The disappearance and death of journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi has thrust Saudi Arabia back into a global spotlight that centers directly on the Kingdom’s troubled human-rights record.
And because Khashoggi once enjoyed a level of proximity to the Saudi royal court, he was particularly outspoken about the Saudi leadership’s worst impulses and its aversion to dissent.
Khashoggi was last seen alive on surveillance video captured October 2 outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. He had arrived to retrieve documentation for a planned wedding to his Turkish fiancée Hatice Cengiz. Despite implications that suggest Khashoggi was targeted and killed by his own government, the Saudis have asserted that he died in a physical struggle with Saudi agents, not long after he entered the consulate.
During the early morning hours of October 20 local time in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom announced its official admission that Khashoggi is dead. The matter did fresh damage to Saudi Arabia’s credibility, in part because the Kingdom had floated conflicting explanations about Khashoggi’s fate for nearly three weeks.
The incident has sparked a global outcry. Some US lawmakers have called for sanctions against Saudi Arabia, while government leaders, companies and private investors have pulled away from the Kingdom until more is known about the circumstances of Khashoggi’s death.
But Saudi Arabia has faced criticism for human-rights abuses in the past.
The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians. The Kingdom has been implicated as a sponsor of terrorist organizations, it has been accused of playing a role in some of the worst terror attacks in history, and its practice of jailing and publicly punishing activists has brought it to the brink of diplomatic crisis.
Here are all the atrocities Saudi Arabia committed long before the outrage over Jamal Khashoggi’s death began.
Funding global terrorism
Perhaps most notably, the Saudi government is believed to be linked to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers aboard commercial flights that either crashed or flew into the World Trade Center towers in New York were Saudi citizens, and the plot was orchestrated by al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden, who was the son of a prominent Saudi millionaire construction magnate with close ties to the Saudi royal family.
In 2016, a report on the attacks by the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities found that some of the hijackers received assistance and financial support from individuals connected to the Saudi government, including members of the royal family.
Leaked diplomatic cables reveal deep connections between Saudi Arabia and global terror groups.
In 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Saudi Arabia remained “a critical financial support base” for some Islamist terror organizations, including Al-Qaida and the Taliban.
“Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” Clinton said.
In this respect, funding for terror groups happens indirectly, partly funneled via donors who set up front companies to receive money from government-sanctioned charities.
According to another leaked cable, the US intelligence community suggested that one of the largest Islamic terror groups in Asia, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LT), may have leaned on a person connected to an alias of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba called Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JUD).
According to the US State Department cable, the JUD official “forwarded JUD donation receipts to a probable LT front company in Saudi Arabia.” An LT official there is believed to have “acted as a front for moving LT funds,” the cable said, citing intelligence reporting.
Lashkar-e-Tayyiba was behind the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, India, a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks across Mumbai that killed 172 people and injured many more.
According to one of the cables, Clinton credited the Saudi capital of Riyadh for its “increasingly aggressive efforts to disrupt al-Qa’ida’s access to funding from Saudi sources,” but said the country had “taken only limited action to disrupt fundraising” for the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.
Jailing human-rights activists
Saudi Arabia has been known to detain human-rights activists, sometimes without formally charging them with a crime. Some of these detentions are kept secret.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia arrested scores of activists — most of whom had campaigned ahead of an official rule change that allowed women to drive.
Some of the activists said the arrests were an attempt by Saudi leadership to stifle dissent and silence anyone who may seek to take credit for the Kingdom’s decision to lift the ban.
The award-winning women’s rights campaigner Samar Badawi was among those who were arrested. She is best-known for challenging the country’s restrictive male guardianship laws, which prevent women from traveling, studying, or making important life choices without a man’s permission.
Badawi is the sister of jailed activist Raif Badawi. She had previously been detained for her advocacy and was banned from traveling. Her arrest prompted a concerned tweet from Canada’s foreign ministry, which asked Saudi Arabia to “immediately release” her and the other activists.
That move led to swift diplomatic retaliation from Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom expelled Canada’s ambassador. It froze new trade, suspended flights, recalled thousands of students, barred its citizens from receiving medical care in Canada, and began dumping Canada’s assets.
Beheadings and public executions
Saudi Arabia is governed by a monarchy. Its legal system is based on Islamic law, which enforces harsh punishment for criminal activity.
The death penalty can be applied for a wide range of offenses, including drug-smuggling, witchcraft, adultery, sodomy, and renouncing Islam. Capital punishment can be carried out by way of stoning, firing squad, beheading, or crucifixion.
Saudi Arabia is one of the only countries in the present day that permits crucifixion and beheading as a punishment.
