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Saudi Political Intolerance – OpEd

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Beheadings in public, including a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric, prompted reactions not only inside Saudi Arabia, but also in Iran, Iraq and most recently in Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia’s death wedding in January 2016 signals the Kingdom’s intolerance towards any dissent against the royal family. The Saudi law of January 2014 doesn’t “merely criminalise dissent”, but defines it as “terrorism”, according to The Independent.

While claiming to fight against terrorism, Saudi Arabia is looking forward to settle political scores inside and outside its borders. The executions are not a precedent for Saudi Arabia. Only in 2015, the average of executions reached 12 persons every month. Western Allies, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States know that no consequences to account for. Historically, western powers have nearly always turned a blind eye to atrocities attributed to their Gulf allies because of economic calculations such as import of oil and export of arms. Thus, historical allies are unwilling or unable to make a real change.

Recent Escalations

Expanding across the region, violent clashes broke out between police forces and demonstrators on 23 January in the Bahraini Island Sitra, close to the capital Manama. These clashes came in the context of the on going three-week-protests to condemn Saudi Arabia’s execution of Nimr Al-Nimr.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Iraq Thamer Al-Sabhan said to Al-Sumaria TV that: “Iraqi reactions to the execution of Al-Nimr has raised eyebrows in the Kingdom, especially that they did not condemn the attack on our embassy in Iran.” Al-Sabhan revealed that the Saudi embassy in Baghdad had “received serious threats” following the executions.

Hundreds of Al-Nimr supporters marched in Al-Qatif in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province in protest at the execution. The protestors were chanting: “Down with the Al-Saud!”, the name of the Saudi royal family.

Contrary to Saudi Arabia, Iran considers Al-Nimr as “the champion of a marginalised Shiite minority” in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Nimr was jailed and then sentenced to death because of his political role during the times of the Arab uprising between 2011 and 2013, when he campaigned against oppression and also in support of Bahraini people. Opposition is simply abhorred in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Style of Execution

While the world was preparing to start the New Year, Saudi Arabia was preparing for a mass execution of dozens of people on a single day. On 02 January 2016, Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry announced to have executed 47 prisoners on terrorism charges, including the Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr. According to Reuters, beside Al-Nimr, other three of those executed were Shiite.

Saudi Ministry of Justice spokesman Mansour Al-Qufari said: “Four of the executions were implemented by firing squad, while the rest were beheaded by a sword.” Al-Qufari stressed: “Security forces will not hesitate at all to punish terrorists and instigators”.

The 47 Saudis were accused of sedition, disobedience and embracing extremist (takfiri) approach, which contains doctrines of those who went out of the main stream of Islam (Khawarej or rebels). They were accused of violating the holy book, the sanctity of Sunni consensus of the nation’s predecessors (Salaf) and participating and perpetrating murderous and terrorist acts against Saudi military and security forces.

Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh defended the executions as in line with Islamic Sharia and described them as “just and merciful to the prisoners.”

James Lynch, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International said that Saudi Arabia’s executions in 2015 “coupled with the secretive and arbitrary nature of court decisions and executions in the kingdom, leave us no option but to take these latest warning signs very seriously.

“Among those who are at imminent risk of execution are these six Shi’a Muslim activists who were clearly convicted in unfair trials. It is clear that the Saudi Arabian authorities are using the guise of counter-terrorism to settle political scores,” Lynch added.

Long History of Execution

Saudi Arabia enjoys a long history of executing people. According to International Amnesty report 2014/15, “authorities in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were unrelenting in their efforts to stifle dissent and stamp out any sign of opposition to those holding power, confident that their main allies among the western democracies were unlikely to demur.”

Over the past years, Saudi authorities made an “extensive use of the death penalty” to execute dozens by public beheading. At least 151 people were put to death in 2015, the highest recorded figure since 1995. This is an average of 12 persons every month.

Historical Allies

While some voices were shy, others were explicit in condemning the Saudi executions. Indeed, the western response to Saudi Arabia’s public beheadings is delicate in comparison with that to ISIS’s public beheadings.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was dismayed by Saudi Arabia’s actions, whereas the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said executing Al-Nimr risks “exacerbating sectarian tensions” between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry described death penalty as an inhumane punishment. “The cleric’s execution strengthens our existing concerns about the growing tensions and the deepening rifts in the region,” Germany responded.

The Saudis and so do western allies know that the brutality of the executions is going to be forgiven similar to the Bahraini scenario during the times of the Arab uprisings. Backed by other Gulf States, Bahrain brutally cracked down protests by using live ammunition in Shiite-majority villages. At that time, shy western reactions condemning violence marked the nature of alliance between the West and the Gulf States. Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch described the crackdown as follows: “Bahrain has brutally punished those protesting peacefully for greater freedom and accountability while the US and other allies looked the other way.”

In the light of international indifference, there is little hope that Saudi Arabia will tolerate different voices, be it political, religious or social.


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Hakim Khatib

Hakim Khatib

Hakim Khatib is a political scientist and analyst works as a lecturer for politics and culture of the Middle East, intercultural communication and journalism at Fulda and Darmstadt Universities of Applied Sciences and Phillips University Marburg. Hakim is a PhD candidate in political science on political instrumentalisation of Islam in the Middle East and its implications on political development at the University of Duisburg-Essen and the editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal (MPC Journal).

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