By Tallha Abdulrazaq
26 April 2019
Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia put 37 of its citizens to death in the single largest mass execution the Kingdom has ordered since January 2016 when 47 people were beheaded, including a prominent Shia cleric, Nimr al Nimr, who was well-liked by Iran for his anti-establishment rhetoric against their Arab rival.
While the death penalty is a punishment still practised by many developing and developed countries around the world, including the United States, what is most concerning about these executions is that they occurred during the reign of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS, a man already infamous for jailing dissidents and ordering extrajudicial killings.
Crushing Dissent, Sending A Message
Again, this time, the majority of those executed appear to be from the Shia minority. Interestingly, however, the executions swiftly followed an attack by four Sunni Daesh extremists who died after attacking a security installation north of the capital Riyadh.
While it is tempting to frame these executions as being motivated by sectarianism, this is highly unlikely as the most shocking display of state violence was reserved for a Sunni death row inmate. It, therefore, appears clear that Riyadh wanted to send a general message.
Khalid bin Abdulkarim al Tuwaijiri was beheaded, and his headless body was crucified and put on display for several hours as a grim message designed to deter anyone else from following in his footsteps.
According to Saudi-funded and Emirates-based Alarabiya, Tuwaijiri has been on death row since 2007 after he killed and then beheaded his uncle who was an officer in the Saudi security establishment on behalf of Al Qaeda. His accomplice, Aziz al-Umari, was also beheaded during the same mass execution.
While their rhetoric is rooted in sectarian division, the analysis of some, including human rights organisations, that Saudi Arabia’s bloody executions are motivated by sectarianism is incorrect. We cannot ignore the fact that the majority of the most prominent political dissidents currently languishing in Saudi dungeons are conservative Sunni clerics who opposed MBS’ “liberalisation” reforms.
These reforms are laughable considering the sheer body count MBS has amassed since deciding Saudi needed to relax its more hardline tendencies. Amongst those who have died at the altar of MBS’ liberalisation drive was the vicious extrajudicial slaying of columnist Jamal Khashoggi that shocked the world last year.
Riyadh is now also seeking the death penalty against prominent Saudi Sunni cleric Salman al-Awda, who was imprisoned after a mild-mannered social media post which shows absolutely no one is safe from MBS’ cruel grasp.
It is a mistruth peddled by the Saudi Arabian regime that they are the defenders of Sunni Islam against a growing Shia threat emanating from Iran. The Saudi royal family and their army of pro-regime scholars who issue fatwas, or religious edicts, at the whim of their masters, use their Sunni identity and custodianship of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, in order to silence critical voices and to gather and maintain support amongst the Sunni majority across the Arab and Islamic world who are rightly concerned about Iranian expansionism.
However, Saudi Sunni protectionism is a myth and cannot be farther from the truth.
Days before the executions, the Saudi authorities granted one of the highest honours in Islam to a radical Iraqi Shia cleric and pro-Iran militia leader, Sami al Masoudi, by allowing him to enter the Kaabah in the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Aside from running the Iran-linked Promise of Allah militia, Masoudi currently serves as an advisor to the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) whose litany of sectarian murders against Sunnis has been well-documented. He also famously threatened vengeance against the Saudi regime after they executed Shia cleric Nimr in 2016. Despite all this, he was allowed to enter the sacred building that is the focal point of 1.8 billion Muslims’ daily prayers.
All of this proves that Riyadh does not care about what sect or religion someone follows; as long as that someone does not interfere with their ambitions, which right now, appear to be the complete reversal of the Arab Spring and fomenting closer ties with Israel at the expense of the long-standing plight of the Palestinian people.
A Bloody Legacy
MBS and, let us never forget, his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz, have accomplished very little that is positive since coming to power and will leave behind a legacy of mass imprisonment, unfair trials, dubious executions, and failed wars – the humanitarian disaster that is now Yemen is a case in point.
There is a saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In MBS’ case, it is quite clear that he was so absolutely corrupt in his morals before he came to power that, once he finally did, he engaged in a glut of violence and repression that even his family members could not escape. His actions are symptomatic of a narcissistic personality, so obsessed with power and self-image that he will go to devastating lengths to ensure none oppose his rule or even mildly disagree with his vision.
In MBS’ case, he corrupted the power that he wielded to such a degree as to make previous Saudi rulers seem like human rights defenders by comparison.
If all MBS wants to be remembered by is his jailing of critical Sunni clerics, torture and execution of Shia minors, and the violent stamping out of any dissent to his “liberalisation through repression” project, then he can rest assured that he is well on his way to cementing one of the worst legacies of any dictatorial ruler of the modern Middle East.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of NAI.
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Tallha Abdulrazaq is an award-winning academic and writer, with a specialism in Middle Eastern strategic and security affairs.