Saudi Arabia: Between Reforms and Repression

Lorenzo Pierangelini
Latest posts by Lorenzo Pierangelini (see all)
The “New Kingdom” in Saudi Arabia has been received with mixed signals by the international community. Source: The New Arab

On the 27th April 2020, Saudi Arabia abolished the death penalty for minors. The Gulf country, according to data provided by Amnesty International, ranked third in the list of states with the most death sentences executed in 2019, behind only China and Iran.

In the Saudi State, the death penalty is applied through a rigid version of Shari’a deriving from the Wahhabi conception of Islam widespread in Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative and extremist forms of the Muslim faith. The death penalty is inflicted against crimes such as rape and murder, but also against homosexuality (considered a crime in the Saudi kingdom) and apostasy.

This measure is part of a broader plan to modernise the country, devised by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the country’s strong man and current Defence Minister, known internationally by the acronym MBS.

In 2016 he launched the “Saudi Vision 2030” plan: an ambitious project aiming to bring the Saudi Kingdom to modernity, and freedom from its dependence on the oil industry. It further plans to invest important resources in other sectors, such as tourism, renewable energy and public assistance, but also foresees a substantial increase in the funds allocated to armaments.

Here you can consult the main policy goals of the Saudi Vision 2030. Source: Saudi Embassy for Italy

The modernization process is also directed at Saudi society; for example, from 2018, women are allowed to drive and participate as an audience member in sporting events. However, these measures contribute only fractionally to solving the very serious gender gap issue in Saudi Arabia.

The prevailing aim of these measures is to clean up the country’s image in the Western media, and make Saudi Arabia more attractive to investors and tourists; an image which, however, continues to be polluted by increasingly mysterious news stories. From the Khasshoggi case, the Saudi journalist killed in his country’s embassy in Istanbul, to the recent arrest of three members of the royal family, among whom accused of treason includes the former Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef; over both cases hovers the figure of MBS, committed to getting rid of opponents and competitors.

Saudi Arabia today seems to be torn by great contradictions, from facade reforms to an increasingly consolidated regime on the figure of MBS.

  • How strong will MBS’s grip on the country be?
  • Will it be willing to sacrifice the image of the Saudi Kingdom to consolidate its power?
  • What will be the attitude of the Gulf country’s historic allies, especially the United States?

Recommended readings

Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia: Death penalty reform for minors falls short, and total abolition must now follow

ISPI, Arabia Saudita: Modernizzazione e dominio regionale

New York Times, Saudi Prince Detains Senior Members of the Royal Family

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Saudi Arabia: Between Ref…

by Lorenzo Pierangelini time to read: 2 min