Saudi Arabia bases its legal system on the code of ethics laid down by Muhammad in the Qur’an and the hadith literature. As such, among the nations of the world, it is perhaps the single greatest abuser of human rights.
Consider the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi citizen and father of three. Since 2013, Raif has been serving a brutal prison sentence for challenging the supremacy of shari’ah. He was convicted on charges on apostasy and sedition, and initially sentenced to 7 years imprisonment and 600 lashes. This was increased in 2014 to 10 years and 1,000 lashes, with the first round being administered in January 2015. These lashes were so severe that the remainder have since been suspended, for it is believed that Raif will not be able to survive them. Indeed, Raif’s physical condition is known to have deteriorated over the past 5 years, with his mental health also in a dire state.
Recognising this, the civilised world has been unanimous in calling for Raif’s release, whose only crime has been to expound the virtues of secularism and to call out human rights abuses in the Kingdom. Indeed, for people of conscience, the fact that Saudi women can now drive takes nothing away from the barbarity of the regime. Just look at what they are doing in Yemen: bombing the country into oblivion, using white phosphorus – sold to them by the United States – to exterminate the minority Houthi population. This is on top of the stonings, the beheadings, the hangings and the amputations facing those who run afoul of shari’ah at home.
While many in the Western press fawn over Muhammad bin Salman, the fact is that under his rule, the repression of activists and journalists has only increased. In September 2017, dozens of Saudi clerics, writers and academics were rounded up on Salman’s orders, many of whom now face the death penalty. Since May of this year, several prominent women’s rights activists have also been imprisoned. And of course, we are obliged to mention the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a vocal critic of the Saudi regime. Thus, with any action taken by the Saudis, our default position should be to suspect foul play. As Patrick Cockburn noted in the early days of the Syrian war:
The line-up of the Syrian government’s opponents should make it clear to anybody that there is more at stake here than Arab and international concern for human rights. The lead is being taken by Saudi Arabia – its repressive regime one of the few absolute monarchies left on the planet. In March, it sent 1,500 troops into Bahrain to crush protests very similar to those in Syria. Unstinting support was given by the Saudis to the Bahraini authorities as they tortured distinguished hospital consultants whose only crime was to treat injured protesters. Is it really conceivable that Saudi Arabia should be primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns?
What follows here is a sample study of the Saudi attitude to human rights. We have singled out four ongoing practices which encapsulate the medieval barbarism of the Kingdom. These are described in chilling detail by investigative journalist Robert Crew, author of The Beheading and Other Stories. In the book, Crew is scathing of both the state that proscribes beheadings and of the society that tolerates them, with many indulging in them as a spectator sport. We have abridged four of Crew’s essays here, for the sake of brevity. Before delving into them, however, let us examine how the Kingdom punishes young women for not wearing the veil in full:
Saudi Arabia’s religious police stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress, according to Saudi newspapers. In a rare criticism of the kingdom’s powerful ‘mutaween’ police, the Saudi media has accused them of hindering attempts to save 15 girls who died in the fire on Monday. About 800 pupils were inside the school in the holy city of Mecca when the tragedy occurred.
According to the Al-Eqtisadiah daily, firemen confronted police after they tried to keep the girls inside because they were not wearing the headscarves and abayas (black robes) required by the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam. One witness said he saw three policemen “beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya.”
The Saudi Gazette quoted witnesses as saying that the police – known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – had stopped men who tried to help the girls and warned “it is sinful to approach them”. The father of one of the dead girls said that the school watchman even refused to open the gates to let the girls out. “Lives could have been saved had they not been stopped by members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice”, the newspaper concluded.
Families of the victims have been incensed over the deaths. Most of the victims were crushed in a stampede as they tried to flee the blaze. The school was locked at the time of the fire – a usual practice to ensure full segregation of the sexes.
The religious police are widely feared in Saudi Arabia. They roam the streets enforcing dress codes and sex segregation, and ensuring prayers are performed on time. Those who refuse to obey their orders are often beaten and sometimes put in jail.
The Beheading and Other Stories
1. ‘The Beheading’
One day I ask myself, “Why don’t I go to a beheading?” I suppose that I have to witness one before leaving this wretched country and returning to London.
