10 Brutal Realities of Life in Saudi Arabia


The United States of America has a befuddling relationship with the largest oil exporter in the world. They are allied to the US and its largest client for weapons, even though the Joint Congressional Inquiry report from 2002 reported (in pages that were censored until 2016) that terrorists that took part in the 9/11 attacks had considerable financial ties to the Saudi royal family. The relationship has been strained recently by such scandals as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the killing of 40 children in a bus in Yemen by a missile fired by the Saudi military, and yet the hundred billion dollar arms deal the United States has with the Middle Eastern country and the importance of having an ally in that part of the world is considered by some to be too important to end the arrangement.  

This state of affairs made TopTenz curious about what living conditions are like in Saudi Arabia. On one hand, it has the 10th lowest poverty rate in the world. On the other hand, there are the following 10 points…

10. Public Executions

You might have heard about the ongoing practice of public beheadings in this country, but the sheer number of them is really extreme. In 2016 alone there were 150 of them. And that was actually a little bit of a slow year, since in 2015 there were 158 of them. In 2019, the very first day of the year was marked by three of them. On a single day in July 2017 there were six beheaded. On a single day in 2015, it was 47. Considering that the minimum age for being put to death was 15 as of 2016, there should be limited expectations of leniency.

In Saudi Arabia’s defense, these numbers of executions are still fewer than the number in Pakistan and India over the same general time periods. You might be inclined to think that the US is way higher, but it’s been trending downwards in recent years. Only 23 people were executed in America in 2017 in the 31 states where it’s legal. Yet the point is that many will argue other nations shouldn’t put fact executions happen in Saudi Arabia on a negative pedestal.  

Still, there’s also the issue of what could cost a person their life.

9. The Witchcraft Hunts

Witchcraft and sorcery are capital offenses in Saudi Arabia, as the Prophet Muhammad said of them in the Hadith that “Whoever goes to a fortune teller or a diviner and believes him, has, in fact, disbelieved in what has been revealed to Muhammad.” In 2007 a pharmacist named Mustafa Ibrahim was beheaded for it, specifically citing to his possession of candles, “foul-smelling herbs,” casting spells to cause a man’s wife to leave him, and bringing the Koran into a bathroom. In 2011, an Indonesian visitor suffered the same fate.

Two Asian women working as housemaids in 2013 got off relatively lightly with only one thousand lashings and 10 years in prison when they were found guilty of having “talismans” and other magic items in their bedrooms. As of 2011, there is no outlined standard in Saudi Arabia for proving that someone is actually guilty of sorcery or what fits a penal standard, meaning that a person can get in legal trouble for anything from astrology to running a psychic tip line. Enough resources have been devoted to this that there are nine bureaus in the Anti-Witchcraft Unit across Saudi Arabia.

8. No Criticizing the Government

It’s one thing to live under Sharia law where living a lifestyle opposed to the teachings of the Koran is illegal. There are no verses in the Koran which demand that all criticism of the political structure of a nation under Sharia law or the people in power. Yet criticizing the Saudi royal family is punishable by five to 10 years imprisonment, a fine of roughly $5,000, and a thousand lashings. One of the most well-known people to be convicted for this was blogger Raif Badawi in 2016, who was also lashed so severely every Friday for 20 weeks that there were fears it would kill him.  

The Arabian government’s largest scale raid in recent years related to anti-government criticism came in November 2017. Dozens of ministers, staff members, and others who had been critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were arrested. Such are the flimsy legal justifications needed for what was very likely a purge.

7. Surgical Punishment Symmetry

We previously mentioned in our article about The Handmaid’s Tale how there is legal precedence for eye trauma as a punishment, but that’s not the entire story. Applying “eye for an eye” punishments has extended to taking the time and effort to inflict harm in ways including the fate of Ali al-Khawahir. When he was 14 he stabbed his friend, and the stab wound got infected and resulted in the friend being paralyzed. Al-Khawahir served 10 years in prison, and then in 2013, he was surgically paralyzed.

This may seem especially cruel considering that it very likely extends the punishment to his family and acquaintances while using medical resources that could be used for other people’s healthcare. But others might feel the extremity of the crime could justify it. But the nation also continues to punish theft with the millenia-old method of amputating limbs, and many will find that harder to justify.  

6. Drug Epidemic Despite Death Penalty

It’s extremely difficult to get an accurate figure on the percent of the population that uses drugs in a country where using or trading them is illegal. Drug offenses are the leading reason for executions. In 2018, half of the executions were for for non-violent drug offenses. Still, there are telling signs that Saudi Arabia’s drug problem is unusually pervasive.  

The single most dramatic is that in 2010, the 12.8 metric tons of amphetamines seized in Saudi Arabia by anti-narcotics agents were more than half of the total seized world wide (24.3 tons). That’s especially bad because a large amount of the amphetamine comes in the form of Captagon pills. Captagon often contains lead and mercury, greatly increasing the neurological harm these drugs inflict.

