Several Middle Eastern states, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and United Arab Emirates, are Muslim monarchies: hereditary rule backed by Islamic clergy. Their legal system – Sharia – emanates from Islamic law.
In Islam, the legislative power and competence to establish laws belong exclusively to Allāh. ~ Ayatollah Khomeini
No state is exclusively governed by the Sharia; rather, where Sharia is used, it blends with Western law. The 2 states most extensively using the Sharia are Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In pre-Muslim times, what was to become Saudi Arabia was populated by nomadic tribes in an inhospitable desert, with a few trading settlements, notably Mecca and Medina. Muhammad changed that: unifying the peninsula into a single Islamic polity.
The suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire on the Arabian peninsula ended when World War 1 ground to a halt.
Saudi Arabia came into statehood in 1932, as Abdul Aziz managed to meld squabbling tribes into a kingdom. It was one of the poorest countries in the world. That changed dramatically in 1938, when vast oil reserves were discovered.
In 1945, US President Franklin Roosevelt met Saudi King Abdul Aziz. The two got along famously. FDR succeeded in ensuring that the US, not Britain, would control Saudi oil. (In 1988, the Saudis bought out America’s oil interest in their country: the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) becoming Saudi Aramco.)
In return, the US provided security for the kingdom. The arrangement of oil for security bonded the Saudis to the US. (Now, Saudi Arabia buys over $110 billion in weapons from American defense industry manufacturers annually.)
In the decades following the 2nd World War, Saudi Arabia grew into the world’s largest supplier of petroleum. That, and its close relationship with the US, meant outsized political clout among the great powers.
As a slap at the nations that had supported Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli (Yom Kippur) War, Saudi Arabia led an oil boycott. Oil prices quadrupled, shocking the economies of the Western world.
The country grew wealthy, but the ruling elite did not care for its people, nor provide an outlet for civic participation. The result has been simmering unrest which is brutally suppressed. The practice of Islamic law plays an outsized role in this.
A half-century ago, the Saudi monarchy made a tacit bargain with radical Islamists: it would fund jihadism around the world as long as terrorists didn’t blow up targets in Saudi Arabia. Saudi money funded the Saudi men who pulled off 9/11. After that attack, Saudi officials swore they had shut off the money spigot. But the tacit bargain remains in place. Saudi Arabia still funds Islamic militants.
Despite government pledges to abolish sex discrimination, women are forbidden from traveling, marrying, or obtaining higher education without approval of a male guardian. One teenage girl was raped 14 times by a gang of 7, but because she was not with a guardian, she was given 200 lashes and 6 months in jail; a worse punishment than the rapists.
More generally, Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Civil rights activists are persecuted. Homosexuality is a capital crime, as is blasphemy.
Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of non-Islamic religions, and systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities.
Those arrested are often not told of the crime of which they are accused, nor given access to a lawyer. They are subject to torture if they do not confess.
Suspects may be held for months or even years without prosecution or judicial review. In November 2017, the newly appointed Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, had hundreds of leading government officials and businessmen arrested for alleged corruption. Many were coerced and tortured, their assets confiscated. The effort was to consolidate power.
There is no formal penal code. Prosecutors and judges can criminalize behaviors under broad, catch-all charges, such as “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom,” or “breaking allegiance with the ruler.”
Lawyers are not allowed to assist suspects during interrogation. An accused is often unable to examine evidence or witnesses, or even be allowed to present a legal defense.
There is a presumption of guilt at trial. There are no jury trials. Most trials are held in secret.
There are ~70 or more public beheadings by the authorities each year, mainly for murder, armed robbery, and drug smuggling. Over 1/3rd of those executed were convicted of nonviolent crimes. Men and women have been executed for “sorcery.”
We deal with sorcerers in a special way. ~ Sheikh Adel Faqih, director of Riyadh Saudi police witchcraft division
Other punishments include amputation for theft and flogging for selling alcohol.
Foreign workers face harsh treatment by their employers. Domestic workers, most of them women, are subject to psychological, physical, and sexual abuse without authorities holding their employers to account. Workers who report employer abuses may face prosecution on counterclaims of theft or sorcery.
Ordinary Saudis are not put off by the system, as they say it keeps their crime rate down.
The UK has long had cordial relations with the Saudis. It has been a major supplier of armaments to the kingdom since 1965.
The US too has cultivated close relations. While China has been chided by the US for its human rights violations, no such censure has been promulgated against the Saudi regime.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the heavyweight nemeses in the Middle East. From 1979, when the Iran theocracy arose, the 2 countries have torn apart the Middle East with proxy wars.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging a struggle for dominance that has turned much of the Middle East into their battlefield. Rather than fighting directly, they wield, and in that way worsen, the region’s direst problems: dictatorship, militia violence and religious extremism. ~ American political analyst Max Fisher
The rivalry stems from the petty strains of the 2 countries having different Islamic denominations. Saudi Arabia is dominantly Sunni, while Iran is Shia. ~90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni. In contrast, relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are much less tense, as both view Iran as a threat.