The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has found itself under yet more scrutiny after it executed 37 people on April 23. All 37 were convicted on “terrorism charges,” 33 were members of the Shia minority, and 11 were accused of engaging in espionage for Iran. Life has become more and more difficult for Saudi Arabia’s Shia population since King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud came to power in 2015, and Human Rights Watch has accused the current regime of treating the Shia as “second class citizens.” The executions represent the largest mass execution in the country since 2016 and come as part of an increased crackdown on dissent in the kingdom in recent months. On the same day, one person was crucified as a deterrent to challengers of the regime.
Now prosecutors in the Gulf state are turning their attention to three high-profile dissident Sunni clerics, due to be executed in coming days. Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omari are all linked to the al-Sahwa (Awakening) movement, which is largely inspired by the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Sahwa seeks reform in the kingdom and the wider region via non-violent means. The trio were put on death row earlier this year, with plans to execute them later postponed until after the holy month of Ramadan, which is now over.
Some argue that the increased fervor in the suppression of critics is rooted in insecurity within the Saudi regime. According to Al Jazeera, “The relatively successful uprising in Algeria that saw the overthrow of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the protests in Sudan have raised concerns among the ruling elite in Riyadh about the eruption of another Arab Spring.” This threat is in part buttressed by calls from a number of overseas Saudi citizens to protest against the current leadership, with many pushing for a constitutional monarchy. The intensity of such activism has only increased since the June 2017 appointment of the notoriously unpredictable Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
A UN Report, released June 19, 2019 has found damning evidence linking MbS to the murder of Washington Post Journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Recordings of conversations inside the Istanbul consulate reveal officials saying “we are coming to get you.” Regarding whether it would “be possible to put the trunk in a bag,” one Saudi official stated: “No. Too heavy. It is not a problem. The body is heavy. First time I cut on the ground. If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them.”
The report is the first to officially inculcate the Saudi state in the crime. “It is the conclusion of the special rapporteur that Mr Khashoggi has been the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law,” said UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard.
With more to come out in the coming months, the actions of the Saudi state under the control of MbS may turn out to be self-inflicted wounds. “While these kinds of repressive measures may work in the short run, they typically serve the exact opposite purpose by prompting more dissent and sowing more discord and division in society,” Elisabeth R. Myers, a Washington, DC-based law professor and Editor-in-Chief of Inside Arabia, told Al Jazeera. “The crackdown might galvanize a popular movement such as we have seen in Algeria or Sudan over the long haul.”
The recent ramping up of repressive measures in Saudi Arabia is in part enabled by the Trump administration, which has been extremely supportive of Riyadh, even by the usual standards of Washington. Following Khashoggi’s murder and the ongoing war in Yemen, there has been growing opposition to the Saudi regime among the US public and across the world.
On November 20, 2018, Trump supported MbS amid calls for the Prince to be replaced. “In case Trump fails to win re-election in 2020,” said Myers, “I am not at all sure the next American president will put up with or turn a blind eye to the continuation of such authoritarian policies.” Many of the candidates running for US President in 2020 have explicitly said they will take a harder line on US-Saudi relations. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s difficulty in diversifying its economy amid falling oil prices and a number of spats with other major nations mean that the Kingdom’s global influence is likely to diminish.
MbS’s troubles do not end with his waning popularity on the international stage. Secular activism and calls for reform at home are gaining traction, including the emergence of an opposition campaign dubbed “Freedom Movement of Arabian Peninsula People” following the Khashoggi affair. The group advocates for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and an end to human rights violations.
MbS is also facing significant opposition within the Saudi elite, where there is increasing support for his replacement as successor by his uncle, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz (the younger brother of King Salman). Unlike many constitutional monarchies, the Saudi system does not set rules for automatic succession. Instead, the current king and his closest family members select the next heir. At this point, MbS remains King Salman’s clear choice.
Furthermore, last November Reuters reported that sources close to the royal court had confirmed that there are moves by some behind the scenes to prevent MbS from becoming the next ruler. Speaking at a protest in London last year, Prince Ahmed appeared to criticize the current leadership. Senior US officials have indicated that they would support the 76-year-old, who served as deputy interior minister for almost 40 years. According to Reuters, those officials are concerned about MbS not only because of increasing certainty about his role in the murder of Khashoggi, confirmed by the June 19 report of the UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard laying responsibility on Saudi Arabia’s leadership, but also because the young prince has urged the Saudi defense ministry to explore alternative weapons supplies from Russia.
It is far from clear what will transpire in Saudi Arabia, yet many argue that the regime’s extreme policies make it inherently unsustainable. While significant change seems almost inevitable in the future, it is likely to come too late to save the lives of Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Omari, as it was for Jamal Khashoggi and so many others.