As an investigative journalist, I should not turn a blind eye to the darker side of life in this or any other part of the world. No point in shrinking from the ugly fact that alleged rapists and murderers are being publicly beheaded every week here, while I and others sleep soundly in our beds, and with a clear conscience. No point in ignoring the distressing reality that adulterous women are being stoned to death. Then there are the thieves having their hands chopped off. If people have to endure these barbaric and inhumane acts, the least that any sincere writer can do is witness them in order to convey to others their full horror and obscenity.
It is to be the first and last time that I shall see a public beheading with my own eyes and write about it. Not that I have to go very far to see one, because the hotel in which I am staying – the Omar Khayyam in downtown Jeddah, next-door to the souk – is adjacent to the square in which there are usually beheadings every Friday. I have been in the hotel for six months while heads have rolled outside, without giving them a second thought, because to give them a second thought would, of course, drive me in the direction of this Saudi blood sport, about which I have not yet been prepared to write. But now I am as ready as I shall ever be, so I am determined to do the ghastly deed.
A Saudi colleague says to me, “There will be another beheading this week. Black Abdullah is coming to town to execute somebody or other, who richly deserves to have his head chopped off, according to popular opinion.”
I enquire, “What crime has he committed?”
“Who knows? Who cares? Most people take the view that he must have done something perfectly dreadful if he is going to be beheaded. Rape or murder – one of the two – both are unacceptable in this country, where we do not pussyfoot around with such criminals, as you do in Britain. There hasn’t been much about it in the papers, naturally, just a short, tight-lipped announcement declaring the criminal’s guilt. The usual thing. But why don’t you go and see it? Everybody says that Abdullah is a master craftsman and I think it must be so, because a friend of mine once saw him at work with his cutlass, and tells me that he is absolutely superb – a real perfectionist, so masterful and precise. It puts my teeth on edge and sends shivers down my spine just to talk about it.”
My colleague laughs out loud. He has a fine sense of sarcasm, sharp as a razor. He is one of life’s piss-takers, always ready to wind people up for his own amusement. I like his style. He has forgotten to mention habitual stealing and blasphemy. One can be beheaded for those as well, but no matter.
“Rumour has it that once you’ve seen Black Abdullah doing his thing with a man’s head,” he drools theatrically, “you’ll never want to watch anybody else. Since you are always complaining of boredom in this country, perhaps it will give you a lift to go and watch a beheading. Perhaps you should make it your business to watch one every week, as so many people do in this windswept city of ours. It might give you something to look forward to.”
“Very funny,” I reply, “you have such a dark and bitter-sweet sense of humour.”
“In this country, it’s a tool of survival, wouldn’t you say? How else can we live with ourselves?”
While my Arabian colleague, who is in his late thirties, tells me that he has seen plenty of beheadings over the years – since he was a young boy – he regrets that he has never seen the celebrated Black Abdullah doing his thing with his cutlass, although he has always dreamed of having the good fortune to do so. Young and old Arabians follow different executioners, just as their counterparts in the West follow champion boxers, footballers and pop stars. Executioners are their heroes and sometimes even their role models – the Muhammad Alis and Mike Tysons of the desert kingdom. Oh yes! A beheading by Abdullah is just what the doctor ordered for a young man who is bored out of his skull.
My colleague says, “Would you like me to use my influence to get you a balcony seat in one of the houses around the square where the beheading is to take place? People are paying a high price for overhanging balconies, but one of my friends may be able to smuggle you in free of charge.”
“No thanks. I think I shall prefer to stand in the crowd, so that I can slip away without notice if I suddenly decide that enough is enough. I may need to go off for a quick vomit.”
“Oh, surely not? I thought you English were made of sterner stuff. But one certainly feels the atmosphere so much better in the crowd, standing shoulder to shoulder with everybody else. It is so much more exciting, and one is not as coolly detached as those up in the balconies who view it from a respectable distance. Also, with so many high-born women allowed onto the balconies on these occasions, where they are free to remove their veils in order to have a clear view, there is always the complicated problem of which balcony to choose for the men, who must always be segregated and distanced from the women, of course; otherwise, they will be gazing at the women’s nakedly revealing faces and making eyes at them, instead of enjoying the spectacle of justice being done at 120 degrees in the shade. We can’t have white skins like you distracted by our gorgeous women and gazing into their eyes – full of sexually inviting Eastern promise!”
