Abdulaziz Saud

Female British nurses

A great deal has been written and said about the two female British nurses that were arrested in Saudi Arabia last December in connection with the murder of an Australian colleague. Reports focused upon the usual clichés concerning Shari'a punishments which can take the forms of beheading or amputation.

What is the reality behind this?

Anticipating a Saudi decision, western diplomats were quoted as saying that no American or European had received either the death penalty or amputation in Saudi Arabia. In fact, two categories of people cannot be punished under the Saudi regime: Westerners and members of the House of Saud. One can even state, the possibility that assurances may have already been given to the British Government regarding the outcome of the matter, which would explain why Britain has not lodged an official protest with the Saudis.

So, what is really the problem?

As far as we are concerned, the case of the two nurses and the obvious way it is to be presented, raises questions about the very credibility of the Saudis.

This is the first time in the history of the Saudi regime that an issue of this kind has been allowed to be tackled by the House of Saud's tame local press and its international media, namely the London-based El-Hayat, El-Sharq al-Awsat and MBC television. House of Saud observers agree that at least three obvious explanations can be mentioned. First, the Saudi attitude is seen as an attempt to demonstrate that the Shari'a is in force in the Kingdom. Official claims that the regime is based upon the Shari'a have been losing credibility among the Arabian people. The Gulf crisis and the subsequent occupation of Arabia by American forces, the increasing immorality of the Saudi princes and officials in Arab and western cities, the spreading realisation that the House of Saud members are above any law, and especially the legitimate claims of the reform movement and the ensuing imprisonment of widely respected Muslim scholars, are all factors which have driven home to the ordinary man of Arabia that the application of the Shari'a (as a comprehensive system of justice, power-sharing, consultation, accountability and independence of the judiciary) has been a sham.

Furthermore, by publicising the nurses case, Interior Minister Prince Nayef (not the Justice Minister !) wanted to boast about the independence of the judiciary. It is evident that the judiciary is just an extension of the power of the House of Saud. The use and abuse of the legal system (brazenly referred to as Shari'a) does not rest with the King only: it is the privilege of any of the Saudi oligarchy.

This is not simply a practice which has turned into a legal custom: it is a codified system. The appointment, promotion, transfer or dismissal of magistrates does not follow a well established legal procedure, but rests solely with the House of Saud's members, from the most senior to the local governor. A governor can order a court under his jurisdiction to rule against an innocent defendant and no-one can have him released before the end of his term except, possibly, a senior member in the House of Saud. As far as the appeal procedure is concerned, it is a paperwork formality to be submitted to the judge; it does not even require the defendant to appear.

Under the Saudi system, the judge can only deal with the facts submitted to him within the court room. He cannot, for example, order an inquest into torture if he happens to see signs of it on a defendant; he cannot request that the accused appear in court.

On the other hand the regime's officials have de facto powers to intervene and overturn a judge's ruling or impose one irrespective of the law's stipulations. Examples abound in this respect. A case in focus is that of Abdallah al-Hudhaif, a political prisoner who was sentenced to 20 years for attacking a police major. Interior Minister Prince Nayef intervened to have his sentence turned into a death penalty.

Such injustice occurs at a time when the members of the House of Saud have kept adding insult to injury. A great many of them have committed murder and have never been charged, let alone tried. For example, Saiful Islam bin Saud, grandson of the late King Abdul Aziz, is known to have committed three murders. The cases were never allowed to come before a court of law. Similarly, Mish'al bin Abdul Aziz killed two members of the powerful Qahtan tribe around four years ago, but the cases were each time turned down by King Fahd himself and were never dealt with in court.

The third reason for the Saudi publicity around the nurses' issue is the expression of an otherwise false sovereignty vis-a-vis the major powers (Britain in this case). In reality there is hardly a country in the world which is so subservient to foreign powers in the way the Saudi regime is. The United States influences the Saudi's defence, diplomatic and foreign policies, has thousands of its GI's on Arabian territory and therefore, has important leverage over the House of Saud.

In any case, for all the reasons mentioned above, the main and underlying reason for the Saudi attitude in the nurses issue lies elsewhere. Many cases similar to that of the two British nurses have occurred in the past, but they were systematically disposed of in total discretion by Riyadh in favour of the Westerners accused. In contrast, the nurses case takes place today in a different political climate.

This time, there are in Britain three active Saudi opposition groups. So it is clear that by publicising the issue, and by putting up a show of independence vis-a-vis London, Riyadh intends to put pressure on Whitehall to expel or muzzle the Saudi opposition, even if the Saudis do not have any illusions as to the result (the judiciary being completely independent from the executive power in Britain).

In view of this, the Saudi's might ask for something more sensible. Observers are inclined to think that Riyadh will most probably seek Whitehall's co-operation in obtaining information on the Saudi opposition in Britain. If Whitehall answers such a request favourably, its move would soon be widely known among the Saudi opposition. This is because whilst the British can be sure of the discretion of their security services, the same cannot be said about the Saudi side.

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