When Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud — MbS — assumed power in Saudia Arabia, he did so without the endorsement of an election. The idea is unknown in this family-run kingdom, where power is inherited and uncontestable.
Vast sums were spent to show him as a reformer, to create the impression that he was a moderate man who recognised that human rights might have relevance in his country. It was hoped that he might bring the kingdom into, maybe, the 18th century.
This campaign was bolstered in a low-hanging-fruit way when MbS curtailed the religious police, allowed women to drive, allowed a sports stadium to admit women, and permitted first public concerts by a female singer.
Last Tuesday, Saudi Arabia executed 37 people by beheading for “terrorism-related” crimes.
At least 33 belonged to the Sunni Muslim kingdom’s Shia minority. Few had legal representation during the judicial process that led to their deaths. One prisoner was executed and his body crucified in public as Saudi officials believe this barbarism is a deterrent to would-be criminals.
How lucky that man was; had MbS not been such a moderate, reforming leader he might have been crucified before he was beheaded — like the man crucified in Mecca last August. Tuesday’s mass beheading was the largest since January 2016, when 47 men were executed in one day.
This brought the death penalty tally this year to 106, according to Human Rights Watch. It was 148 last year.
Saudi Arabia, rich beyond imagination because of our addiction to oil, wages war on Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, where, because of Saudi bombing, almost 13m people face starvation. This genocide is facilitated by British arms sales, and others too, worth a staggering €5.44bn since the Yemen war began in 2015. In this context, the brutal murder, the butchering, of journalist Jamal Khashoggi hardly seems surprising.
Brunei, another medieval country sustained by oil and gas, has been run by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah since 1967.
He marked his silver jubilee in a gilded chariot pulled by dozens of subjects. Last week he wrote to the European Parliament defending the decision to impose death by stoning as a punishment for gay sex and adultry, claiming convictions will be rare, as it requires two men of “high moral standing and piety” to be witnesses.
The kingdom called for “tolerance, respect, and understanding”. The new penal code, which also provides for the amputation of thieves’ limbs and whipping of people wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex, became law on April 3.
In response, the parliament called on the EU to consider freezing assets, visa bans and the blacklisting of nine hotels owned by Brunei Investment Agency, including London’s Dorchester.
In our far-from-perfect world, there are many occasions when the constraints of civilisation are ignored. Yet our capacity to influence, to dissuade, is unequal to the challenges posed by Saudi Arabia or Brunei, other countries too. Boycotts have proved ineffective. Climate change demands that we end our dependency on carbon fuels. Recent barbarisms in producer countries must add to that momentum.