My colleague – who must remain nameless because he still resides in Saudi Arabia – really does have a fine wit and dry sense of humour. He is seldom unaware of life’s little ironies, so he is excellent company. But he is wrong about justice being done at 120 degrees in the shade. What shade? In the square where the heads will roll, there is no shade. It is the onlookers around the square who will have the benefit of shade in this ferociously hot country, but the poor wretch who will lose his head will lose it under a scorching and angry sun. If the executioner doesn’t chop his head off fast, the condemned man will probably die of sunstroke! Waiting for death at more than 120 degrees in the sun – waiting for the sunstroke express for a quick exit to heaven or hell – is no ordinary kind of waiting.
On the day of the beheading, I am shaded from the sun. I look out into the sun-drenched – soon to be blood-drenched – square adjacent to Jeddah’s Omar Khayyam Hotel, where a crowd has gathered to see a man’s head fall. I am waiting patiently for the condemned man to arrive, listening to the excited banter and chatter of people gossiping around me.
A hush suddenly falls on the crowd. But this is no ordinary hush. It has fallen like a bomb of monumental silence, one that is soon disturbed by a fleet of police patrol cars and motorcycles as they enter the square. With their sirens blaring, lights flashing and tyres screeching to a halt, this pack of police cars – snarling like motorised mad dogs – is all part of the carefully stage-managed high drama in the late-morning glare for hundreds of spectators, rapt in morbid fascination, as they gather in the square to enjoy a good beheading. Many will have stopped en route to their place of worship in the mosque, where they are due to offer up their prayers to Allah.
As the last car follows a solitary and unremarkable ambulance into the square through a cloud of dust, grinding to a ceremonious halt, the operatic scene is complete. Two armed policemen step out from the back of one of the cars with their criminal victim. They escort him to a central position, where he is to lose his precious head. Beady and gleeful eyes look out at him from the surrounding shade, glowing like burnt embers in a shadowy fire. Some people’s eyes are bursting with anticipation, popping out of their heads as if on adrenalin stalks. Others are set deep, smouldering and glaring.
Forcing their victim – who does not struggle as he goes meekly to his fate – onto his knees, the policemen tie his hands behind his back and then blindfold him. Had he been someone whose identity the police wished to conceal from the outset, for reasons best known to themselves, I am told that he would have appeared hooded. As they do this, the executioner suddenly emerges from the back seat of another police car and strides purposefully toward his prey, with his magnificent shiny cutlass in hand, glistening and shimmering in the hot sun, giving off cool reflections like golden butterflies flitting overhead.
A tall black man with king-size biceps, the executioner is powerfully built, with overdeveloped muscles shining in his own bright sweat as it trickles down his highly polished, ebony-black skin. He holds his head up high and his back erect, straight as an arrow. It is Black Abdullah, as my colleague has foretold, known throughout the desert kingdom as the best executioner in the land, capable of slicing a man’s head clean off his neck in one super-clean sweep, striking the neck at precisely the right angle – striking in the name of God – so that the head will fall precisely where it is intended to fall, on a spotless lily-white towel placed several feet ahead of the victim’s bowed head.
Some make a ghastly mess of this practice, too horrible to behold, as they hack away at a stubborn head that refuses to budge and separate from its neck. Others come close to getting it right, but never quite manage to perfect their art. Apparently, the head has to be struck at the right angle if it is not to roll down the victim’s chest and land in his lap. But Black Abdullah has not been known to fail, because he is a perfectionist who has studied and thought much about these macabre matters.
I notice a young Arabian man in the crowd with big brown eyes. He is riveted, morbidly drinking in all this blinding obscenity. He is keen not to miss out on any of the gory details, which are mirrored in his eyes as surely as they are imprinted on his immature young soul. The human eye, like the hand, is supposed to be the tool and symbol of God the Father, since it is all-seeing and affords God’s people the ability to distinguish between good and bad, ugliness and beauty, in this wicked world. But what a gruesome thing to do with such a precious gift. What an abuse of sight and a beautiful pair of eyes. What a shocking reminder that, if you live with your head down a drain, your eyes are of little use.