5. LGBT Association Danger

It’s well known that Sharia law doesn’t provide rights for homosexuals, but someone can be a lifelong heterosexual and still get in trouble with the law completely innocently just by being in proxy to public displays of it. In January 2018, police arrested a group of men for being in a video where two men had confetti thrown at them, one while wearing a bridal veil. It was noted that several of the people in the video looked surprised by the antics, but apparently not being part of staging the video did not clear them. Now consider that in 2007, Atlantic magazine reported that homosexual communities were still widespread in Saudi Arabia, and it means there could be many people who risk arrest for years old video of them surfacing of them in oblivious proximity to something implicitly forbidden by the Koran.

Although having a gender change surgery is illegal in Saudi Arabia, it can allegedly result in the use of deadly force. At a Pakistani ceremony in Riyadh celebrating transgender people in March 2017, 33 attendees were arrested. Two of the transgender attendees were placed in sacks and beaten to death, according to human rights groups. The Saudi authorities claimed that one of them had died of natural causes, specifically a heart attack. But even if that is true, every person released from that arrest had to pay more than 30,000 euros, just for associating with the event.

4. Desalination Pollution

Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading producer of desalinated water, or sea water that has been made fit for human consumption, producing five million cubic meters a day. For a nation with so much arid land, this is completely necessary. Unfortunately there is a massive drawback to the process as it currently exists. It’s not unique to Saudi Arabia at all. As of January 2019, though, Saudi Arabia’s plants are having trouble with efficiency and maintenance.  

For every cubic meter of water, 1.5 cubic meters of water with toxic levels of copper, chlorine, and other pollutants is created. In Saudi Arabia’s case that means roughly 20 million oil barrels-worth of sludge, which Bloomberg pointed out is roughly twice the amount of actual oil barrels that get produced by Saudi Arabia a day. Most of this pollution is pumped back into the ocean because the alternatives of filtering the sludge water is even more expensive and energy consumptive than the original process. Until the process is made financially viable for the Saudi government, this pollution poses a growing threat to the nation’s marine life.    

3. Lashings for Bad Language

If many people were beaten every time they used profane or obscene language, they would be beaten somewhere between halfway and entirely to death. That’s not a droll hypothetical for roughly 34 million people in Saudi Arabia. In March 2015 a woman was fined $5,300 and lashed 70 times for insulting a man, supposedly for “tarnishing his reputation” even though it was through a private messaging service. She could have faced a year in prison and as much as $132,000 in fines.

In April 2012 another woman got 50 lashes for using a swear word in a text sent to her friend. It’s not gender-specific. In November 2018 a man was sentenced to 40 lashings for sending abusive texts to his ex-wife. Although considering that he sent 600 of them, it might be a sign that Saudi courts are easing on sentencing for this offense.

2. Locust Swarms

Swarms of locusts have been symbolic of potentially apocalyptic disaster since the agricultural revolution. But there’s nothing symbolic about the threat that locust swarms (that have been known to number as many as 80 million locusts) pose to Saudi agriculture. While there is nothing anomalous about their arrival there is not a predictable pattern. For example there was an eight year gap between a massive locust invasion in 2005 and 2013. But there was only six years between the 2013 one and the infestation of February 2019. But there was also an invasion in 2004, only a year before the eight year gap. They can last extremely long too, with one that began in 1987 lasting until 1989.

Even with modern technology such as satellite photography the swarms are difficult to combat, since they move fast (as many as 310 miles in a day) and spread so far that their breeding areas are known to be at least 300 square miles. To get some sense of the economic devastation they represent, the 1989 invasion cost $300,000,000 to combat. The 2004 locust swarms caused $100,000,000 in damage, which is considerably more devastating for a single nation than it might sound.   

1. The Unsafe Royalty

Despite the naked social stratification of Saudi Arabia, as would be expected of any nation where there is a royal family, that doesn’t mean that people in places of power and influence are necessarily safe. Regarding the November 2017 purge mentioned we mentioned previously, one of those arrested was Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, who was also a multi-billionaire. Neither his wealth nor his connections kept him from being tortured, stripped of his money, and still under house arrest more than a year later.

But at least the fate of that prince is known. As of October 2018, three Saudi princes are missing. Prince Sultan bin Turki bin Abdulaziz, Prince Turki bin Bandar of Paris and Prince Saud bin Saif al-Nasr were abducted from their homes in Europe between 2015 and 2016 and returned to Saudi Arabia, the last that was heard from them. There wasn’t even safety for the elite who were out of the country.

Still, it seems the position of the Saudi government is to not risk letting Saudi elite potentially escaping its borders, especially female citizens. In 1978, Princess Mishael was publicly executed for adultery. In the wake of that momentous event, the Saudi government instituted a ban on women leaving Saudi Arabia without the permission of a male guardian. Not only are the higher classes unsafe, but their legal punishments can have devastating effects for the lower classes.  

Dustin Koski is the author of the dark fantasy novel Not Meant to Know, a story about rogue exorcists.

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1 Comment

  1. Atleast fact check yourself, India has only had 26 executions in the last 28 years, equating to less than one per year. How is that greater than Saudi Arabia’s executions which has more hangings within one year than India has had in 28 years.