Stories of people having their heads or hands chopped off run rampant in people’s minds when they think of crime and punishment in Saudi Arabia. Sharia law is definitely not flexible when it comes to crime; retribution is severe, often demanding death for serious crimes. Thankfully, the number of crimes is limited, as are the numbers punished.
Let’s put things in perspective. There are more people on death row in Texas than there is in the entire Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. What garners significant media attention for the desert kingdom is not how many people are sentenced to death, but how. The methods can indeed be very brutal.
Crime and Punishment in Saudi Arabia is probably the harshest in all of the Middle Eastern countries,
Because it is the seat of Islam and needs to set “the right” example. Before I run you through the various offenses and what the relevant punishments are, you need to know that these punishments have not entirely been ineffective. Brutal as it is, knowing that death merits death makes a criminal think twice before killing another.
There is no flexibility in some criminal cases,
but in many, a deal or lesser punishment can be worked out.
The severity is up to each individual judge, with only loose guidelines for specific punishments. As an expat I highly encourage you to familiarize yourself with these crimes and, naturally, avoid any at all costs. If you’re a woman, I recommend you also read this previous post.
Your embassy will do you little good when dealing with crime and punishment in Saudi Arabia:
1. Drinking Alcohol
Alcohol is strictly forbidden in Islam, however most Muslim-majority countries sell it, since they still have have a significant non-Muslim minority, or tourism. Drinking alcohol in Saudi Arabia is a serious crime, and the punishment you get are up to 500 lashes.
The number of lashes is entirely discretionary, and the social status of the individual caught determines whether the lashes ought to be on the back, or the feet. I personally know one person who got lashed fifty times on the feet and could barely walk for a month.
2. Sex Before Marriage
Extramarital sex in Islam is called “Zina”, which carries with it 100 lashes as punishment. This does not take age into account.
Crime and punishment in Saudi Arabia has changed with the times. Consequences are less severe than they were decades ago, and many youth caught dating and having extramarital sex nowadays are given the choice to marry or be punished.
Adultery carries the same punishment as extramarital sex, namely 100 lashes. However, both adultery and extramarital sex are extremely hard to prove as you need to have four witnesses testify against you.
In more remote hill tribes, these witnesses aren’t hard to procure. Four disgruntled brothers usually show up (or eight women), and testify against the sister as punishment for her sins.
Stoning to death is only carried out for habitual offenders. Many highly conservative tribes carry it out regardless, citing adultery as a crime equivalent to murder. This could not be further from the truth and is a complete violation of Islamic law. Crime and punishment in Saudi Arabia is not as horrific as people imagine it to be. Most of the hardcore cases you hear about are from the countryside of neighboring countries, not from Saudi Arabia itself.
There is a lot of leeway given to anyone who steals to feed themselves. Although it is highly frowned upon, they are usually not punished and instead warned. However, grand theft (jewelry, autos, etc) has severe consequences: the right hand is cut off at the wrist.
There must be two witnesses to the crime, or the thief must confess twice to the crime. The stolen property must also have been removed by means of “stealth”, not by force in front of others.
This would not be considered theft, but abuse. If the thief is willing to make monetary amends, the punishment can be lessened to lashes.
Rape is a serious crime and punishment in Saudi Arabia is death. This is carried out by beheading the perpetrator, however many neighboring countriesstone the person to death instead. If stoned, he or she is buried neck up in sand, leaving only his head exposed. The family and friends of the victim then hurl rocks at his head. This truly is a grueling form of punishment.
A famous religious cleric was recently jailed after the highly publicized killing of his daughter. Shariah law would have him executed, however there was a way out for him: paying blood money.
If the family of the murdered victim accepts the blood money, the killer is spared death and given a lesser sentence. If they do not accept the money, they are allowed to execute the murderer. This can get rather messy, since they are allowed to personally carry out the execution themselves. Unlike the experienced swordsmen who carry out most executions, inexperienced hands usually end up hacking the man into a mess.
7. Sorcery or Blasphemy
Sorcery is a crime and punishment in Saudi Arabia is also death. Blasphemy falls in the same category. Unfortunately, this form of punishment has often been used to silence those who revolt against the kingdom’s policies. How one can prove sorcery is yet to be known, but retribution is swift. Another offshoot of this is sentencing peaceful protesters using a new anti-terrorism law.
8. Drug Smuggling And Drug Use
Drug use is the far lesser offense of the two, and one will usually get the same punishment as consuming alcohol. Drug smuggling or trafficking, on the other hand, takes the crime to an entirely different level. Trafficking drugs (or alcohol) can carry the death sentence, with very little room to make any case.
The problem with many of the punishments above is that confessions are usually beaten out of the “perpetrators”. Whether many are truly guilty or not remains unknown, I am sure many innocents have fallen victim to improper or unfair judgment.
As of late there have also been many bloggers accused of blasphemy and sentenced to a thousand lashes. This level of punishment is enough to kill anyone. The lines of punishment in Saudi Arabia further blur when you take into account each judge’s individual opinion.
If the punishment were not brute enough as it is, the appeals process usually never happens. Unlike the U.S. or Europe, where cases can be stuck in appeals courts for years, or even decades, punishment in Saudi Arabia is very swift.
The appeals process is sleepy at best.
Voices from human rights groups are mostly ignored.
If you plan on living in Saudi Arabia, be aware of its solid stance on crime. If it bothers you, there isn’t much you can you do about it. Just walk the straight and narrow, and you’ll be just fine.