In the cheerful unsevered heads of the regulars in this crowd – yes, they are regulars, according to my Arabian colleague who has suddenly turned up to point them out to me – it is the evil eye that is at work here. They are protruding eyes, bursting their blood vessels; fanatically judgemental and bloodthirsty eyes that would, no doubt, love to see the eyes of others put out. They are deranged, psychopathic eyes, to remind us that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
According to my colleague, after the executioner has sliced off his victim’s head and landed it on target, he is expected to do one of two things. If the victim is particularly notorious and wildly hated, the executioner may sometimes hook the head on the tip of his cutlass and hold it high in the air for all to see, smiling and proudly beaming his satisfaction at the spectators, who may very well applaud and cheer by return, as the proud swordsman marches round the square displaying the severed head, just as the triumphant captain of a football team holds up a silver trophy to an admiring crowd.
But if the victim is a nobody, who is only averagely hated for his improperly tried crimes, then a medic simply takes the four corners of the towel and ties them in a pretty little bow at the centre, over the top of his severed head, before carrying this bloodstained parcel off and putting it in the back of the ambulance, while policemen scoop up the decapitated body and put that in the back as well.
And that is what happens on this occasion, after a wave of loud gasps from different sections of the crowd – as the head is lifted from its neck and flung through the air – and after there have been some stifled moans and groans at the revolting sight of a severed head being swatted like a fly by a highly polished cutlass. His was a live head in which, presumably, panic-stricken thoughts were still being created right up to the last moment, while life and/or death was quite possibly being imagined behind his blindfolded eyes and tightly clenched teeth.
The victim may well have been pissing himself with fear, because his was a living and precious head that was about to be severed, not some dead and dopey lump of meat, or cancerous growth that needed to be surgically removed. It had a brain with memory cells that had not forgotten how to remember – God knows what they could have been remembering at the point of death – as well as eyes that could still perceive beauty and shed tears, ears that still responded to sweet music, a nose that still knew how to sniff and to smell, a tongue that could still taste, and lips that could still smile and kiss.
A decapitated body and a lifeless severed head are all that are left – two bizarre and inanimate objects that have lost the magical power of life. But to whom is life precious on this occasion? Not to most people in this crowd, that’s for sure, but to the severed head’s owner certainly, and to his family, friends and loved ones, hopefully. Yet his head has been snapped off, just like that, as if it were the detachable head of a plastic doll, the leaden head of a toy soldier. And it is a revolting and sickening sight, this gory severed head that no longer belongs to its body.
My Arabian colleague explains that beheadings attract two kinds of spectator: those who turn out once and once only, in order to confirm the unbelievable, and others who frequently turn out to enjoy themselves and, in the case of fanatically moral bigots, to do what they consider to be their religious duty. As I scan the faces in the crowd, I can see that he is not wrong. There are troubled faces that will not return again, and there are remarkably untroubled smiling faces that will be back next time. Some of the laughter is probably that of nervous reaction and emotional release, but there is wicked bloodlust laughter here as well – buckets of it.
Most of those present have no difficulty psyching themselves up for self-righteous prayer afterwards, though a few do creep off in the direction away from the mosque. My Saudi Arabian colleague asks me, “Perhaps you will write a book one day, in which you can explain these atrocious and truly horrible matters?”
“I will do my best.”
“Remember to send me a copy, suitably disguised so that our snoopy customs officers and postal workers cannot confiscate it and report me to the police.”
“You would like to see a book written about the darker side of life in your country?”
“Oh yes. Our elitist leaders deserve to be shamed in the outside world when they are visiting, holidaying and getting themselves educated there. They should not be slowed to keep their dirty little secrets. We shall never get any legal or social reform – any real justice or truth – in this backward country of ours unless writers expose what is going on here and explain the full horror and barbarity of it. It needs to be carefully spelled out, because we shall never put a stop to these things unless we shame our rulers into it.”
My Saudi Arabian colleague has been schooled in the West, where he has graduated from university. He is quite well read, so I agree to show him what I write in due course. He tells me that there are rumours that it’s not only alleged murderers and rapists who are being beheaded. He has heard that the government is ridding itself of political dissidents in this way, pretending that they are murders and/or rapists, and he invites me to talk to exiled dissidents in London for further details.
