Kristian Coates Ulrichsen and Giorgio Cafiero
the London-based Middle East Eye reported that three Saudi religious scholars -
Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari - were going to receive
the death penalty after the end of Ramadan. The report cited two sources in the
Saudi government and one of the detained Islamic scholar's relatives.
Awdah, Qarni, and Omari are charged with terrorism and awaiting trial at the
kingdom's Criminal Special Court in Riyadh.
of these three "moderate" clerics in September 2017 triggered a
chorus of condemnation from abroad, including from the United Nations and
numerous human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty
detention occurred two months before the Ritz Carlton saga in which Crown
Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) ordered the arrest of scores of wealthy and
prominent Saudi royals, merchants, and billionaire moguls during the infamous
Qarni, and Omari have been tied to the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Sahwa movement.
Since the crown prince's ascendancy, his fears of revolutionary activism in the
region spreading into Saudi Arabia have prompted the authorities in Riyadh to
wage a campaign of repression against Sahwa-affiliated Islamists in the
perspective, the potential for the movement to compete with him for power while
operating outside of his control represents an unacceptable threat not only to
the Saudi monarchy's Islamic legitimacy but also to its survival.
punished for tweeting that he hoped for a resolution to the Qatar crisis
shortly after MbS had a telephone conversation with the emir of Qatar on
September 8, 2017. This cleric spent half of the 1990s behind bars because he
advocated political change in the kingdom.
Awdah has delivered
hundreds of lectures and produced hundreds of articles that mainly address
Islamic law. He is known for promoting "moderate" and
"democratic" values. Awdah is the assistant secretary-general of the
International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a Qatar-based institution
understood to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi
government recognises as a terrorist entity. The kingdom's public prosecutor
has leveled 37 charges against him.
landed in trouble after pushing for a rapprochement between Riyadh and Doha. He
is a preacher, academic, and author who had 2.2 million Twitter followers at
the time of his arrest. Omari, a popular broadcaster who has enjoyed much
popularity with younger Saudis, has earned a reputation for being relatively
progressive on gender issues and for condemning violent extremism. Omari has
also been a member of the IUMS. Following his arrest, Saudi Arabia’s public
prosecutor charged Omari with "forming a youth organization to carry out
the objectives of a terrorist group inside the kingdom" along with at
least 29 other crimes, recommending capital punishment.
executions would further demonstrate that MbS is ignoring outside pressure
regarding the kingdom’s record on human rights. The execution of 37 (mostly
Shia) Saudi citizens in April was arguably about testing the waters to see how
the international community, especially the United States, would respond.
Considering the lack of any significant pressure on Saudi leadership from the
White House throughout the Jamal Khashoggi affair, MbS likely feels emboldened
to take actions without fearing any consequence in terms of a backlash from the
Qarni, and/or Omari receive the death penalty, their executions could only reinforce
this notion that America’s current leadership is indifferent to Riyadh's human
rights record or the Saudi government’s targeting of dissidents abroad, such as
Iyad el-Baghdadi in Norway.
important geopolitical dimensions to these three scholars’ files. Odah, Qarni,
and Omari are not dissidents or revolutionaries. None of them called for the
royal family to step down from power. For most of their careers, they avoided
criticizing Al Saud royals. Yet when MbS began changing Saudi conduct on the
international stage in major ways, the crown prince did not receive their
support. Given that all three expressed sympathy for Qatar, or at least support
for a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement, their executions would be strong evidence of
Riyadh’s refusal to soften its tone when it comes to Doha.
The fate of
these three Islamic scholars will likely have major ramifications for
Saudi-Turkey relations too. On May 27, Yeni Safak published an open letter to
King Salman written by Yasin Aktay, an advisor to Turkish President Recep
Tayyip Erdogan. Aktay warned the Saudi monarch against executing Odah, Qarni,
and Omari. In his words: “That which will bring disaster to you is executing
Islamic scholars, which was recently announced. Scholars are the inheritors of prophets,
and each scholar is a world on their own. The death of a scholar is like the
death of the world. The killing of a scholar is like the killing of the world.”
advisor also argued that the fate of these three Saudi scholars is not merely a
domestic issue for Saudi Arabia. "The matter of Islamic scholars is not an
internal affair. The scholars in question are assets who are acknowledged and
revered by the whole Muslim community. They are not your subjects; they are our
common treasures, whose advice we heed, and who beacons of light with their
knowledge and stance are. The sin of detaining them even an hour in the
dungeon, let alone executing them, is enough to destroy an entire life."
called on King Salman to use his country's riches to alleviate problems across
the Islamic world and to support Turkey’s quest to pursue justice in the case
of Jamal Khashoggi, assassinated by Saudi agents in Istanbul last year.
advisor’s letter displayed respect to King Salman but did not addressing MbS.
Erdogan’s circle is attempting to make distinctions between King Salman and
MbS, for instance by emphasizing early in the Khashoggi case that King Salman
was not implicated or when Erdogan exchanged Eid greetings with King Salman in
June. By asking King Salman to spare Awdah, Qarni, and Omari from executions,
Erdogan is attempting to use his relationship with the Saudi monarch to prevent
what many in the Sunni Muslim world consider a major injustice.
want to buy more goodwill from the Saudi king at a time when Saudi media
outlets are calling for a boycott of Turkish goods. Nervous about how Saudi
Arabia could hurt Turkey economically by pulling out its investments from the
country, officials in Ankara are keen to prevent a further deterioration of
bilateral ties that could severely harm Turkey financially. If King Salman
intervenes to spare these three Islamic scholars from the death penalty, such a
development could possibly reduce tensions in the kingdom’s relationship with
Turkey. If not, Ankara and Riyadh could see a sharp increase in friction.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen PhD is the Baker
Institute fellow for the Middle East. He is a visiting fellow at the London
School of Economics Middle East Centre and an associate fellow at Chatham House
in the United Kingdom.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State
Analytics, a Washington, DC-based
geopolitical risk consultancy.
Source: The New Arab