While Muhammad al-Ghamdi spent another night in prison thinking about the nightmare of his impending execution, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman peddled fiction through a well-staged interview on the American Fox News Channel.
During the interview, which lasted over 30 minutes, journalist Bret Baier appeared to admire bin Salman’s personality and approach, steering the meeting towards a review of the young prince’s wisdom and achievements and promoting the large projects he is implementing. Baier did not take advantage of this rare chance to confront bin Salman about the many people who have been victimised by his repressive policies, or the horrific human rights violations in Saudi Arabia that have been documented by human rights organisations.
Instead, the interview covered topics including bin Salman’s vision for the country’s development, oil policies, relations with other countries, particularly Iran, and the war in Ukraine. Baier posed two timid questions on the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the death sentence imposed on retired teacher al-Ghamdi due to his activity on X (formerly known as Twitter).
In his response to the question about al-Ghamdi, the Crown Prince seemed detached from reality. He spoke confidently as if he were the leader of a democratic state that follows the principle of separation of powers, with the law taking its course so that the executive authority does not interfere with the work of the judicial authority. “I cannot tell the judge to [overturn al-Ghamdi’s sentence] and ignore the rules,” said bin Salman, “because that would be against the rule of law.”
The Crown Prince claimed he was ashamed of the ruling against al-Ghamdi, attributing it to the judge’s discretion and Saudi law. In a fantastic display of folly, he even expressed hope that the ruling would change in the remaining stages of litigation, bringing a close to the imaginary scenario he has woven for the case.
In just a few years, bin Salman has brought about a significant shift from his state’s conservative identity, attracting global celebrities from various fields by presenting Saudi Arabia as a contemporary country. Bin Salman has aimed to project more openness to art, culture, and modernism than past leaders, breaking away from the religious and societal prohibitions that had governed the country for years. At the same time, he has detained a large number of other Saudi princes and ruling family members and seized hundreds of millions of dollars from them. He has also imprisoned hundreds of people for peacefully exercising their right to free expression.
All of bin Salman’s actions, which would normally require years of legal and legislative procedures, were carried out quickly and easily—yet unfortunately, he is unable to intervene to prevent the execution of an innocent man. Or rather, this is what the Crown Prince wants us to believe.
In July 2022, the Specialised Criminal Court sentenced the 54-year-old al-Ghamdi to death for posting and reposting on X using two anonymous accounts. One account had only two followers, while the other had eight, and both had posts that legitimately criticised corruption and human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. Al-Ghamdi’s case is not an isolated incident, but an example of bin Salman’s comprehensive approach to silencing those who attempt to publicly express views which do not support his domestic and foreign policies.
Hundreds of people have been detained in recent years, including writers, journalists, clerics, doctors, teachers, and other individuals, with some receiving lengthy prison sentences for simply expressing their opinions. In most of these cases, the Crown Prince’s so-called litigation process was non-existent or merely a formality, with detainees being subjected to multiple stages of persecution, including harsh interrogation, enforced disappearance, torture, and grossly unfair trials.
The Fox News interview with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, particularly the cowardly questions about human rights violations in the country, may reflect how Western countries—especially the United States—view those violations. Distressingly, the interview also accurately depicts the priorities that govern relations between Western countries and Saudi Arabia. The reality is that these countries care more about issues such as oil production and Saudi relations with Iran, Russia, and China than the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.
Even if more innocent people are sentenced to death, there is no indication that this will change the way countries with significant global and regional influence deal with Saudi Arabia anytime soon. Perhaps journalists will continue to pose the occasional timid question that will have no actual effect on their country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia; this difficult reality puts a lot of pressure on Saudi prisoners of conscience and even free people who hold opposing views.
On the one hand, the Saudi authorities continue their crackdown on free expression and opinion, facilitating their persecution of opinion holders and human rights defenders. On the other hand, it does not appear that these violations cause Saudi Arabia any embarrassment at the international level or even mildly impede its ability to implement its foreign policies, which ensures that these violations will only continue and intensify.
Unjustly detained prisoners of conscience surely feel betrayed and abandoned by countries that have always claimed to champion freedom and democracy. This is precisely why human rights defenders and independent United Nations entities, mechanisms, and experts bear a double responsibility to shield these innocent and vulnerable people from a world governed by political and financial interests. Those with the ability to do so must use legitimate legal means to advocate for their release, so that they can live freely in their country.
As human rights violators escalate their repression, human rights defenders must also escalate and intensify their campaigns to advocate for victims, expose the perpetrators of these egregious violations, press for accountability, and continuously remind the world of causes that require urgent attention, using all possible forums.