“Do you believe that?” I ask.
“Of course. Our government is capable of anything. In the absence of trial by jury in this country, nobody has any idea whether the alleged murders and rapists are guilty of their crimes. There are no open courts in which lawyers and judges can get to the bottom of these things, and in which journalists can report on them. As you know, the press here publishes what the government tells it to publish. So we only have the word of our dodgy princes, holy men and police for the veracity of these alleged crimes. The authorities can always bully and bribe witnesses to say whatever they want them to say, and these witnesses are never challenged or cross-examined, so it’s anybody’s guess whether a so-called murderer or rapist is guilty or not. Some are bound to be, of course, but by no means are all those who lose their heads guilty.”
Shouldn’t the United Nations be concerned about this? Shouldn’t somebody do something about it? What if an atheist comes to the desert kingdom, without realising that he can have his head chopped off for apostasy?
2. ‘Women Are Always to Blame’
A distraught and hysterical woman, her anguished and petrified face hidden inside her burqa, is dragged shrieking from her home in an Arabian village where she has been ostracised. Her screams of terror fill the hot desert air. Hers are the paralysing shrieks of a woman fraught with fear, to ring in the ears of her neighbours and haunt them forever, to haunt us all forever.
Some neighbours have come out of their houses to watch as she is dragged through the streets, kicking and screaming, in the direction of the village square. She is taken by the strong arm of the law, in the form of two policemen with psychopathic grins on their faces, who easily overpower her. The woman is panic-stricken, as are those who are close to her, or feel for her even though they hardly know her. But we all know this woman; we can recognise her well enough, and we cannot fail to be concerned for her.
Not all of her neighbours turn out to watch. Some stay at home with their doors firmly locked, too ashamed to show their faces, too depressed and sickened by what is about to happen, unable to watch what they are powerless to prevent. They feel guilty for not daring to object, for letting her be dragged away to meet her death. They cannot bear to think about the disgusting nature of the death that awaits her. It is mind-boggling and beyond belief.
She does not deserve this – no one on earth deserves this – yet she is only the latest in a long line of women to suffer this fate, while the rest of the world just stood by. And that’s exactly what the rest of the world does – it just stands by. Perhaps it stands by in a dumbfounded outrage that it doesn’t quite know how to express. Perhaps it conveniently looks the other way and puts this woman out of sight and mind, because it cannot bring itself to watch what it feels powerless to do anything about.
Some of this woman’s neighbours do not regard her fate as unspeakable at all. On the contrary, they think that she richly deserves her treatment and intend to feast their eyes upon it, so they can talk and gossip about it for the rest of their lives. They will speak loudly of her sinful crime, which outrages them so much that they believe no punishment could be too cruel or terrible enough for her. You name it and she deserves it, in their view. They are without compassion or conscience, because to them, she is a piece of filth, a worthless slut who is no longer fit for decent male or female company.
The central square is cleared and swept clean for the occasion. All exits are blocked by policemen, and a pile of stones and rocks has been dumped in one corner of the square for members of the public to take their pick. Today, villagers are only allowed to enter if they are prepared to participate in the stoning, either as stone-throwers or as spectators who boo and hiss. The square is also wide and long enough for the woman not to be able to run very far before her pursuers catch up with her. If she runs at all, she will not get farther than a few yards at most. She will be quickly hunted down.
Her arrival is announced by her terrified screams and shrieks which can be heard from a distance, becoming louder as she and the policemen draw near, as she is dragged through the streets whilst others hold their breath. These women are victims of our own deafness – the deafness of a kingdom that does not wish to hear, and the deafness of the outside world that hears even less. They are the saddest and most tragic of all the ghosts that haunt the Arabian sands.
When the authorities cannot find enough people to stone an adulterous woman, they are happy to execute her with the aid of a tipper-truck instead, the back of which can be raised hydraulically from a horizontal to a near vertical position, in order to empty its contents from the back, letting them slide swiftly to the ground in an avalanche. Piled high with rocks and stones, these trucks are used to tip their contents onto adulterous women, positioned behind the vehicle in a crouching position, who are swiftly crushed to death.
