Saudi Arabia Has Record Year—For Beheadings
When Riyadh worries about instability, watch your neck
Three men sit on a square in front of a crowd of onlookers. Blindfolds cover their eyes.
In the distance, a short body of water runs parallel to a highway. Cars and trucks zip past, with heavy construction cranes in the distance rising into the sky.
Back in the square, uniformed police stand behind the blindfolded men. A burly executioner—wearing a white robe and a red-and-white keffiyeh—stands a head taller than the cops.
The executioner carries a sword up to the nearest blindfolded man. He touches the man’s head and adjusts it slightly—getting the man’s neck into position—and then slashes down with his sword. The man is dead almost instantly.
The executioner moves on with his work. He leans over and inspects the next man before flicking the sword down.
The second man loses his head. Then the executioner walks to the third man. A stranger films from a parked car. After the last man dies, the stranger discreetly drives away.
These were routine killings—and public beheadings are not uncommon in Saudi Arabia. Depending on how you crunch the numbers, Riyadh executes more people when adjusted for population than every other country except for Iran, Iraq and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
According to the Associated Press, 2014 was also a growing year for executions in the kingdom. At least 83 people died in state executions last year. That’s the most executions in Saudi Arabia in a single year for at least the past five years, according to the AP.
The United States executed 32 people in 2014.
In Saudi Arabia, executions are often punishments for murder, but also drug smuggling and occasionally sorcery and apostasy. It sends a message. For the most egregious crimes in Saudi society, the authorities display bodies in public following executions.
The fact Riyadh is beheading more people might also not come as a coincidence.
The Middle East is undergoing a turbulent period. Saudi Arabian elites are feeling more insecure.
Riyadh backed the 2013 military coup against Egyptian ex-Pres. Mohammed Morsi. This was a controversial move, as many Saudis supported Morsi and Riyadh’s one-time ally in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia backs proxy factions in the Syrian civil war like Jaysh Al Islam. Thousands of Saudi citizens are fighting in Syria, and Riyadh elites are rightly terrified of what happens when they return home.
“The government is haunted by the memory of the thousands of Saudis who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s,” wrote Le Monde Diplomatique editor Alain Gresh. “Many of whom later came home and took part in violent acts against the monarchy.”
Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority is also alienated—cut off from top jobs in the country’s hierarchical society.
On Oct. 15, Saudi authorities sentenced dissident Shia cleric Nimr Al Nimir to death for sedition, and for allegedly taking up arms against the government. Nimir went to jail in 2012 during a period of protests by Saudi Shia. The Saudi royals do not want protests in its cities.
Sunni militants also face the sword. In October, Reuters reported Saudi Arabia executed at least a dozen Sunnis for militant activities.
Then there’s falling oil prices. One theory is that Saudi Arabia is deliberately causing the price to plummet as a weapon against the Iranian mullahs and Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad.
It’s a risky gamble, as Saudi oil revenue heavily subsidizes social services, and pays for an expansive array of government jobs. Saudi Arabia has extensive currency reserves, but still risks provoking dissent if prices plunge further.
No single execution is necessarily political. What’s important is the long-term trend—and the trend is more executions. Saudi Arabia also started the new year with another beheading.
On Jan. 1, executioners killed a Saudi man convicted of drug trafficking.