top of page
  • Sujena Soumyanath

Mass Execution in Saudi Arabia Further Threaten US-Saudi Relations

On March 12, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Interior announced that the country had experienced the largest known mass execution in its modern history. The execution left 81 men dead over the course of 24 hours.

In a matter of 24 hours, Saudi Arabia committed the largest known mass execution in its modern history. The killings, which were announced by the Ministry of Interior on March 12, resulted in 81 men dead — 73 of which were Saudi Arabian, seven Yemeni, and one Syrian.

According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), which is a state-run media source, the men were “convicted of various crimes, including the murdering of innocent men, women and children.” The SPA also cited “allegiance to foreign terrorist organisations, such as ISIS [ISIL], al-Qaeda and the Houthis,” as justification for the executions.

Saudi Arabia’s execution of the 81 continues a recent increase in the use of death penalty in the kingdom. Easily surpassing the 63 executions committed in January of 1980 after a militant attack, March’s figure also dwarfs the number of government-sanctioned killings in 2021 and 2020, which were 67 and 27, respectively.

Despite the SPA’s conviction that “The accused were provided with the right to an attorney and were guaranteed their full rights under Saudi law during the judicial process,” human rights organizations were quick to condemn the Kingdom’s legal processes and heavy use of the death penalty, as well as how these executions contradicted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's claims that legal reforms were underway.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “some of those executed were sentenced to death following trials that did not meet fair trial and due process guarantees.”

Additionally, the UN voiced concern that Saudi Arabia’s extremely broad definition of terrorism could be used to criminalize freedom of expression or assembly.

A report from Amnesty International confirmed this fear, citing that at least two of the men had been executed for participating in anti-government protests. One of the two, As’ad Ali, told Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court that he was subjected to physical and emotional torture, solitary confinement, and denied medical assistance for his extensive injuries. Further, he testified that his “confession” was elicited using torture.

Beyond just drawing criticism for its heavy-handed and concentrated use of the death penalty, a practice the United Nations has classified as “incompatible with fundamental tenets of human rights and dignity,” the mass execution has also raised questions about the demographics involved.

Activists from groups like the U.S.-based Institute for Gulf Affairs and Democracy for the Arab World Now estimate over 36 of the 81 killed were Shiite muslims. Shiities — who largely live in the kingdom’s Eastern Province — are a minority group in Saudi Arabia and have long been at odds with the government, claiming discrimination and a lack of political representation. In January of 2016, among the 47 beheaded by the Saudi Arabian government in another mass execution, one was an influential Shiite cleric who led opposition protests in favor of Shiite rights in the kingdom. Similarly, in 2019, a majority of the 37 Saudi citizens executed for alleged crimes related to terrorism were Shiites.

Given the Kingdom’s pattern of using terrorism charges to target Shiite opposition movements through mass executions, Amnesty International called the strong Shiite presence in March’s 81 killings “the latest demonstration of Saudi Arabia’s politicized use of the death penalty to silence dissent in the Eastern Province.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo Source: Middle East Monitor

The mass execution also targeted backers of Yemeni Houthi rebels. Since 2015, a Saudi-backed coalition has been fighting these rebels in Yemen, trying to reinstate the internationally-recognized government in the region. The ongoing struggle has created one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, sparking condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s war crimes in the region.

The presence of Yemeni rebels and Shiite muslims among the 81 men executed suggests a political and strategic motive to the executions beyond the simple security measures argued by Saudi Arabian officials. It has also reminded the international community of the kingdom’s history of human rights abuses, many of which are linked to March’s massacre.

For example, in 2018, U.S. based journalist Jamal Kashoggi was killed in a Turkish consulate by Saudi Arabian forces. Kashoggi was a prominent critic of Saudi Arabia, leading many to suspect political motives for his murder. As a result, the event led to international outcry, multiple western countries levying sanctions against Saudi Arabia and a diplomatic crisis between the kingdom and the United States.

Despite the 81 executions being the latest — and in many ways most deadly — of the human rights abuses populating Saudi Arabia’s track record, recent developments have muted the international community’s response. Chiefly, Russian president Vladmir Putin’s invasion into Ukraine on February 24 has made western forces reluctant to break ties with Saudi Arabia. Russia is the second largest producer of crude oil in the world, with Europe alone paying around $382 million for the important resource. But as countries seek to counter Russia’s internationally condemned invasion of Ukraine, their proposed method of sanctions is being counteracted by the large sums of money directed towards Russian oil.

As a result, western governments have turned to Saudi Arabia to increase its spare oil production, hoping to wean the world economy off of Russian oil. Both U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson have asked the kingdom to pump more oil.

Maya Foa, director of legal charity Reprieve, said of these negotiations, “Mohammed Bin Salman is betting that the West will look away because it would rather fund his blood-soaked petro-state than Putin’s war machine.”

Western dependence on Saudi oil as a way to punish Russia does seem to be pushing world leaders closer to the kingdom, despite its human rights abuses. What is more, the otherwise random timing of the mass executions lends credence to Foa’s argument that Salman, the prince of Saudi Arabia, is capitalizing on the West’s pleas to get away with the kingdom’s latest act of political violence.

Yet, the United States has been navigating the tenuous balance between condemning Saudi Arabia’s decidedly un-democratic practices while sharing its security interests and economic resources for a long time. The Trump Administration held a close relationship with Riyadh characterized by personal dealings and outward support of the Saudi offensive in Yemen. Kashoggi’s murder, however, put a strain on these relations by making the U.S. government more critical of Saudi Arabia’s actions. The strategic importance of Saudi Arabia to the U.S. became overshadowed by the political liability of the kingdom’s human rights abuses.

When President Biden entered office, he planned to shift the relationship to be more pragmatic, which involved raising concerns over these violations. However, he still stressed the importance of the traditional tradeoff between the two countries — U.S. arms in return for security collaborations in the Middle East. This awkward balance between maintaining the Saudi-American “vital relationship” and calling out the kingdom manifested itself again on March 14.

When asked whether the U.S. had communicated with Saudi Arabia following the mass executions, a U.S. State Department spokesperson stated, "We are continuing to raise concerns about fair trial guarantees," but declined to mention when, or if, that communication had ever taken place with Riyadh. Evidently, condemnation has been precluded by western requests for an Arabian solution to the global dependence on Russian oil — requests that, thus far, have been denied by Salman.

For the 81 men executed under contentious justification, the Ukraine conflict has put an effective clamp over the amount of international outcry their deaths will draw. This was evident in Johnson’s visit to Saudi Arabia after the killings, where he praised the kingdom for its improving human rights record and discussed increasing Saudi oil production.

For the United States, however, this clamp of restraint may not be able to hold under the expansive pressure of human rights abuses, geopolitical tensions, and a relationship that has “been in a downward spiral since immediately after 9/11.” The crown prince is already declining Biden’s calls and leveraging his strategic advantage. Once a potential world war is no longer able to overshadow the cracks in Saudi-American strategic relations, the tense relations could erupt.


bottom of page