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Home » Islamic world » In Saudi Arabia, “what’s changed … is these beheadings, and particularly of a religious cleric.

In Saudi Arabia, “what’s changed … is these beheadings, and particularly of a religious cleric.

The Saudi Arabian government’s execution of 47 people in early 2016 again drew attention to a Canadian contract to supply the Saudis with light armoured vehicles built in London, Ontario.

The Conservatives closed the $15 billion deal, and faced questions about skippinghuman rights checks and reporting. That’s due process in arms deals with foreign countries; to make sure, for example, that arms won’t be used against civilians.

Before the announcement of the deal in 2014, the last report on human rights done by the Conservatives was in 2011, according to CBC, and it was not made public. Any assessment made during the contract negotiation was not released either, nor was an internal report on the Saudis’ human rights record conducted in 2015, also under the Conservatives.

The Liberal government said it will release a redacted version of the 2015 report done by the previous government. The Liberals have also promised to review the way arms contracts are assessed.

Rona Ambrose, the interim Conservative leader, wants the 2015 internal report made public. Asked what’s changed between today and the time her party refused to release human rights findings, she said, “what’s changed, or I should say I think what has motivated people in a very emotional way is these beheadings, and particularly of a religious cleric.”

Another top Conservative, foreign affairs critic Tony Clement, also wants the details released. While acknowledging this is information the Conservatives kept secret, hesaid, “we need to know, given this rapidly changing environment in the Middle East.” (Clement also pinned the change to his party’s “new leadership.”)

Are the recent Saudi executions a change? Is it a different situation today than at the time the deal was made, and during the remainder of the Conservatives’ time in office?

A history of executions

In August 2015, the same month the election began, Amnesty International published a report that found a “surge” in executions. The year before, in August 2014, 26 people were killed, and in the first six months of 2015, there were 102. Over that time period, the report pointed out, that’s an average of one or two deaths every few days.

According to Amnesty, the method of killing was mostly beheadings, or else firing squad. Displaying the bodies in public was common.

The report concluded Saudi Arabia is “one of the most prolific executioners in the world” and found rampant violations of international law. Saudi assertions that only the most serious crimes are punished by death do not hold against evidence. Of recorded executions between 1991 and 2015, Amnesty found just under one third were convicts of drug-related offences.

The lump 47 executions in early January 2016, like past sentences, were carried out by a mix of methods. It remains unclear how many were beheaded.

Then and now: What’s different?

We asked some experts on Saudi Arabia politics and policy what’s different about the latest executions. According to them, not much from what’s happened before.

For one, there’s consistency in the type of human rights abuse, and the rise (and fall) of it.

“Execution by beheading is nothing new to [Saudi Arabia]. Often, it is a public event. There is hardly a year that passes without beheadings,” said Hani Faris, a Middle East expert at the University of British Columbia.

Another Middle East expert agreed. “These 47 executions were not a major departure for Saudi Arabia,” said Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. But they are “still a somewhat surprising development.”

Juneau said two things stand out from the January deaths. One is the number, the single largest group killed in one day since 1980, when 63 people were publicly beheaded. Such a spike, however, is not new. Amnesty pointed out, “it is common for there to be sudden surges and drops in recorded executions in Saudi Arabia.” A graph of deaths over the last three decades looks a little like a heart monitor.

The second is the prominence of Nimr al-Nimr, the Shia Muslim cleric and outspoken critic of the Sunni ruling family, who was among those killed.

“In the past, sensitive cases like this were often managed in more ‘subtle’ ways … usually by keeping them in jail, though some were also executed,” Juneau said.

Al-Nimr was a well-known activist, but he was not the first or only critic of the state to be sentenced to death. Following protests in Saudi Arabia in 2011 and 2012, which accompanied wider uprisings across the Middle East, Amnesty counted at least seven people sentenced to death on “vaguely worded security offences charges related to their activism.”

A second point of consistency is that the 47 executions did not happen without warning. The death sentencing happened before, sometimes years before. And death sentences for certain groups of people tend to end one way.

“It seemed fairly clear already before that most of the Sunni jihadists who had been sentenced to death (44 or so of the 47) would have been executed sooner or later,” said Steffen Hertog, a professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics.

The Saudi legal system does enable pardons, and many sentences have not been carried out, according to Faris. But, as with al-Nimr’s case, “there is much less leniency when individuals or groups commit acts that threaten the regime or the religious establishment,” Faris said.

Like Juneau, Hertog named the death of al-Nimr as the bigger change.

“The execution of Nimr al-Nimr is a more substantial change, as the Saudi government did not present evidence to the international public that he is directly implicated in political violence,” Hertog said. “Saudi Arabia has previously executed Sunni jihadi ‘ideologues’ but these were part of closely knit cells [or] networks directly linked to violence.”

But again, a lot of time passed between his sentence and death. Al-Nimr was among those sentenced more than a year earlier, in October 2014. The conviction came after what Amnesty called “a deeply flawed trial” with charges that were “vague and contrary to the principle of legality.” At the end of October 2015, Amnesty warned the cleric “has exhausted his appeals and will be at imminent risk of execution as soon as [King Salman bin Abdulaziz] has ratified his death sentence.”


There’s a mix of old and new in the killing of 47 people: It’s an old policy and, with rising numbers of deaths, an old trend. But it’s a relatively new size and contains a new profile – a popular cleric.

While there are new parts to this execution story, “what’s changed” is not as significant as the called-for reversal in Canada’s policy seems to imply. It is misleading for Ambrose to attribute a reverse in her party’s position to a “changed” situation that is, according to experts, in large part business as usual.