Mass Executions in Saudi Arabia: What Is MbS After?

Having survived the Khashoggi scandal with seeming impunity, MbS’ recent mass executions and an actual crucifixion in Saudi Arabia during the Easter holidays indicates his resolve to consolidate political authority at home and ride the U.S.-led anti-Iran wave in the region.

Saudi Arabia recently executed 37 people including 33 members of its Shiite minority on charges of terrorism-related activities.

Saudi Arabia recently executed 37 people including 33 members of its Shiite minority on charges of terrorism-related activities. It was the largest mass execution in the kingdom since January 2016 when Riyadh beheaded 47 people for similar offenses, including dissident Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, prompting state-backed Iranian protesters to set the Saudi embassy in Tehran on fire and setting the stage for the severance of diplomatic ties between the two regional rivals. Eleven of the newly executed had been convicted of engaging in espionage for the Islamic Republic.

Given the Trump administration’s aggressive pursuit of a “maximum pressure” policy against Shiite-majority Iran—after it pulled the United States out of the multilateral nuclear deal in May last year and reinstated comprehensive sanctions against Tehran—the mass execution in Saudi Arabia was meant to carry a political message and indicated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s willingness to ride the mounting anti-Iran wave in the region.

But more importantly, the move is aimed at consolidating authority at home and reassuring the state’s support base that the crown prince will implement “reforms” however he sees fit, no matter how much the kingdom comes under international pressure or criticism for its violations of human rights.

Ironically though, the confidence and impunity with which Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) tries to rebuild his image as a strong leader and successful “reformer” by recourse to authoritarian measures, is itself a consequence—and proof—of his “getting away with” the Jamal Khashoggi murder.

Had it not been for the U.S.’ unwavering backing and exoneration of him, marked by President Trump’s landmark statement on November 20, the 33-year-old prince would have perhaps been demoted, if not replaced with a more presentable member of the royal family. Now MbS is here to stay and busy preparing for enthronement by the same old playbook.      

“He’s already burned all his bridges. There is no way back, as backing down means facing accountability and he’ll never subject himself to that,” Iyad el-Baghdadi, President of Kawaakibi Foundation and initiator of its famous project “Arab Tyrant Manual,” told Inside Arabia. “In a way, he is forced to stay in power . . . and continue down the path of more repression because there’s no way back for him at this point.”   

Less than three weeks before the executions, the Saudi government arrested eight writers and supporters of jailed women’s rights activists, including two dual Saudi-American citizens, in another round of crackdowns on the critics of the crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

It’s clear the Saudis feel they have [the Trump] administration in their back pocket and they’re not going to lose support,” according to a Human Rights Watch researcher.

Apart from close economic relations between Riyadh and Washington—which has helped maintain the dominance of the U.S. dollar in global trade—entrenched Saudi-American interdependence is also driven by their mutual opposition to the Islamic Republic and a joint push for what is ideally expected to instigate regime change in Iran.

The strategic cooperation manifested itself most recently in Saudi reassurances to the Trump administration that it would produce enough oil to compensate for the removal of Iranian crude from international energy markets, the latter being a pillar of the U.S.’ “maximum pressure” policy and enhanced sanctions regime against Tehran. Along parallel lines, President Trump also vetoed a joint congressional War Powers resolution that sought to halt U.S. support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, on the grounds that the veto serves “America’s best interest.”

“The people who were happiest when that resolution passed were Qasem Soleimani and the ayatollah.”

“The people who were happiest when that resolution passed were Qasem Soleimani and the ayatollah,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, referring to the commander of Iran’s Quds Force and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei respectively. “There’s no doubt about that. When they see the United States shrink away from this challenge that puts United States citizens at risk, they think they’ve achieved a victory.”

While the strategic cause of countering a common foe makes sense from a realist perspective, unconditional American administration support for MbS arguably makes the White House complicit in atrocities perpetrated under his watch, further eroding U.S. moral authority in the Trump era.     

The recent executions were carried out after what Amnesty International described as unfair “sham trials” that violated international legal standards, raising the number of executions in the kingdom to 105 in the first quarter of the year. Among the decapitated were Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, a Shia juvenile who was sentenced to capital punishment for participating in anti-government, democracy-seeking demonstrations at the age of 16. Another young man, Mujtaba al-Sweikat, was arrested for similar “offenses” in 2012—at the age of 17—on the way to the United States to commence his studies at West Michigan University.                                                       

For some Iranians watching the politically motivated beheadings across Saudi Arabia, the execution of juveniles, in particular, was reminiscent of the hanging in January 2010 of Arash Rahmanipour, a young Iranian detained at the age of 17 for his alleged involvement in a suspicious 2008 mosque explosion in Iran’s southern city of Shiraz. He was put to death in January 2010 for “waging war against God,” as part of state crackdowns on protests against the 2009 rigged presidential elections.         

Only two days after the mass decapitations in Saudi Arabia, Iran secretly hanged two 17-year-old cousins for allegedly committing multiple rapes.

While Iranian authorities are trying to hide executions of minors and juveniles due to their reputational fallout in the international community, similar atrocious measures are meant to send signals of authority and control in bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia.                

“The executions seem to indicate a change of [PR] strategy . . . ; [they] are one of several signs that MbS is flushing that ‘reformist’ image down the toilet,” el-Baghdadi concluded. “It served him for a while but it is a losing strategy. The new strategy seems to be naked repression and owning who he [really] is.” [Notably, a few days after his interview with Inside Arabia, The Guardian reported that el-Baghdadi, who lives in Norway, had been taken into protective custody by the Norwegian government after a tip-off by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that his life may be in danger from Saudi Arabia.]

The actual crucifixion of one of the recently executed convicts during the Easter Holy Week “as a deterrent to others” left little doubt how bin Salman prefers to rule Saudi Arabia in general and advance his “reform” project in particular.  

Partly because of the ways in which it is implemented, this authoritarian repression dovetails well with the “rational irrationality” of Saudi statecraft under MbS.