In February, Mohammed bin Salman announced an overhaul of the Saudi judicial system with plans to bring in four new laws: the personal status law, the civil transactions law, the penal code of discretionary sanctions and the law of evidence. The crown prince was quoted as saying that “The new laws represent a new wave of reforms that will … increase the reliability of procedures and oversight mechanisms as cornerstones in achieving the principles of justice, clarifying the lines of accountability.”
On April 25, in a nationally televised interview with the journalist Abdullah al-Mudaifer, bin Salman detailed his thinking behind the new laws:
“If you want tourists to come here … If you aim to attract 100 million tourists to create three million jobs, and you say that you are following something new other than common laws and international norms, then those tourists will not come to you. If you want to double foreign investments, as if we have done, from five million to 17 million, and you tell investors to invest in your country that is running on an unknown system that their lawyers do not know how to navigate nor know how those regulations are applied and enforced, then those investors will just cut their losses and not invest all together.”
What Will It Take for MBS to Rehabilitate His Image?
The laws, and the justification for introducing them, are the culmination of the campaign by the crown prince to wrench the power and control of the judiciary from the religious elite. That conquest is now complete. In the interview, bin Salman adopted the stance of a religious scholar, determining which hadiths — the sayings of the prophet — should be followed and which should be either challenged or ignored. “The government, where Sharia is concerned,” he told al-Mudaifer, “has to implement Quran regulations and teachings in mutawater hadiths, and to look into the veracity and reliability of ahad hadiths, and to disregard ‘khabar’ hadiths entirely, unless if a clear benefit is derived from it for humanity.”
He posited, too, that while jurisprudence remains rooted in the Quran, holding to the interpretations and edicts of Muhammed bin Abdulwahhab — the 18th-century theologian and founder of the harshly austere version of Islam that has come to be called Wahhabism — can be dispensed with: “If Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulwahhab were with us today and he found us committed blindly to his texts and closing our minds to interpretation and jurisprudence while deifying and sanctifying him he would be the first to object to this.”
Neither Compassionate nor Fair
The centuries-long alliance between the House of Saud and Wahhabism was sundered in a sentence, an intolerant version of Islam replaced with tolerance, jurisprudence liberated from the shackles of a hidebound theology. It’s what the crown prince likes to call a return to “moderate” Islam. Or so he would have his kingdom and the world believe. But the legal system that bin Salman has appropriated to his own purposes is neither compassionate nor fair. One repressive system has been replaced by another.
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan is a 37-year-old humanitarian aid worker. He was arrested at his Red Crescent office in Riyadh in 2018 and disappeared into the kingdom’s vast and labyrinthine prison system. In nearly three years, his family had only one brief phone call from him. Then, according to his sister Areej, the family received a second call: “we were overjoyed to hear his voice on Feb. 22, and even more elated when he told us he would soon be released,” she wrote in a Washington Post article. But the joy was short-lived. On April 5, the Specialized Criminal Court that deals with terrorism offenses sentenced Abdulrahman to 20 years, with a 20-year travel ban to follow upon his release. His crime was that he had anonymously tweeted criticisms of repression in the kingdom.
The rights group gc4hr.org details the travesty of a court process that Abdulrahman was put through. This is a description of just one of the proceedings: “On 22 March 2021, another secret hearing took place. The lawyer was informed of it at the last moment and when he attended the court, the hearing was over. The Public Prosecutor presented his objections to the defense’s response during the hearing. His father was unable to attend this hearing as he was not informed of it despite the fact that he was confirmed as a legal guardian.”
The rights organization ALQYST reported that during his detention Abdulrahman was “subjected to severe torture and sexual harassment including, but not limited to, electric shocks, beatings that caused broken bones, flogging, suspension in stress positions, death threats, insults, verbal humiliation and solitary confinement.”
Disappearing Into the System
Others who have fallen into Mohammed bin Salman’s legal system include the moderate cleric Salman al-Odah, detained in 2017. He was brought before the Specialized Criminal Court in 2018 with the public prosecutor declaring he was seeking the death penalty. On December 30 last year, his son tweeted that in denying his father medical treatment, the authorities were carrying out “a slow killing.”
The conservative cleric Sulaiman al-Dowaish disappeared in 2016, the day after he had tweeted criticisms of the crown prince. According to another human rights group based in Geneva, the cleric was brought before Mohammed bin Salman in chains. The prince “forced Dowaish onto his knees and began to personally assault him — punching him in the chest and throat, and berating him about his tweets. Dowaish, bleeding excessively from his mouth, lost consciousness.” Aside from a phone call in 2018, the family has heard nothing since and fear that he is dead.
In his interview, bin Salman told al-Mudaifer: “Extremism in all things is wrong, and our Prophet PBUH talked in one of his hadiths about a day when extremists will surface and he ordered them killed when they do so. … Being an extremist in anything, whether in religion or our culture or our Arabhood, is a serious matter.” The threat is as naked as it is explicit. In Mohammed bin Salman’s world of justice, an extremist is anyone who criticizes him or calls for curbs on the repressive police state he has enforced on the kingdom.
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan has filed an appeal, but his family has been denied any visits or phone calls. Their hope is that international pressure, and particularly an intervention from the Biden administration, will lead to his release. Other families of the incarcerated and the disappeared, who number in the thousands, cling to the same hope.
*[This article was originally published Arab Digest.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.