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Saudi Arabia executes 81 people in show of force by an emboldened Mohammed bin Salman

The deaths provide a glimpse at what Saudi justice looks like after the West didn't hold MBS to account for the killing of dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives to attend the annual speech of the Saudi King in the capital Riyadh in 2019.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the annual speech of the Saudi king in Riyadh in 2019.Saudi Royal Palace via AFP - Getty Images

On Saturday, the Saudi government killed 81 people in a single mass execution despite recent assurances from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that Saudi Arabia was making important legal reforms. The deaths provide a glimpse at what Saudi justice looks like now that MBS has been emboldened by Western governments that have failed to hold him accountable for the killing of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as numerous other crimes and abuses.

Since he became crown prince, MBS has consolidated power by attacking any source of influence that could check his authority.

The Interior Ministry announced that the government had executed 81 men who were “convicted of terrorism,” among other capital offenses, claiming that some of these men were operatives of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State terrorist group. Of course, the regime provided scant evidence to substantiate these claims and carried out these killings while world leaders were preoccupied with Ukraine. The killings were likely announced publicly to demonstrate the government’s power and reinforce a climate of fear among the Saudi people.

While the execution was the country’s largest to date, it follows mass executions of 37 people in 2019 and 47 people in 2016. Despite the incendiary rhetoric that the government used to justify these executions, many charges didn’t merit the death penalty under Saudi law and often didn’t even merit arrest. Some of the charges were for acts as uncontroversial as attending peaceful demonstrations.

Saudi officials completed the mass execution privately, and, according to people close to the victims, the government refused to deliver the bodies to the families. That the government wouldn’t allow aggrieved families to bury their loved ones speaks volumes about the absolute power and fear with which MBS intends to rule the country when he becomes king. MBS’s path to the throne is all but assured since he has eliminated actual and potential rivals within his own family, and his rule could begin very soon, because his 86-year-old father has suffered illnesses.

Since he became crown prince, MBS has consolidated power by attacking any source of influence that could check his authority. Beyond Khashoggi’s death, this has included the detainment, torture and coerced transfer of wealth of nearly 400 powerful Saudi business leaders, former government officials and members of the royal family.

There have also been unjust arrests, detainments and the forced disappearances of moderate Saudi clerics who dared to call for even modest legal reform. One of us, Abdullah, faces continued harassment from Saudi officials, even in the U.S. Abdullah’s father has been imprisoned since 2017 in solitary confinement and faces possible execution for calling for peace on Twitter. Nineteen other family members have been banned from leaving Saudi Arabia.

The damage from the executions this week won’t be limited to those in Saudi Arabia, however. Instead, they could further destabilize the region and inflame tensions with Iran, as 41 of the men who were executed are believed to have been members of Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia community. While it is an oversimplification to equate Shia Muslims with Iran, the country did suspend key diplomatic talks with Saudi Arabia the day after the executions. Long the subjects of state persecution, Shias live predominantly in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich but underdeveloped Eastern Province and remain second-class citizens within the country despite MBS’s promised reforms.

The Saudi government reportedly tried the Shia men in its Specialized Criminal Court pursuant to the country’s counterterrorism law, like the rest of those who were executed. The United Nations and human rights advocates have widely criticized this law as being politicized and lacking in fundamental due process rights.

It didn’t have to be this way. When the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence issued its report on Khashoggi’s murder, concluding that MBS likely ordered the operation, U.S. officials and responsible world leaders had all the evidence they needed to hold him to account. Instead, they did nothing.

U.S. officials should have sanctioned MBS like they did the 17 killers and operatives whom he is assessed to have ordered to murder Khashoggi and dispose of his body. They should have included him in their ban on 76 other Saudis connected to the killing and prevented from traveling to the U.S. At the very least, the U.S. government should now stop selling the Saudi government billions in U.S. weapons and military equipment that allow MBS to continue his reckless and unwinnable military intervention in Yemen, where the U.N. and human rights investigators have concluded that some Saudi actions likely amount to war crimes.

Now, faced with another appalling human rights violation by Saudi Arabia, the State Department declined to comment on whether it even raised the matter with the Saudi government, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken is planning a possible trip to Riyadh to implore the kingdom to produce more oil rather than stick to its deal with Russia to limit oil production. So much for President Joe Biden’s promise to make the Saudi government “the pariah that they are.”

As terrifying and reckless as MBS has been as the crown prince, he could be even worse as the king. Western leaders who decided to embolden and not sanction him have themselves to blame.