In 2012, 17-year-old Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr was arrested for participating in protests as part of the Arab Spring movement which spread to Saudi Arabia.
Al-Nimr was found guilty of encouraging pro-democracy protests using his phone, and was sentenced to death during a closed trial in which he said detainees were tortured in confessing to the crimes.
His uncle, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, who reportedly led anti-government protests, was publicly killed in a mass execution in 2016.
According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia executed 48 people in the first half of 2018, half of them on nonviolent drug offenses.
Photo by Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Saudi Arabia is one of several countries that still carry out legally sanctioned corporal punishment, which include caning, flogging, and body mutilation.
In 2009, a man named Mazen Abdul-Jawad, who went on TV to brag about his sex life, was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and five years in prison.
In August 2014, Karl Andree, a 74-year-old British man, was arrested in Saudi Arabia for alcohol possession. Alcohol is illegal in the Kingdom. Andree spent more than a year in prison before he was sent back to the UK in November 2015, according to the BBC.
In September 2018, Saudi Arabian prosecutors warned against publicly sharing satire on social media, which would subject violators to a fine of 3 million riyals (US$800,000) and five years in prison.
In 2014, Saudi authorities said a Yemeni man’s hands were cut off after he was convicted of robbery. Such punishment is uncommon.
An unprecedented internal crackdown on corruption
Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rise within the Saudi royal court began, he has slowly been consolidating his power by targeting those who pose a threat to his regime, sometimes by employing the use of coercion and torture.
In November, the Saudi government detained approximately 200 of the country’s top government officials, businesspeople, and members of the royal family under the guise of corruption crackdown. They were held in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. According to a March 2018 New York Times report, some of the detainees were never informed of the charged for which they were being held.
At least 17 officials were hospitalized in the early stages of the crackdown and one later died in custody after suffering major injuries from apparent mistreatment, The Times reported.
Family members of arrested officials said detainees were “deprived of sleep, roughed up and interrogated with their heads covered,” according to the Times.
In several cases, the country’s wealthiest were forced to hand over control of their businesses in exchange for their freedom.
Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who now owns a large stake in Snap, was one of the people detained in the crackdown. He was released two months later. He praised the crown prince’s actions, but did not disclose details of the agreement he reached with the Saudi government.
The international community condemned Saudi Arabia’s purported anti-corruption operation. All told, the crackdown produced more than $100 billion in settlements for the government.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri held captive in Saudi Arabia
In November, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly announced his resignation during a trip to Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is said to have also placed Hariri under house arrest, but the Saudis denied that, according to Reuters.
Hariri, a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen, is politically supported by the Kingdom.
His resignation caught some people in the region off-guard. During his televised announcement,Hariri launched into a tirade, lambasting Iran and its militant proxy group Hezbollah which holds important seats in Hariri’s joint government.
He also suggested that he feared for his life, and blasted the supposed hostile political climate in his country.
Multiple Lebanese sources, as well as two US officials, told Reuters that Saudi Arabia masterminded Hariri’s resignation. The Lebanese sources also said that Saudi Arabia controlled his movements, and sources told The New York Times that Hariri was threatened with corruption charges if he did not cooperate.
Eventually, global diplomacy efforts produced a deal which allowed Hariri to leave. He later rescinded his resignation and vowed not to discuss details of what happened during his trip.
Publicly, Hariri has claimed that he acted freely in Riyadh, a message Saudi officials have been keen to tout, but many believe he was held in Riyadh against his will.
Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemeni civil war
The civil war in Yemen has been raging since 2015, prompting one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, and scores of children are at the center of it.
And while most have died from hunger and disease, many have been caught in the crossfire between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Iranian-backed rebel militant Houthis in what experts view as a proxy war over regional power between the bitter rivals.
Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention in Yemen in 2015, leading a coalition of nine African and Middle East countries to intervene and back Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The coalition has launched hundreds of air strikes targeting Houthi strongholds and implemented a naval blockade, limiting resources and aid to Yemen where it is nearly impossible for food, water and fuel to pass through.
But beyond the perils of war, Saudi Arabia has been accused of war crimes that have deeply worsened the humanitarian crisis.
In August, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting atrocities in Yemen which include at least 10 indiscriminate Saudi-led coalition airstrikes.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found that 6,592 civilians have been killed since the start of the war and around 10,470 civilians have been wounded, mainly by airstrikes led by Saudi forces.
HRW’s investigation into the strikes found several apparent violations of war where Saudi forces fired at either no apparent military target, or failed to distinguish between civilians and enemy positions.
Saudi airstrikes reportedly killed at least 20 members of a wedding party in April. More than 40 children were killed when a Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit a school bus that month, which Saudi Arabia later admitted was unjustified.