Saudi Arabia Appears Headed for Highest Execution Rate in Over 20 Years
Foreigners account for vast majority of executions, where the most frequent method is believed to be beheading
With Human Rights Watch (HRW) saying that Saudi Arabia has already put to death 49 people this year, the Gulf kingdom is apparently on track to register one of its highest execution rates – certainly, the highest in more than two decades.
By this time last year, the Saudis had executed 39 people, according to HRW. If Riyadh keeps up the current rate, close to 180 people will have been executed by the end of 2019, compared to 148 in 2018.
The Qatar-based Gulf News has placed the number of executions so far this year at 43. The record was set in 1995, with 192 people put to death.
Beheading is believed to be the most frequent method of implementing the death penalty in the kingdom, and eligible offenses include murder, rape, drug smuggling, apostasy and the practice of magic.
“The Saudis don’t reveal specific information,” Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at HRW, told The Media Line. “We assume [the executions] to be beheadings, although another method they occasionally use is firing squads. Occasionally, they’ll announce executions.”
Another method is stoning, usually for adultery. On occasion, the body of someone who has been executed has been crucified and placed on display.
Coogle said that the vast majority of those put to death in Saudi Arabia are foreigners, with 33 out of the 49 people executed so far this year being non-Saudis. He added that Pakistan tends to be the country of origin for most of these foreigners. Further, he said, it’s believed that non-violent drug offenses have accounted for 26 of this year’s executions, compared to 20 at this time last year.
“Ninety-nine percent of capital punishment cases are for murder and drug smuggling,” Coogle told The Media Line. “Its use for murder is due to the application of Shari’a Law’s ‘eye for an eye’ punishment, but drug smuggling is where [the authorities] have discretion.”
According to Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at King’s College London’s School of Security Studies and a fellow at the college’s Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, the regime overseen by Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and often referred to simply as MbS, has charged people for capital crimes such as treason and espionage without bringing evidence in order to clamp down on political opposition.
“MbS’s regime has developed an allergy against any form of potential dissidence that could turn against it, thereby using any means necessary to repress activism,” Krieg told The Media Line. Charges punishable by death, he added, were “being used to suppress civil society and ensure that MbS’s regime can consolidate its power amid a highly contested political environment in Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia is third in the world for executions, behind China and Iran. According to Amnesty International’s figures from 2017, Iran accounted for 60% of the capital punishment applied in the Middle East and North Africa, with Saudi Arabia at 17%.
According to Krieg, despite the crown prince’s declared modernization campaign, which includes permitting women to drive, the number of executions in Saudi Arabia has increased dramatically under his reign, which began in June of 2017.
“Under MbS, Saudi Arabia has not really become more liberal except from some social changes,” Krieg said.
According to the human rights organization Reprieve, there were 67 executions in the eight months leading up to MbS’s rule compared to 133 during the first eight months of his tenure.
“Saudi society is worse off than before MbS took office because decisions were made by the whole family. Now they’re made by just one person,” Mohammed Almahfali, a researcher at Lund University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Sweden, told The Media Line. “MBS wants to… show the West that Saudi laws and society are becoming more modern when they’re really based on terror. At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia is not a democracy.”
The Saudis have never been forthright about why the number of executions has increased, but HRW’s Coogle suspects it has to do with the overall political situation in the Middle East.
“There has been a regional movement of states back to the death penalty,” he told The Media Line, and these country’s “want to look tough in the face of regional insecurity.”
Pakistan resumed use of the death penalty in 2015, with Jordan following suit in 2017.
In this way, it appears that Saudi Arabia will not be cutting its beheading rates anytime soon.
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)