Sometimes women are buried up to their necks in sand so that their heads can be stoned, or confined to a pit in which they can meet their fate. Some are stoned with smaller stones to ensure a slow death and to prolong their pain. Adulterous men, on the other hand, go entirely unpunished, for it is women, being prone to sinfulness, who are always to blame. So, when a woman is stoned to death for something as understandable as adultery, she feels a bruising and crushing sense of injustice along with the painful crushing of her own bones.
She also feels a terrible variety of fears. There is fear of pain that takes its time with her body, as one stone follows another, slowly butchering her, and there is also fear of being maimed, deformed, disfigured and mutilated. Then there is fear of being completely and utterly without help, without any hope of mercy, compassion or the basic human rights to which most of us are entitled. Added to all this is the fear of death itself, and it becomes an unbearable burden. The mental anguish and paralysing distress is as destructive as the stones and rocks.
In a world in which many countries are concerned about cruelty to animals – about cruelty to race horses owned by Arab princes – it is odd, to say the least, that there is such little concern over the brutal treatment of women in Saudi Arabia.
Suddenly the angry mob enters the square, following the two policemen who are dragging the despised and hysterical woman into it, while people shout abuse at her. And just as suddenly there is silence when the woman faints, collapsing on the ground. She is scooped up by the policemen and carried to the centre of the square where she is unceremoniously dumped, while the mob makes its way to the pile of rocks and stones that has been reserved for the occasion.
The woman does not regain consciousness, so there is something of an anti-climax, now that the mob is denied the high drama of the chase. She just lies there on the ground, with the hot and merciless sun beating down on her, as the unforgiving mob approaches, armed with its stones and rocks, while spectators also pour into the square. The policemen do nothing to revive the woman. Instead, they beckon the ground-level spectators to come closer, so that they can get a better view of her and the mob that is poised to stone her.
Then the policemen give the OK to kill her off, which the fanatical mob proceeds to do, taking it in turns to throw their stones and rocks at her at point-blank range, watching the gradual disfigurement and butchery of her body.
There are no more shrieks and screams. Only a few moans and groans, in addition to the sounds of her body being maimed and crushed: the soft thudding sounds of a melon being struck by a hammer as her head is repeatedly hit; the grinding and splintering sound of glass, or of a hard carrot being broken, as her skull, fingers, ribs, cheek and jaw bones are broken; the soft squashing and bursting sounds of tomatoes being thrown against a wall, as her skin and flesh disintegrate; the chopping sound of a woodcutter, as her neck and spine are slowly broken in several places; the squidge and crunch of vegetables in a blender, and the crunchy sounds of biscuits under a rolling pin, as all her remaining bones are pulverised.
Fortunately, she is spared the horrifying sight of seeing herself – since her eyes, if they are still open, are focused on the mob – but she can, no doubt, fleetingly imagine what she must look like, as the stones and rocks come at her from all directions, and what is left of her imaginings flash across her mind at the point of death.
But most of all, she can hear the sounds of her own destruction in her ears, as her body is torn apart. It is these sounds – along with the choking and gurgling sounds of her own blood, and the heavy breathing of her own fear – that she takes with her to the grave, as she wonders what on earth she could have done to deserve such a barbarous and inhumane fate, one that is as heartbreaking and gut-wrenching as it is bone-crushing.
The square is now empty. The crowd and the stone-throwers have dispersed and gone back to their homes, and the police have scooped up the remains of the woman’s body and tossed them into the back of a truck. The square will remain empty until the next time, as with all the other squares in the desert kingdom, where the outside world is not looking and does not dare to look.
3. ‘Thieves Are Always Handicapped’
I have never seen a man with a more hangdog expression than the one who lost his right hand outside the souk today, where a small crowd gathered to watch as his hand was painfully severed from his arm, above the wrist, and then taken away and tossed onto some scrapheap somewhere or other in this bizarre city.
I have never seen a man more mesmerised by his own hand, or a face so despairing of a system of justice that thinks nothing of chopping off a man’s hand for stealing on three occasions, that thinks nothing of making him bare his arm in public, stretched out on a sturdy table, serving as a chopping block, for an axe to fall upon it.
