough to be included on the country's execution list, although the ministry also claimed those executed were guilty of other vague crimes, such as "practicing a deviant ideology" and "monitoring and targeting officials and expatriates."

Of the 81 men executed, 41 were identified as members of the country's Shia Muslim minority, according to Human Rights Watch. Saudi Arabia has a history of repression and systemic discrimination against this often-vocal minority, which regularly results in arrests and targeting by security forces like the Islamic religious police (Mutawa), although the entity has been slowly "sidelined" in recent years according to former and current members. The most prominent recent case of execution in the Shia community involves the execution of Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in 2016, which prompted a major dispute with Iran that resulted in the cutting of ties and burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Indeed, al-Nimr's execution and the Shi'ite community's repression in Saudi Arabia is part of a long history of the Saudi royal family's brutality. Between 2007 and 2022, Amwaj.media estimates that roughly 1,600 people have been executed after analyzing data from Amnesty International and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Such sentencing is based on Riyadh's application of Sharia (Islamic law) as its national law as it has no penal code and limited laws and regulations that broadly define criminal penalties.

To be sure, the Saudis have attempted to improve their reputational standing on the subject in recent years by passing such reforms and decreasing the annual number of executions. In 2020, Riyadh conducted the lowest number of executions since 2010 (24) following a record-high in over a decade in 2019 (over 180 estimated executions). A moratorium on executions for drug related offenses has likely contributed to the decrease. However, executions have steadily increased since then, with over 50 in 2021.

Importantly, the March 12 mass execution eclipsed the total number of estimated executions in 2021. The fact that most of the executions involved individuals from the historically marginalized governorates of Al-Ahsa and Qatif - predominantly Shi'ite - is particularly relevant given political demonstrations against the Saudi government in these areas in recent years.

This suggests that MbS's talk of "reform," particularly outlined in a recent interview with The Atlantic, will once again be questioned. To be sure, the crown prince and soon-to-be ruler of Saudi Arabia has rightfully been applauded for some social reforms such as women's right to drive, music festivals, and the removal of hate speech from schoolbooks. Still, these reforms are mostly cosmetic and constitute the minimum, especially considering hateful language still resides in class materials, depicting a scenario in which Riyadh hopes to boost its image while enacting the minimal social changes necessary to retain its hold on society.

Typically, such contradictions and cynical reforms would be refuted by the international community, especially if the country of interest is deemed a global pariah like Syria, Iran, or North Korea. However, Saudi Arabia regularly receives a pass from world leaders and most media outlets given its unique relationship with the United States and importance to global oil flows. The Riyadh-Washington dynamic has for decades given the Saudi royal family a pass to chart its own path as some of its neighbors, who commit equally as autocratic and horrifying human rights violations, receive international condemnation.

One need not look far for examples of the contradiction at hand. While Saudi Arabia can commit mass executions, arbitrarily arrest and hold incommunicado citizens for online content, torture political dissidents, and limit the freedom of movement for Saudis it deems a threat to national security, states like Syria and Iran receive international condemnation for the same actions. This is not to justify the latter, but to identify how king-making depicts the world and United States as arbiters of repression throughout the region, harming any effort to support democratization and reform in the Arab world.

Unfortunately, given global energy prices and the war in Ukraine, world leaders appear prepared to continue the contradiction and coddle Riyadh. United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Saudi Arabia on March 16 to discuss "current efforts to improve energy security and reduce volatility in energy and food prices" amid increasing cost of living problems in his country. US President Joe Biden was recently rejected by both MbS and the United Arab Emirates Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) when offering to speak over the phone about global oil flows.

Such efforts reflect a world unprepared to detach itself from the grip of non-renewables and autocratic rentier states that control them. Simply put, this will not change in the near-term without major reform efforts within countries currently begging for cheaper energy imports. A substantial shift towards renewable energy sources is the strongest way to address this issue, although kleptocracy and lobbying within the western world certainly play a role in manipulating prices for the average citizen and preventing energy policy reform.

Thus, as the west fails to look inward at its own shortcomings, states like Saudi Arabia will continue to function as some of the most closed societies in the world as US and European powers prop them up. Mass executions are just one of many horrifying results as states fail to balance interests with values. Without bold domestic and foreign policy decisions based on transparency and accountability that support human rights everywhere, the status quo will remain.

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