Our Friends in Riyadh

Why Saudi Arabia Gets Away With Murder

The kingdom is set to execute a young man for participating in the Arab Spring as a 17-year-old—and the Obama administration has admitted it’s not going to do a thing about it.

10.09.15 5:00 AM ET

An Islamic regime in the Middle East may soon behead a young man and hang his corpse up for display. ISIS? Iran? No—America’s ally Saudi Arabia. And because it’s the Saudis, the Obama administration’s silence has been deafening.

In 2012, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was a 17-year-old pro-democracy activist in the Arab Spring. After harsh government crackdowns, protests turned violent, particularly in Qatif, a majority-Shiite region in majority-Sunni Saudi Arabia. Al-Nimr was arrested, along with others, and charged, at first, with relatively low-level political crimes related to the protests, such as “going out to a number of marches, demonstrations, and gatherings against the state and repeating some chants against the state.”

But then al-Nimr’s uncle, a prominent Shiite cleric, began giving fiery sermons against the regime. He, too, was arrested, on more serious charges of inciting sectarian strife, aiding terrorists, and “insulting Gulf leaders and scholars.”

Suddenly, the younger al-Nimr’s charges were increased as well, to include the capital crimes of attacking police and sheltering criminals. According to al-Nimr’s father, the teen was tortured until he confessed, and he was subsequently sentenced to death.

Contrary to some reports, the exact method of execution has not yet been determined. Beheading is the most common—compared to ISIS, Saudi Arabia beheads people relatively mercifully, by sword—but firing squads and even stoning have occasionally been used.

For egregious crimes, the criminal’s beheaded body is hung up for display. This gruesome possibility has led many media outlets to describe al-Nimr’s sentence as “crucifixion,” which is inaccurate but has fed a right-wing media frenzy nonetheless.

Methods notwithstanding, 2015 has already been a bloody year for capital punishment in Saudi Arabia. Well over 100 people have been put to death so far this year, and 175 in the last 12 months. As The Daily Beast reported in June, the majority of the condemned have been foreigners. The crimes range from secular ones like drug trafficking and murder to religious ones like witchcraft (!) and adultery.

Al-Nimr would, however, be the first solely political prisoner to be executed in Saudi Arabia in some time—and based on flimsy evidence, an allegedly coerced confession, and acts of political dissidence committed when he was 17. How could such a thing happen, without a peep of protest from the United States?

Because it’s Saudi Arabia.

As outrageous as killing a kid for political activism may be, al-Nimr is just the latest collateral damage in our long, troubling marriage of convenience with the House of Saud. We need the Saudis for the fight against ISIS, for oil, and for providing some semblance of stability in the most unstable region on the planet. As my colleague Michael Tomasky wrote in January, we’re stuck with Saudi Arabia, because as bad as the Saudis are, the alternatives are worse.

All of this makes perfect sense in the world of realpolitik. It does little, though, to help al-Nimr.

Adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia was just named to a UN Human Rights panel—only a subsidiary committee, and part of a regionally based rotation, but outrageous nonetheless given the country’s appalling human rights record.

That record includes not just al-Nimr but an entire cast of young, idealistic political prisoners, including Raif Badawi, the blogger who has so far been lashed 50 times, out of a sentence of 1,000, for “insulting Islam,” and Dawoud al-Marhoon, whose case, according to one human rights group, is almost identical to al-Nimr’s.

Arguably, as Tomasky speculated, the situation may change. Conceivably, the Iran deal may herald a shift in American policy or perhaps a rebalancing of the Sunni-Shia dynamic, with Iranian-backed militias leading the fight against ISIS. But in the meantime, Saudi Arabia is the lesser of two evils, and so the United States puts up with just about anything the regime does.

That is why one of the few U.S. government statements on al-Nimr’s case, at a press briefing last week by State Department spokesman Mark Toner, was a classic instance of diplomatic waffle. Asked about the UN appointment in the context of al-Nimr’s plight, Toner first denied knowing about him at all. Then Toner said he had nothing to add to existing State Department reports on Saudi Arabia. Finally, he said,

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“We have a strong dialogue, obviously a partnership with Saudi Arabia that spans, obviously, many issues. We talk about human rights concerns with them. As to this leadership role, we hope that it’s an occasion for them to look at human rights around the world but also within their own borders.”

Well, we hope so, too. But the equivocation and toothlessness in Toner’s statement sends an unmistakable message: We’re not going to do anything at all, and we admit it.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been more candid and more forceful, saying on Tuesday that “Of course it would be easier for me to say, ‘I’m not having anything to do with these people, it’s all terribly difficult et cetera et cetera.’ For me, Britain’s national security and our people’s security comes first.”

Still, Cameron said, “We have raised this as a government. The foreign secretary has raised this, our embassy has raised this…I will look to see if there is an opportunity for me to raise it as well.”

Of course, “raising” an issue is also rather toothless.

The Saudi regime’s position is equally understandable. This is a clan-led monarchy propped up by petrodollars, clinging to power in the context of regional instability, ISIS (which has drawn thousands of fighters from Saudi Arabia), Iranian power, a conflict in Yemen, and a trough in global oil prices. Those factors have caused the regime to tighten up in general and on Shiite “separatists” like al-Nimr’s uncle in particular.

Besides, the Saudis can say, look at what happened when autocratic regimes fell in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and Syria: chaos and extremism. The Arab Spring has given way to an Islamist winter.

So it has been left to the United Nations to condemn the pending execution, which it has done, also without impact. Anonymous has promised revenge. There are petitions online, and a hashtag, #mohammedalnimr.

Will any of this matter? Unlikely. Saudi King Salman holds al-Nimr’s fate his hands; all he has to do is commute the sentence. But while many in the West would argue that a government is stronger when it tolerates dissent, Saudi Arabia has shown, time and time again, that it believes itself to be stronger when it quashes dissent.

And any young idealists who get in the way.