Salman and King

By Donnelly McCleland

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has ordered an end to the death penalty for crimes committed by minors, according to a statement Sunday [26 April] by a top official. The decision comes on the heels of another ordering judges to end the practice of flogging, replacing it with jail time, fines or community service and bringing one of the kingdom’s most controversial forms of public punishment to a close. King Salman’s son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is seen as the force behind the kingdom’s loosening of restrictions and its pivot away from ultraconservative interpretations of Islamic law known as Wahhabism, which many in the country still closely adhere to. (NBC News)

Judicial milestones

The new decree means that any individual facing the death penalty for crimes committed while he or she was a minor no longer faces execution. Instead, the individual will receive a prison sentence of no longer than 10 years in a juvenile detention facility. In a document seen by The Associated Press, the royal decree orders prosecutors to review cases and drop punishments for those who have already served the maximum 10 years. However, the decree states that terrorism-related cases of minors will be tried differently. It is not yet clear what this would mean, whether these cases would also be spared execution or be bound by the 10-year prison limit.

In another recent milestone, Saudi Arabia ended flogging as a means of punishment. Flogging has been applied to punish a variety of crimes in Saudi Arabia. Without a codified system of law to go with the texts making up sharia (Islamic law), individual judges have the latitude to interpret religious texts and come up with their own sentences. Rights groups have documented past cases in which Saudi judges have sentenced criminals to flogging for a range of offences, including public intoxication and harassment.

Although these latest reforms have been widely welcomed, others point out that they are long overdue. Reuters reported a comment from Adam Coogle, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch: “This is a welcome change, but it should have happened years ago. There’s nothing now standing in the way of Saudi Arabia reforming its unfair judicial system.”

Dr Awwad Al-Awwad, president of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission, ended his announcement on Sunday with: “More reforms will be coming.” Other forms of corporal punishment, such as amputation for theft or beheading for murder and terrorism offences, have not yet been outlawed.

The influence of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman

It was made clear that both recent amendments were brought about by the influential Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (often referred to as MBS). They form part of MBS’s ongoing reform process and his 2030 vision. Some of the reforms to date include giving women the right to drive, loosening gender segregation and allowing international entertainment events. Even a decade ago, most of these things would have been unthinkable in Saudi Arabia. A dramatic example of the impact of these reforms has been the increase in women working. The number of working women in Saudi Arabia reached 1.03 million in the third quarter of 2019, 35% of the total workforce, compared to 816,000 in 2015 (official figures).

According to a source in Saudi Arabia: “The reforms that MBS is driving is tangible on the ground and the younger generation loves and supports it. The youth feel as if their needs are being met and entertainment has been provided which they longed for. Entrepreneurship also receives a lot of support from the government and Vision 2030 has created a sort of excitement and hype in the country. In general, there is however still a tug of war going on between old-school thinking and new ideas. In reality, any changes will take years to find total acceptance. The true intentions for the reforms are unclear, even to the younger generation. But what seems clear is that more reforms are on their way as the older ruler becomes weaker. The younger generation is, however, still a long way off from exploring these freedoms and making better choices.”

Despite these reforms MBS has also been accused of ruthlessly weeding out any dissent to his rule. Not even some of his closest relatives have been spared. The vaguest criticism of the crown can land Saudis in hot water. Change is definitely coming to Saudi Arabia, albeit slowly.  However, it has been argued that legal and social reforms will hold little meaning unless there is freedom of speech and expression, and ultimately religious freedom in the kingdom.


From a spiritual perspective, a source in Saudi Arabia explained: “The changes are being pushed to the front without any dialogue taking place. On the outside the changes look and feel luxurious and modern, but below it, religion and social practices remain restrictive. This dualism has caused some people to abandon Islam and believe in nothing rather than stay in Islam, which feels two-faced to them.”

Saudi Arabia remains a spiritual stronghold of Islam, but the ‘cracks’ in the form of dissonance in the hearts of Saudis is heartening to those who have invested in much prayer for this nation over the years. Prayer and spiritual warfare are powerful weapons and their impact should not be underestimated. As greater freedoms are experienced within the social context of the country, may there also be a growing desire for freedom in the spiritual realm. May those who recognise the discontent in their hearts not settle for ‘no religion’, but rather seek to know the One who calls and desires a relationship with them.

Please pray with us:

  • For further reforms to be implemented
  • For those who experience a spiritual unsettling to seek to know the truth, and in so doing, to meet Jesus
  • For the Lord to continue preparing ‘secret believers’ for a time when they will be able to share their faith with family and friends