I have never seen a man so hypnotised by what was about to happen to him, whose attention and will were so psychologically paralysed by a single, horrifying thought.
Thieves in Saudi Arabia who steal three times or more are liable to have their hands chopped off; less prolific thieves and pickpockets are simply imprisoned where they are doubtless flogged. A man who steals only three times can lose his hand, and should his thieving become habitual – should he become a life-long thief, stealing, say 33 or 300 times – he can lose both hands if he is found out and convicted.
With common consent, the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a place like no other. It is the kind of place where you can be minding your own business, strolling through a souk and thinking about nothing in particular, when all of a sudden, you come upon a man who is having his hand amputated before a crowd of spectators, from which you can either avert your gaze, as you hurry away in the opposite direction, or you can stand and stare with everybody else, as astonishment and disbelief wash over you.
Listen: everybody agrees that thieves must be dealt with and punished. Of course they must. But the punishment must fit the crime, and nobody can convince me that amputating a man’s hand for the purpose of spectacle is a proper punishment for someone who may only have stolen on three occasions. In this day and age, such a punishment surely has no place.
But the desert kingdom is not in this day and age: rather, it is in another period of time entirely, a period where we have also been in our history, before we civilised ourselves out of it. But the Saudis show no sign of doing this anytime soon. For all their money, Western architecture and trendy designer clothes, most Saudis are still medieval under the skin. Their hearts are still medieval and they are very comfortable with this, these people of past and present with a foot in both camps, who can carry out this savagery completely with conscience.
The Saudis could stop these barbaric punishments tomorrow. But they choose not to do so because they do, as it happens, believe in them.
The thief in the souk is still waiting patiently to have his hand chopped off. And what is worse is that it will be his right hand. Of course, it is difficult to eat without one’s right hand, not only in Saudi Arabia, but anywhere else in the world, where eating with the left hand in the absence of the right can be a problem. But it is a much bigger problem in the desert kingdom, because people are not supposed to eat with their left hand, since the scriptures say that the left hand must be reserved for wiping one’s bottom, and not to be used for any other purpose.
Cutting off the hand that a thief uses for eating is a deliberate humiliation, well-calculated to remind him and others that he is unclean, a despised and stigmatised piece of filth, who must spend the rest of his life eating with his forbidden hand. The Saudis claim that, since he stole with his right hand, it is logical to take the right, but the trouble with this argument is that most thieves steal with both hands.
With his bare arm outstretched on the table, as he sat there in a chair guarded by policemen, I never saw a man looking more dismal, downcast and mournful, as he took a last look at his hand and studied his arm, so warm with life-giving blood and full of strength, so muscular and well-crafted, with skin that was about to be split and torn to the bone under a sharp axe, cutting its way through the ample flesh, veins and arteries, crushing and breaking the bone of his arm in two.
“What has he stolen?” I asked an English-speaking Saudi in the crowd.
“Some expensive watches”, he replied. “The police say they caught him in the act on the third occasion, and there is no doubt that he has stolen valuables on two previous occasions, from other shops. He is a very guilty man who has confessed to his crime, and from which he has profited very well on the black market. He must not be allowed to think that his crimes are not serious, because they are very serious indeed and will not be tolerated. We have a very low crime rate in this country, thanks in no small measure to the severity of our punishments. We do not take a lenient or philosophical view of criminals, as you do in your country.”
“How many watches has he stolen?” I enquired, “and how much did he make on the black market?”
“How much did he make?” he echoed in disbelief. “Who can tell? I don’t know. The police did not say.”
Suddenly a medic appears on the scene, together with an axe-man who immediately picks up the axe from the table and examines its cutting edge. I wondered whether the man would be given a pain-killing injection, or a tranquiliser as happens in some instances, but apparently not on this occasion, because I could see no such medication. I wondered whether they would blindfold the poor devil to spare him the ghastly and hideous sight of his own arm being severed above the wrist, of his own blood spurting and spitting in his face, as his hand was cast to one side. Maybe they wanted him to see his own blood, to see how easily they detached his thieving hand from his arm, who knows.
