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Why has the government of Saudi Arabia executed 81 people?

March 12, 2022 marked the largest mass execution in the country for years and has been criticized by human rights groups around the world.

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Media Ministry on March 8, 2022 shows Saudi Arabia's King Salman Abdulaziz (C) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) receiving Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Riyadh.
HO/Saudi Media MinistryAFP

The execution of 81 men in Saudi Arabia in a single day has sent alarm bells ringing for statesmen hoping to court the state for their oil supplies. The huge number dwarves the 67 and 27 executions reported during in the entirety 2021 and 2020 respectively. It had been thought that the Saudi state was on the way to a more liberal outlook, as the infamously repressive state allowed women to drive for the first time amongst other reforms.

The Interior Ministry published the names and crimes of the 81 men, with crimes ranging from “monitoring and targeting officials and expatriates," to "killing police officers, and planting landmines."

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has been released from prison in Saudi Arabia after serving a 10-year sentence for advocating an end to religious influence on public life, his wife told AFP.
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Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has been released from prison in Saudi Arabia after serving a 10-year sentence for advocating an end to religious influence on public life, his wife told AFP.Kenzo TriboulliardAFP

Saudi Arabia’s mass execution of 81 men this weekend was a brutal show of its autocratic rule, and a justice system that puts the fairness of their trials and sentencing into serious doubt. The shocking callousness of their treatment is compounded by the fact that many families found out about their loved ones’ deaths just like the rest of us, after the fact and through the media.

Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

The first country that will be appealing to the Saudis over the executions is the United Kingdom, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be visiting the country at the weekend.

We continue to raise human rights issues with other countries including Saudi Arabia. We will be raising Saturday’s executions with the government in Riyadh”, a spokesperson said.

But what nations who want to correct Saudi Arabia's actions can practically do is hampered by two facts; the need for Saudi energy supplies at this time, and their own complicity in supporting a regime which is against all of the values their supporters claim to profess.

A renewed focus on Saudi Arabia in wake of Ukraine war

The war has put the Saudis in a very advantageous position. Europe and the US are attempting to wean themselves off of Russian oil, meaning Saudi Arabia and its vast oil reserves are likely to have plenty of new customers. The economic necessity of the energy means their bargaining power with the Saudi regime is reduced.

This resumed focus on the Gulf state should bring its role in Yemen under the microscope. The Saudi army has been involved in the civil war since 2015, a war that has left 20.7 million people in need of humanitarian aid and over 100,000 dead. There is a serious famine risk, further exacerbated by the lack of exports from Ukraine, one of the world's biggest food producers.

The Saudi war effort has been characterised by a large number of civilian deaths under airstrikes. In the last eight months alone, more than 2,378 civilians have been reported to be killed in Saudi Arabian airstrikes. But with nations like the UK and US supporting the Saudis through arms sales, there is a complicity with the west over these potential war crimes. Why should Yemen be treated any differently to Ukraine?