Saudi Arabia puts 81 people to death in kingdom's largest mass execution

Credit: AP
  • Words by ITV News Assistant News Editor Khadija Kothia 

Saudi Arabia has executed 81 people in the past 24 hours, the largest execution in the kingdom’s modern history, for crimes ranging from killings to alleged links to foreign terrorist groups.

Those executed included seven Yemenis and one Syrian who were convicted of crimes such as “allegiance to foreign terrorist organisations” and “the murdering of innocent men, women and children,” the state-run Saudi Press Agency announced on Saturday.

The death toll even surpasses the 1980 mass execution of the 63 militants who were convicted of seizing the Grand Mosque in 1979, the worst-ever militant attack to target the kingdom. 

It is not clear as to why the kingdom’s largest ever mass execution in its modern history took place on Saturday, though they came as much of the world's attention remained focused on Russia's war on Ukraine

Increasing oil prices around the world as a result of sanctions of oil-exporter Russia has also increased the West’s reliance on Saudi to produce more oil. 

“Perhaps Saudi Arabia feels that it has an advantage now against the West, and that they can push through their own policy and agenda without feeling inhibited,” says Dr Gohel, a terrorism analyst and guest lecturer at the London School of Economics. 

Dr Sajjan Gohel explains what the executions mean for Saudi Arabia and international peace

It is not clear who the victims are or where the executions took place and we are “unlikely to get more information unless there are leaks” due to the country’s “tightly controlled” government, says Dr Sajjan Gohel.

Mass killings are a common occurrence in Saudi Arabia, with many hundreds of killings taking place each year. The last announced mass killing came in January 2016 when the kingdom executed 47 people including a prominent opposition Shiite cleric.

The kingdom also beheaded 37 Saudi citizens in 2019 for alleged terrorism-related crimes. 

Why has this mass execution taken place now?

While the government claims the executions are a counter-terrorism measure against members of al-Qaida, the Islamic State group and also backers of Yemen's Houthi rebels, “it also comes down to how Saudi Arabia terms terrorism,” Dr Gohel says.

Many accused of terrorism are from minority groups such as Shiites or government protestors. 

The executions continue as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has increasingly tried to push a more liberal image of Saudi Arabia by opening movie theatres and allowing women to drive. 

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Credit: AP

US intelligence agencies, however, believe the crown prince also ordered the slaying and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, while overseeing airstrikes in Yemen that killed hundreds of civilians. 

“It seems what Saudi Arabia wants under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is to reform but to do it under his own vision. He doesn't want there to be any enemies or perceived enemies, anyone who stands in his way,” says Dr. Gohel.

“But unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way. And there's often a bloody aftermath, literally, that occurs.”

As the West’s reliance on Saudi oil may increase as the war in Ukraine unfolds, “the West must always talk about these aspects of human rights and civil liberties, they cannot be forgotten,” Dr. Gohel says. 

Sanctions on Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich in the wake of his alleged links to Russian President Putin are also raising questions about the Saudi government’s financial involvement in the £305 million sale of Newcastle Football club to Saudi owners last year.

“We talk about how important human rights and civil liberties are in Ukraine, and rightly so we have to hold the same standard to other countries as well, especially if those countries are talking about reforming and modernising.

“There are other problems that are taking place around the world. And if we take our eyes off those, then there could be all kinds of accusations and issues about human rights and civil liberties being curtailed, are ostensibly under the banner of security.”