The Execution of My Distant Cousin Shows that No One Is above the Law
By Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al-Saud
Recently, the Saudi Arabian justice system was once again in the spotlight. The public execution of a member of the Saudi royal family was met with great interest by many abroad and lots of outlets in the international media gave the issue attention. While princes are theoretically subject to the same laws as everyone else, it was only when Prince Turki bin Saud’s verdict came back guilty and he was sentenced to death that Saudi society was reminded of that fact.
Here I ask you to spare a thought for the two grieving families in this tragedy. One lost a son in a senseless act of violence and the other witnessed their son pay the ultimate price for that crime.
While the execution of Prince Turki seems to have surprised many, there was one group that was not that surprised, and that is the royal family ourselves. We knew that short of an act of extraordinary mercy by the victim’s family, nothing could have changed the fate of a prince sentenced to death for murder. Under the Saudi application of Sharia law, the victim’s family has the right to pardon the condemned. In this case, the victim’s family chose not to exercise that right, and the execution had to proceed.
One thing many outsiders may not realize is that the Saudi state always makes great efforts to convince the families of murder victims to exercise the right of clemency, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. These efforts include regional governors working with tribal elders to appeal to the family and in most cases the king will send a personal emissary and many princes would personally visit the family to make similar appeals.
Some observers have taken the cynical view that this execution was only sanctioned by the king to serve a political purpose in these delicate times. In reality, King Salman has always been uncompromising in insisting that Saudi royals do not consider themselves to be above the law. He was known for this long before he became king.
When he was governor of Riyadh, he was responsible for regulating the behavior of the royal family, especially the younger royals. And on several occasions, princes were subjected to stern disciplinary action under his watch. This reality is one we in the royal family, unlike outside observers, have known very well because often such punishment was enforced in private away from the eyes of the media.
The Saudi royal family is large, and like in any large group of people, it has the good and the bad. But whatever its faults, its members have not gone about committing capital crimes with any frequency. This is why this specific case stands out. I know of only two other cases where a Saudi prince has committed murder under the Saudi justice system.
The first was the assassination of King Faisal in which the perpetrator was a prince who met the same fate as the late Prince Turki. The other, more recent, case was of a Prince who was convicted of murder several years ago but was pardoned by the victim’s family minutes before the scheduled execution.
There are also several members of the royal family currently in prison for various offences. Princes are also subject to the law in civil matters; in fact, commercial disputes between parties that include royals are relatively commonplace in Saudi Arabia. King Salman himself has said that no one should be reluctant to take a royal to court and included himself as an individual who is not exempt from trial. In fact, several very senior royals have lost civil court cases.
Now, this is not to allege that elite privilege including royal privilege has had no impact on the application of justice in the Kingdom. Like any justice system, particularly in the developing world, a person’s wealth or position in society inevitably can impact how the justice system treats him or her, but those advantages are not institutionalized.
The case of the late Prince Turki will serve as an important reminder to members of the royal family, especially the younger ones, that no one in the Kingdom is immune from the law, and it will also give the Saudi public increased confidence that justice will continue to be applied equally to all in practice and not just in theory.
In Saudi Arabia, unlike in other monarchies, the royal family is not set above the people. Rather, it is first among equals and the deference and respect its members receive is based on the family’s role as a unifying force not some perception of noble lineage. The Kingdom has come a long way since the third Saudi state was established in 1932, and it continues to evolve at growing rate and I expect that this evolution will continue.
(Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud is a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family and the chairman of Saudi-based Shamal Investments )