There are bandages aplenty on a second table, so the seem well-equipped to patch him up afterwards. But how will this man endure it all? Will he faint when or before the axe falls? Will he grit his teeth and get through it all, as he wavers between indifference and fear, relying on the former to overcome the latter? If only someone would give him an anaesthetic, but there is seemingly no hope of that. If only his minders would comfort him in some way. On the contrary, the police are laughing at him – laughing to hide their shame, perhaps, these miserable specimens of human beings, these cruel and callous men.
The convicted man clenches and unclenches his fist, curling and releasing his fingers like one trying to rid himself of pins and needles. The axe-man stands by, waiting to get this amputation over and done with. He shifts around and glances at the policemen for a sign from them to get on with it. Two of the policemen have gripped the thief firmly by his shoulders, while a third is ordering him to reach out and grip the far edge of the table and hold firmly to it.
I hear a loud gasp from the crowd as I force myself once more to witness the scene, and I see an axe falling precisely on target, and a hand severed under a shower of blood, and a man who has fainted.
Whether he fainted before or after the fall of the axe, I cannot tell. Clearly, he must be in a state of profound shock from this savage blow to his body – to his nervous system – and who is to say whether he has had a heart attack, or strained his heart muscles in some way as a result of the shock. But one thing is for sure: he will never be able to use his precious hand again.
4. ‘Institutionalised Slavery and Racism’
The British and the Americans – who did not, of course, invent the slave trade – abolished slavery in 1833 and 1863, respectively. But the Saudi Arabians dragged their feet until the following century when, as recently as 1962, they finally got around to emancipating an estimated 4,000 of the desert kingdom’s slaves.
But hey – the ancient Greeks and Romans did it, didn’t they? The ancient Chinese and Mongolians did it. And the black Africans were doing it all along. So what’s the problem? It is no exaggeration to say that this is a typical Saudi train of thought. Saudis have always demonstrated their liking for the morally abhorrent slave trade, and have done everything to keep it going right up until now (in secret).
Yes, as anyone who has travelled extensively in the desert kingdom knows, most Saudis are natural-born racists, who regard themselves as white rather than black or brown, and who don’t lose any sleep over enslaving “lesser breeds”. Indeed, the Saudi police are among the most racist in the world; this is something of an open secret. Many of them take an obvious delight in questioning and arresting foreigners from all over the world, while Saudis look the other way. If there is a choice between sending a Saudi law-breaker or an innocent foreigner to jail, the desert kingdom’s police can usually be relied upon to point the finger at the foreigners and put them behind bars.
There are plenty of innocent foreigners languishing in Saudi Arabia’s rat-infested jails, crawling with cockroaches, and there is institutionalised torture as well as racism in these jails. Torture for the sake of torture, for the amusement of the Saudi police. But does the UN raise hell with the desert kingdom as a result? And does this prevent British royalty and other world leaders smiling in the direction of the Saudi royal family? Of course not.
There was never any serious reason why observers should have been unduly surprised by Saudi Arabia’s refusal to abolish slavery for such a long time. We are talking about a country that demanded the recall of British ambassador Sir Andrew Ryan back in the early 1930s for freeing a slave from the then Saudi foreign minister. From the 1930s right through to the 1950s, the Saudis were turning a deaf ear to Britain’s pleas for it to abolish slavery, and its sympathies were always closer to the white racists in South Africa and the southern United States than they ever were to racial reformers and abolitionists.
Ibn Saud, the founding king of Saudi Arabia, is reputed to have had 42 sons who, between them, married an estimated 1,400 wives. With women being traded at the highest level and sold into so-called matrimony at such a rate, can we really be surprised that the slavery of others – houseboys, concubines, slave labourers, and so on – was (and still is) regarded as a non-issue?
Saudi kings and royals have reportedly employed a network of scouts to comb the desert kingdom looking for new female talent to be purchased as wives and/or concubines, rather like how European football mangers scout for talent throughout the continent. And that female sexual talent has been bought and sold, like so much meat, without the consent of the women in question. It has been a great market of the flesh for the benefit of wealthy Arabs.
To this day, the Saudi regime denies that there is an unofficial black market in slavery, that a closed market has taken over since the open market was finally closed in the 1960s. They insist that there is no imported slave labour, that foreign women are not being kidnapped and sold as slaves for the pleasure of wealthy individuals, or that brothels and harems exist tucked away in remote desert regions.