U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry was in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, meeting delegations of Arab diplomats as the Obama administration attempts to cobble together a coalition of allies to confront the threat of the Islamic State. There are no illusions that the task ahead will be easy, and President Obama stressed in his Wednesday night speech the vital role Arab states have to play in breaking the terror organization's insurgency.
The active cooperation of Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil wealth, its well-equipped military and its broader influence among the Middle East's Sunni states, is key to any extended U.S. war effort in Iraq and Syria, as The Post's Anne Gearan reports from Jiddah. Though long an incubator of the Salafist ideology that now inflames the Islamic State and militant groups of its ilk, the kingdom has grown increasingly concerned with the destabilizing chaos the Islamic State has wrought in the region.
But that doesn't mean its state ideology is necessarily changing. The country is notorious for its draconian laws, which are derived from a strict Wahhabist interpretation of Islamic doctrine. In the space of two weeks last month, according to the rights group Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia executed as many as 22 people. At least eight of those executed were beheaded, U.N. observers say.
It appears that the majority of those executed in August were guilty of nonlethal crimes, including drug trafficking, adultery, apostasy and "sorcery." Four members of one family, Amnesty reports, were beheaded for "receiving drugs."
Saudi Arabia is conspicuous in being the sole country to regularly carry out beheadings; last year, a reported shortage of trained swordsmen led to some hope that the practice could wane, but recent evidence suggests otherwise. It's an uncomfortable irony given that the United States' current military mobilization was triggered after the Islamic State beheaded two American journalists.
"Beheading as a form of execution is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and prohibited under international law under all circumstances," said Juan Méndez, a U.N. special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, at a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday.
Beyond the grisliness of the method of punishment, observers also point to the unjust ways in which those who face death penalties are found guilty.
"The execution of people accused of petty crimes and on the basis of ‘confessions’ extracted through torture has become shamefully common in Saudi Arabia. It is absolutely shocking to witness the Kingdom’s authorities' callous disregard to fundamental human rights," Amnesty's Said Boumedouha said in a statement circulated last week.
In violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Saudi Arabia executed at least one person under the age of 18 this year, according to Amnesty International. At least half of all executions in Saudi Arabia since 1985 have involved foreign nationals, including domestic workers, whose harsh treatment under Saudi law has riled rights groups in the past.
"Despite several calls by human rights bodies, Saudi Arabia continues to execute individuals with appalling regularity and in flagrant disregard of international law standards," said Christof Heyns, another U.N. rapporteur. In July, the United Nations also condemned Saudi Arabia's "continuing trend of harassment" of human rights advocates in the country.
U.S. politicians, including the outspoken Sen. John McCain, routinely hector over the state of human rights in Iran — Saudi Arabia's main geopolitical rival in the Middle East and a country with a far more democratic political system than that of the Saudis. But they are more quiet about the many abuses carried out in the kingdom.