Saudi Arabia’s Repressive Measures Post-2011: A Critical Examination of the Kingdom’s Approach to Political Dissent

BN WG836 XROADS GR 20171122115226

Since the onset of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Saudi Arabia, like Qatar, has refrained from actively engaging in the practice of citizenship-stripping. This restraint is notable given that Saudi Arabia, unlike Qatar, has experienced significant internal and regional turmoil following the uprisings. Instead of revoking citizenship, Saudi Arabia has relied on other mechanisms to control and suppress political dissent.

In response to the heightened political tensions and the perceived threat of dissent, Saudi Arabia introduced stringent anti-terrorism legislation in 2013. This legislation broadened the definition of terrorism to encompass acts such as “disturbing public order,” “endangering national unity,” and “defaming the state or its status.” The Kingdom’s rationale for these broad definitions was to address signs of political dissent more rigorously. Despite this, Saudi Arabia has not established new mechanisms specifically for citizenship revocation. However, under existing laws, the Kingdom retains the legal authority to revoke citizenship from individuals who adopt dual nationality, engage in military service in another country, or work for a foreign government. While historical instances of citizenship revocation, such as the famous case of Usama Bin Laden, have occurred, these actions remain exceedingly rare.

On January 31, 2014, the Saudi government passed the Penal Law of Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, which further expanded the scope of what could be considered a terrorist act. Under this law, terrorism is defined to include any act that “disrupts public order, risks the national unity, harms the reputation of the state, and threatens or incites anyone to commit these acts.” The broad and vague language of this law allows the government to criminalize acts related to peaceful expression, assembly, and association, thereby granting authorities expanded powers to suppress dissidents.

Saudi officials have used their extensive powers under this law to criminalize basic human rights. The anti-terror law allows an investigatory body to hold individuals incommunicado for up to 90 days and detain them for up to one year without judicial review. This provision enables authorities to effectively forcibly disappear a defendant. Furthermore, the law grants authorities the power to try defendants in the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), which has a history of failing to deliver fair trials, often accepting confessions obtained under torture as admissible evidence. The SCC is also authorized to try defendants in absentia and to hear testimony and receive evidence without the presence of the defendant or their lawyer.

The anti-terror law has been used extensively to suppress civil society organizations. One prominent example is the targeting of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), founded by 15 human rights defenders in 2009. At least 11 of ACPRA’s members are currently incarcerated, prosecuted as terrorists in the SCC on charges such as “harming the image of the state,” “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “participating in the founding of an unlicensed organization,” and “inciting disorder.” As a result of their activism, many ACPRA members have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to fifteen years.

Since 2013, the SCC and Saudi prosecutors have increasingly invoked the death penalty under the anti-terror law. Among those sentenced to death, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric, was condemned on charges of understanding with foreign governments, disobeying the government and using arms against law enforcement. Sheikh Nimr was executed in a mass execution on January 2, 2016. The Saudi government did not hand the body over to the family, stating that all the convicts had already been buried.

In the wake of the 2011 uprisings, Saudi Arabia’s approach to dissent has primarily focused on suppression through punitive measures rather than citizenship-stripping. The Kingdom’s reliance on execution as a method to curb political dissent is indicative of its broader strategy to maintain control and suppress opposition. Executions serve as a stark warning to potential dissidents, illustrating the severe consequences of challenging the state’s authority. This method also aligns with the Kingdom’s historical and cultural context, where execution is seen as a legitimate and effective means of maintaining order and authority.

While Saudi Arabia has the legal framework to revoke citizenship, it has largely refrained from using this measure since the 2011 uprisings. Instead, the Kingdom has relied on executions and other forms of suppression to address political dissent. This approach highlights a preference for immediate and severe punitive measures over the administrative process of citizenship revocation, reflecting the Kingdom’s broader strategy for maintaining political stability and control. It urges to modify this approach, which demonstrates a failure to balance the need for security with the protection of human rights, revealing a broader trend of using legal and extrajudicial means to suppress political dissent and maintain authoritarian control in the region.