Saudi Arabia kicked off the New Year with the execution of 47 people mainly convicted on terrorism charges as well as of being members of Al Qaeda according to the Saudi state news agency. The Human Rights Watch reported that it was “the largest mass execution in the country since 1980”. In 2015, 158 executions took place in the ultra-conservative Sunni majority kingdom. Among the 47 people was a prominent moderate Shia cleric who was convicted of “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “inciting sectarian strife,” and supporting rioting and destruction of public property during 2011-2012 protests in Shia-majority towns and cities.
His execution was the last straw for the Shia Muslim world which had lost its patience with the treatment of Shia citizens worldwide and especially in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province. After the news came out, the Saudi embassy in Teheran was stormed by Shiite protesters which led to Saudi Arabia severing diplomatic ties with Iran. In response, Tehran cut all commercial ties with Riyadh, and banned pilgrims from traveling to Mecca which is a particularly harsh restriction considering that Mecca is one of the holiest cities for Muslims.
In the following days, numerous Saudi embassies and consulates were targeted. Diplomacy suffered a big blow when Bahrain severed their diplomatic ties with Iran and the UAE, Kuwait and Sudan followed in its footsteps. The executions were a clear sign that Saudi Arabia won’t tolerate criticisms especially from the Shia minority living in the kingdom. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was known for being openly critical of the Saudi regime’s systematic discrimination against its Shia citizens and was a prominent advocate for greater rights for Shia. In 2009, al-Nimr even suggested in a sermon that secession from Saudi Arabia might be the solution if Shia citizens continue to be denied of their rights.
The kingdom has been cracking down on human rights activists and people who dared to challenge or criticize the royal family. We don’t know exactly how many people each country executes per year, however, Saudi Arabia and its often very public executions have been under the public’s scrutiny in particular abroad. The puzzling thing is that we don’t hear much about Iran’s or China’s executions in the news even though China holds by far the top place for the number of executions last year. We don’t know how many people are executed behind closed doors in extra judicial killings in Mexico, in labour camps in North Korea or in Colombian prisons.
The Saudi minister of foreign affairs has recently called on the United Kingdom to respect the state’s sovereignty and not meddle in their laws, pointing out the fact that the role-model for democracy, the United States, still has the death penalty as part of their justice system. He then added that Saudi Arabia has gotten a lot of bad press because it has not been good at explaining themselves, at reaching out to the British media or the British public or academic institutions. The United Kingdom abolished the death penalty in 1965 so it might prove very difficult to explain to the British public or to academia the benefits and the importance keeping it around in the 21st century. Perhaps they will find some sympathizers to understand their struggle in some parts of the US.