A few additional resources you may be interested in:
What is your view on crime and punishment in Saudi Arabia? Do you believe draconic forms of punishment deter criminals? Or do you feel the punishment sets a wrong precedent?
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Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz doing the War dance during the Janadriyah Festival (AFP)
The Islamic State (IS) and Saudi Arabia prescribe near-identical punishments for a host of crimes, according to documents circulated by the militant group.
IS published a list of crimes and their punishments on 16 December 2014 to serve “as an explanation and as a warning” to those living in territory under their control in large parts of Iraq and Syria.
The document lists hadd crimes, which are considered to be “against the rights of God,” and includes fixed punishments for theft, adultery, slander and banditry.
Crimes deemed hadd and their punishments are derived from the Quran and the hadith, the collected teachings and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. However, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, and IS-controlled areas, they are rarely applied.
Both IS and Saudi Arabia have made headlines so far this year for handing out spectacular, and very public, punishments.
IS recently circulated images of their militants throwing men off a roof in Iraq’s Mosul, which is under their control, after they were “convicted” of committing homosexual acts.
Meanwhile Saudi Arabia has been roundly condemned for flogging Raif Badawi, a jailed liberal blogger convicted of, among other charges, insulting Islam. Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, although international pressure has since pushed authorities to say they will review the harsh sentence.
But while IS has actively sought exposure for their brutal punishments, Saudi Arabia has worked to keep evidence of their actions within the conservative kingdom. Authorities on Saturday arrested a police officer accused of videoing a woman being publicly beheaded in Mecca. The video went viral – prosecutors later said he had violated the Gulf state’s cybercrimes law.
Though their approach to implementing these punishments is very different – Saudi Arabia rarely, if ever, carries out executions for blasphemy or adultery - regional experts have written that IS and Saudi legal approaches are linked by a dedication to Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic scripture favoured by Saudi authorities.
“On the one hand [IS] is deeply Wahhabist,” wrote Alastair Crooke, former British intelligence agent and author of Resistance: The Essence of Islamic Revolution.
“On the other hand it is ultra-radical in a different way. It could be seen essentially as a corrective movement to contemporary Wahhabism,” he wrote, explaining that modern-day Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia has been used to entrench absolute power for the al-Saud monarchy, which is hated by IS and accused of corruption.
“[IS] looks to the actions of the first two Caliphs, rather than the Prophet Muhammad himself, as a source of emulation, and it forcefully denies the Saudis’ claim of authority to rule.”
‘Ahistorical’ use of scripture
IS and Saudi Arabia’s use of punishments rooted in Wahhabi doctrine is not replicated anywhere else in the region, and experts say its implementation is “ahistorical”.
Islamic law sets the bar high when it comes to convicting people of hadd crimes. In the case of adultery, the accused must confess to the crime three times in court; alternatively, conviction relies on the testimony of four male, or eight female, witnesses.
Experts in Islamic studies explained that hadd punishments should be understood in the context in which they were set out.
“The doctrines formulated by Muslims jurists in the Middle Ages made it very difficult to convict, either because they defined the crimes extremely narrowly or because the requirement for evidence was extremely high,” said Joseph E. Lowry, Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It wouldn’t be sensible to go around maiming the population. There was a realistic view of the punishments, and the jurists were generally humane. The jurisprudence is generally favourable to the defendant.”
Since the Middle Ages, when these doctrines were formulated, the trend has been towards more lenient punishments.
“Spectacular punishments, in legal systems generally, were designed as a kind of symbolic deterrent," Lowry explained. "Now, countries are under a high level of surveillance, and it’s possible to catch and incarcerate large numbers of people.
"Consequently, punishments are now generally much less draconian,” he added.
But in Saudi Arabia, a country dotted with police and army checkpoints, public use of capital and corporal punishment remains common. The kingdom has carried out 15 beheadings in the first 20 days of 2015 and executed a total of 87 people in 2014 with 72 of these executions taking place between August and December.
“Saudi Arabia has domestic constituencies that they need to pacify, and this is one way for them to appear hyper-Islamic,” Lowry said.
Raif Badawi flogged in Saudi Arabia (YouTube screen grab)
The Islamic State caning individuals in Sarrin in Wilayat Halab (Jihadology)
The war against IS
While IS has been hit by months of US-led air strikes, Saudi Arabia has remained a key ally of the West. Riyadh has played a key role in the anti-IS campaign, and senior political and religious officials have joined an international chorus in condemning the group as a “terrorist organisation”.
Academics specialising in Saudi Arabia have speculated that the kingdom may eventually seek out a way to coexist with IS, as the kingdom’s rulers face a period of regional turmoil and threat.
“Saudi Arabia feels surrounded by hostile forces,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, visiting professor at the London School of Economics and author of a recent article titled The Shared History of Saudi Arabia and IS.
“I think we will see more sporadic violence in the country, such as the recent attack on the northern border guards, and walls in the north and south will not be an effective shield against what’s going on outside Saudi Arabia.”
“[In this context] the rulers might reach an agreement with IS and say ‘don’t attack us now and we’ll contribute to your finances’ – this could happen, but ultimately we just don’t know at the moment,” she said.
Rasheed also said the West could – at some point in the future – have diplomatic relations with IS “simply because they [IS] are sitting on oil and are happy to sell it”.
“It might happen given the pragmatism of the West and how willing it is to compromise on human rights,” she added.