On August 3 and 5 respectively, the New York Times and the Washington Post published editorials condemning the decision by Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court to uphold death sentences for fourteen Shia’a citizens, including the then-seventeen-year old prospective Western Michigan University student Mujtaba’a al-Sweikat. In response to these convictions, the Times and the Post issued their own judgments; the Kingdom, they wrote, continues to make a “mockery” of due process and “demonize” its Shia’a minority, signs of “backwardness” that are “entirely out of sync with ambitions to create a thriving and modern state.”
This writer freely admits that Saudi Arabia’s legal system is not a paragon of international best practices. However, if the Times and the Post wish to maintain their credibility in the eyes of a global audience, they should make an earnest effort not only to comprehend the extraordinary geopolitical challenges the Kingdom currently faces but also to consider how any state under such stress, including the most developed Western nations, has responded under similar circumstances.
They would also recognize that Saudi Arabia remains a developing country. For any developing state, the legal system is among the most difficult system to modernize; the rule of law can be applied unevenly, the judiciary can be opaque, and rulings can appear arbitrary. I would challenge the Times and the Post to identify how, in comparison to most other developing states, the Kingdom is exceptional in any one of these areas. And yet, Saudi Arabia’s legal and judicial systems seem to receive considerably more scrutiny and be spoken of in far more hyperbolic terms than those of its peers.
A key example is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which executes more people per capita than any other country and is thought to execute more nonviolent political dissidents than any other country. Cornell University Law School’s Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide reported that Iran’s 2015 per capita execution rate was nearly two and a half times that of Saudi Arabia. In 2014, it was three times as high. The gravity of Iran’s human rights abuses does not absolve Saudi Arabia from any criticism of its own practices. It does, however, raise questions about fairness and impartiality. Since 2012, the Times has printed at least five editorials directly criticizing Saudi Arabia’s record on executions. The Post has published at least four. During that same time frame, Iran’s wholesale execution of its political opponents, including the Islamic Republic’s brutal persecution and killing of its ethnic Arab minority in Ahvaz, is barely mentioned in their editorials. Why is that?
Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia did not condemn fourteen men to die for voicing a dissenting viewpoint or, as the Times and the Post suggest in the case of al-Sweikat, “attending political protests,” but for violent crimes—in this case, specifically, the wounding and killing of security personnel. Even in instances of overt violence against the state and its people, the Saudi government goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid shedding its citizens’ blood. The reasoning is practical; in a tribal society, execution can inflame a much wider constituency of people, which can sometimes invite retaliation and, consequently, cause more bloodshed. This applies to Shia’a as well as Sunni citizens. This is, however, a system with limits.
Saudi Arabia is a country under severe geopolitical stress. For decades, the Kingdom has been targeted by both Sunni jihadist and radical Shia’a groups backed by Iran. It is important to remember that between 2003 and 2006, Saudi Arabia’s security forces fought an existential battle against the Sunni extremists of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s successor, ISIS, continues to target the Kingdom. For all of the press coverage Saudi Arabia’s January 2016 conviction of five Iranian-backed Shia’a extremists, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, received, it is forgotten that these individuals were executed alongside forty-three Sunni jihadists.
Severe stress can have a deleterious impact on even the strongest judicial systems in the most advanced countries. In the 1980s, a wave of attacks by the Irish Republican Army against the British government led the latter to suspend jury trials, target Irish Catholics for mass arrests, and ban prominent Sinn Féin leaders from the airwaves. In the aftermath of the horrors of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration detained nearly eight hundred suspected enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay, a detention facility structured specifically to exist outside the formal national boundaries of the United States and outside US standards of due process.
As has been well-documented by both the Times and the Post, many of Guantanamo’s “enemy combatants” were detained under questionable circumstances, kidnapped by Afghan bounty hunters targeting any Arabic speaker they could locate. Once turned over to the United States, these individuals were subjected to “harsh interrogation techniques” or transferred via illegal renditions to other countries, where they were subjected to torture and often death by the security services of allied governments. Most of those imprisoned languished for years despite never being formally charged. In all, just five men have been put on trial for crimes related to the planning and/or execution of the 9/11 attacks.
Saudi Arabia has not faced an attack on the scale of 9/11. We have, however, been fighting a war on our home soil for the better part of two decades. This war has claimed the lives of hundreds of citizens, expatriates, and security personnel, and may yet claim many more.
When the United States was attacked, it threw its rule book out the window. It took many years to put that rule book back together (even today, forty-one prisoners remain in Guantanamo). Saudi Arabia is not as advanced as the United States. Our rule book would still be a work in progress even if we were not currently caught in the crosshairs of both Sunni jihadists and Iran and its extremist allies.
Given that we are fighting a war on two fronts, our legal and judicial shortcomings are unique neither among developing states nor among advanced nations that have faced similar extraordinary challenges. The Post and the Times would do well to consider that before singling out Saudi Arabia for the harshest condemnation in their editorials.