On September 14, Saudi authorities announced that two army pilots, Lieutenant Colonel Pilot Majid bin Musa Awad al-Balawi and Chief Sergeant Yousef bin Reda Hassan, had been executed.
Their arrest, interrogation, hearings, sentencing and execution all took place in complete secrecy, but Saudi media reported that their crime was treason in three forms — high, national and military. Given that both men came from Sunni tribes that are traditional opponents of the Houthis, the suggestion that they actually committed treason in the sense of collaborating with the enemy seems unlikely.
“High treason” as a legal concept does not exist in Saudi Arabia anyway, because there is no such thing in Sharia law, which — despite massive reform in Islamic institutions in recent years — remains fundamental to the kingdom’s judicial process. While the concept of treason does exist in Sharia, it usually refers to collaborating with the enemy in terms of espionage, but it is carefully qualified and does not automatically lead to execution.
Opposition sources say al-Balawi and Hassan were executed after refusing to bomb civilian targets in Yemen. They may also have been recorded criticizing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). No Sharia court could justify sentencing someone to death for refusing to bomb civilians in Yemen, hence the unspecific treason charges. But as everyone in the kingdom understands, the courts are highly politicized and serve the wishes of the crown prince’s regime.
The point is to send a strong message of deterrence to other would-be dissenters and prevent al-Balawi and Hassan from becoming the crystal in the saturated solution — catalysts for an armed rebellion against MbS.
Saudi Arabia has faced dissension in the military before
There have been several attempts by members of the Saudi armed forces to overthrow the regime in the past. The most famous was in 1969, when members of the Royal Saudi Air Force plotted a coup d’état against King Faisal. Their plan had been to bomb the Royal Palace in Riyadh, killing the king and other high-ranking princes, before announcing the formation of a “Republic of the Arabian Peninsula.” In the aftermath of the failed plot, around 2000 people, including 28 lieutenant colonels, 30 majors, and around 200 other officers.
Another less spectacular case was in 1990, when a Saudi pilot defected and flew his brand-new F-15 to Sudan. He returned a short time later following negotiations with the Sudanese, supposedly to be pardoned. He was instead imprisoned.
As Arab Digest has reported in the past, the Saudi army of today is seething with discontent. Dozens of officers and pilots are currently being held in detention. A trickle of military defectors keeps emerging.
In May 2023, despite being subject to a travel ban, former Saudi National Guardsman Muhannad al-Subiani defected and made his way to the UK where he told a human rights organization that, while serving in the National Guard, he had witnessed numerous horrific violations of detainees’ and migrants’ human rights, in addition to the smuggling of drugs and weapons.
Even more concerning for the regime was the defection last month of Colonel Tarek al-Zahrani, who was part of the Royal Guard. The Royal Guard’s job is to protect the King and his close relatives, so MbS is fortunate that al-Zahrani did not try to take more direct action.
The Saudi army is tired, underpaid and unhappy
Some defectors go to the UK, like al-Subiani. Others go to Yemen to fight with the Houthis against Saudi Arabia in a war intended by MbS to last for just a few weeks after it was launched in March 2015. The war has been largely on pause for the past year, but Saudi Arabia still finds itself unable to extricate itself from the situation.
After more than 8 years of fighting, the government has not yet revealed its military losses. (In 2019, the Houthis claimed that 500 Saudi soldiers were killed and another 2000 captured in an operation inside the kingdom. The Houthi claim was not independently verified, and the Saudis declined to comment.)
The war in Yemen does not account for all of the discontent in the army. Saudi soldiers, especially at the lower levels, are generally not treated well. Their salary is much less than elsewhere in the Gulf. It starts at the equivalent of $1,790 per month, compared to a Kuwaiti soldier’s starting monthly salary of around $2,360 and a Qatari soldier’s $2,500, and the Saudi rank and file receive no special allowances.
Before the public prosecutor decreed that anyone who complained publicly would be punished, on several occasions Saudi soldiers broadcast videos appealing to the king for financial help. They said that while they were away fighting, their families were facing eviction or repossessions for non-payment of debts.
History shows that a disorganized army and a complete breakdown of discipline have been the conditions for every victorious revolution. However, there are several obstacles preventing the army in Saudi Arabia from becoming the spear tip of the revolution.
Firstly, the military police are extremely active inside the armed forces, looking for any signs of dissent and arresting people like al-Balawi and Hassan.
Secondly, the Saudi army is very small compared to the size of the rest of the internal security forces, which since 2017 has included special forces, the Mabahith secret police and counterterrorism and anti-terror financing units. State security forces are also much better-resourced, with the latest kit and training. Soldiers, on the other hand, complain they have to buy their own boots and food.
Thirdly, although the Saudi army is still nominally arranged hierarchically, in practice all communications between ground forces and senior commanders have to go via the Royal Court. This deliberately makes it impossible to coordinate any large-scale opposition involving multiple units.
[Arab Digest first published this piece.]
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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