4 January, 2016

The Saudis have made themselves even more unpopular after decapitating or shooting 47 prisoners last week. Critics are calling them, “the white ISIS.”

The men, Sunni and Shia, had been convicted of “terrorism,” belonging to al-Qaida, drug offenses, or membership in proscribed Shia groups. All but two of them were Saudi citizens.

Most prominent among the victims was a well-known Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr whose crime, it seems, was having called for democratic elections in feudal Saudi Arabia and rights for its Shia minority, about 15% of the population. Last year, the Saudis executed 157 prisoners, mostly by cutting off their heads.

China is the world’s leader in executions. Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Singapore rank high. In the western world, Texas is still lord high executioner, with 13 prisoners killed last year.

The death penalty is banned across most of Europe. In Russia, it has been suspended. However, Muslim independence fighters in southern Russia are routinely gunned down without any legal due process.

The Saudi monarchy has long used the public death penalty as a means of repressing dissent and efforts to end or reform its feudal system. Government opponents and members of the kingdom’s Shia minority are routinely framed and face kangaroo courts. Many political opponents are accused of drug crimes and executed. The kingdom’s restive Shia minority, which looks to Iran, has been largely kept in line by draconian punishments. The same applies to neighboring Bahrain, a Saudi protectorate.

Saudi Arabia’s principal method of execution still remains the sword, though firing squads are being more frequently used. Decapitation by sword is a traditional method of execution in Arabia and certainly serves as a disincentive to observers, as it is intended.

Decapitation is supposed to be swift and only briefly painful – provided it is done professionally and flawlessly. Unfortunately, it is often bungled and becomes a horrible torture.

Reading the fascinating memoires of Sanson, France’s royal executioner, we learn that decapitations by sword and ax more often than not required numerous blows, while the victim screamed in terror and agony. Neck muscles go rigid, hair gets in the way, and victim’s instinctively contract their necks, making the task all the more difficult.

As a result, a French scientist, who opposed the death penalty, Dr Guillotine, designed a rapid killing machine that he believed would be painless and swift. His machine, the guillotine, became the primary means of execution during the French Revolution. France used the guillotine until 1977. Germany also used it during World War II.

Electrocution can be worse than mechanical decapitation. The victim is often burned alive or fried by high voltage. The gas chamber also a primitive form of killing. Chemical execution, now favored in the US and even China, is also an often unpredictable means of killing, and can be very painful.

So is hanging, if not expertly done. Most victims slowly strangle to death over 10-20 minutes. When Saddam Hussein was lynched in Iraq, his head was ripped off his body. His Shia and American jailers may have done this one purpose.

This leaves the old-fashioned bullet in the back of the head – the favored method of Soviet executioners. Shooting, by pistol, rifle or firing squad, has always seemed to me the most reliable method of execution.

But the Saudis, who have one of the world’s biggest military arsenals, still prefer their scimitars. They appear to believe they are following ancient Arab custom and Koranic justice, but the rest of the world is appalled by such brutal behavior.

Equally important, the executions undermine plans by the new Saudi monarch, King Salman, and his hot-headed son, 30-year old Prince Mohammed, to become the dominant political and military force in the Mideast, under US tutelage, of course. A major power struggle is underway in the Saudi royal family between the Salman camp and the much more cautious old guard.

The Saudi invasion of Yemen, and support for rebels in Syria and Iraq, may yet prove a grave mistake that threatens the very future of the sword-wielding desert kingdom.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2016

This post is in: Iran, Saudi Arabia


  1. Allan Eizinas says:

    When Canada first decided to get involved in Afghanistan, I decided to get ahead of the curve and study the area. Read Eric’s fine analysis and those of Janet Stein. Did some on my own learning about the particulars of climate, geography, demography, history etc.

    I am not the sharpest knife in this drawer but it was obvious (even to me) that our involvement was a mistake. Subsequently learned about some of the discussion by our Cabinet at the time – they were pretty clueless as to Afghanistan was all about. I was appalled by the lack of knowledge of people making the important decisions. At the time, Eric seemed to be the only one with the background and experience but was treated as an anti-American chicken little – what a mistake!!

    Found this web site and am now an avid reader. I miss your wisdom that you used to share on TVO. I hope that you have not given up.

    Keep up the good work.

    Is it your perception that those in charge in Canada should have known a little more about that part of the world or did they know and still made those disastrous moves for political reasons?

    • M Shannon says:

      The Canadian goal in Afghanistan was participation not victory. The past Libyan and current Iraq mission had similar aims.

      Joining in brought a flood of new cash and equipment for the CF, improved PR, medals, closer integration with the US military, a “seat at the table” for diplomats and politicians (and photo ops), ticket punching, and the chance to discard peacekeeping.

      Most of the goals were actually Ottawa-centric and had nothing to do with what was occurring in Kandahar.

      When the goals had been achieved- public displays of support for the troops in Canada, billions in new defence spending, new Chinook helicopters, tanks, drones and howitzers, and at least one campaign medal for most members of the army etc. Canada “cut and run” to use Stephen Harper’s phrase to describe what he said he wouldn’t do. This could be the only example in history of a state ending a war on schedule.

      As time goes on it’s clearer that Canada’s training, governance and development activities were a farce and although it seems to have won a few skirmishes the Taliban are as big a menace to the GOA as the day the Canadian battle group got to Kandahar.

      It might seem that “strategic analysis” might point the way to explain why the GOC acts as it does but the real place to look for answers is the personal ambitions of the generals, politicians and diplomats in Ottawa.

  2. The fact there is discontent amongst the Saudi population about their rulers is no secret, including rifts in the royal family itself after the current King Salman broke tradition by appointing his son as next in line to the throne, who also only happens to be 30.

    Stories of largesse and deviant behavior of debauchery amongst many Saudi royals that would land an ordinary Saudi in jail or even executed, underscore the unpopularity of monarchy-based systems and draconian governance, where rulers are above the law.

    The current king is old school and has chosen to revert to the century-old era of ruling through intimidation and fear, not recognizing a changed world in the information age of today. People are unified and capable of creating massive change when they can express their voices discreetly. We witnessed this in the Arab spring. Pushing back against this reality could prove treacherous for the Saudi monarchy.

    If current news sources are correct, Saudi Arabia is expected to run out of financial reserves in less than 5 years. With advances in alternative fuels as the future, the kingdom that relied on oil as the only main source of revenue is now scrambling to diversity it’s economy. Without oil and no alternative revenue source, Saudi Arabia will turn into another Yemen.

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