Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince has admitted to being “ashamed” of his country’s draconian laws, as he claimed he was powerless to help a teacher sentenced to death for criticising the leadership on social media.
Mohammed bin Salman made the admission when asked about the case of Mohammed al-Ghamdi, a retired teacher who was handed a death sentence for posts on Twitter to his tiny audience of 10 accounts.
“Shamefully, it’s true. It’s something I don’t like,” said the Crown Prince when asked about the case by a Fox News journalist during a television interview.
When pushed on why he could not change Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative laws, he responded: “We are doing our best … we have already changed tens of laws in Saudi Arabia, and the list has more than 1,000 items. In the cabinet they have only 150 lawyers, so I’m trying to prioritise the change day by day.”
The Crown Prince added: “But we are not happy with that. We are ashamed of that. But [under] the jury system, you have to follow the laws and I cannot tell a judge [to] do that and ignore the law, because … that’s against the rule of law. But do we have bad laws? Yes. We are changing that, yes.”
Saudi Arabia has launched an intensified crackdown on social media critics, handing down lengthy jail sentences for criticism of the Kingdom online.
Among those to receive a tough punishment is Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi mother and Leeds University student who was sentenced to 34 years imprisonment for critical messages she posted on Twitter.
Experts familiar with the Crown Prince’s leadership strategy said that his interview on Fox News sent a clear signal that he wants to drastically reform the legal system as part of his Vision 2030 scheme, but that it would take time.
“What he is saying is that the country has a legacy legal system that he is working to reform but that takes a lot of time and he recognises some unjustifiable sentences that he expects will be overturned on appeal,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst who is supportive of the Crown Prince’s strategy.
The Saudi royal’s remarks also appeared to be aimed at mollifying Western leaders, who are slowly welcoming him back into the fold five years after the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist.
Khashoggi, a critic of the Crown Prince, was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The Crown Prince has been accused of personally ordering the killing, although he vehemently denies this.
Khashoggi’s death led to the Crown Prince being shunned by most Western leaders, but relations are now warming, as he is increasingly seen as a crucial partner in the Middle East.
The Crown Prince is due to visit London in October to meet with Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister.
Sir John Jenkins, the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told The Telegraph that he thought the Crown Prince was making a genuine attempt to reform the judicial system.
“They have been saying for some time that this has nothing to do with the government, that the judges are independent and that some may well have been over-enthusiastic. Though nothing has happened so far [in terms of significant reform],” he said.
“This is a very slow system and dependent on the rulings of individual judges because of the way the Sharia system works.
“In terms of Vision 2030, he knows he has to have a legal system not just on the commercial but criminal side which is more predictable than the system they’ve got – otherwise he will have trouble attracting high-powered tourists and investors to come and live and work in Saudi Arabia.”
Vision 2030 is a major infrastructure and domestic reform scheme that aims to transform the Gulf state by weaning it off oil dependency and making it attractive to foreigners.
It is possible that the Crown Prince’s father, King Salman, may resolve the furore over Mr al-Ghamdi’s death sentence by granting him clemency, added Sir John.
During the same interview, the Crown Prince hinted that al-Ghamdi’s case might be shown leniency by Saudi judges in the near future, but he himself could not intervene.
“Well, I believe there are a few steps and trials,” he said.
“I’m hoping that [in] the next phase of trials, the judge there is more experienced and they might look at it totally differently.”