Saudi Arabia executed 81 men on Saturday in what was the kingdom’s largest mass execution in its modern history. The number is astounding when you consider that Saudi Arabia executed 67 people in all of 2021 and 27 in 2020. The number is even higher than the 63 people Saudi Arabia executed in January 1980 after they were convicted of seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca a year earlier.
It was far from clear why Saudi Arabia chose Saturday to execute so many people, including 73 Saudis, seven Yemenis, and one Syrian. The state-run Saudi Press Agency said the men executed included people who were “convicted of various crimes, including the murdering of innocent men, women and children.” It also said some of those killed had pledged “allegiance to foreign terrorist organizations,” including ISIS and al-Qaida. “The accused were provided with the right to an attorney and were guaranteed their full rights under Saudi law during the judicial process, which found them guilty of committing multiple heinous crimes that left a large number of civilians and law enforcement officers dead,” the Saudi Press Agency said.
The number of executions being carried out in Saudi Arabia had declined during the pandemic. But these latest executions took place at a time when Saudi Arabia may be feeling as if it has a lot of leverage on the world stage as energy prices surge as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reportedly planning a trip to Saudi Arabia next week to discuss oil prices.*
Several international rights groups criticized the executions. “There are prisoners of conscience on Saudi death row, and others arrested as children or charged with non-violent crimes. We fear for every one of them following this brutal display of impunity,” Reprieve, a London-based group, said in a statement. Saudi Arabia is fifth in a list compiled by Amnesty International of the countries with the highest execution rates in the world in 2020 after China, Iran, Egypt, and Iraq.
Correction, March 14, 2022: This post originally misspelled Boris Johnson’s last name.