A man walks into a library and asks the librarian for a book on human rights in Saudi Arabia. The librarian hands him a blank notebook.
A woman walks into a bookstore and asks for a tourist guide to Saudi Arabia. The bookseller hands her a blank notebook.
A reporter walks into the Saudi embassy and asks for a visa.
Americans follow events in Saudi Arabia by reading the New York Times and Washington Post.
These are all laugh lines. The first one pops up when you Google “jokes about Saudi Arabia.” The next one sort of suggests itself. The other two are equally funny to those in the know.
These earnest folks are searching in all the wrong places. Instead of libraries, bookstores or conventional news sources, they need look no further than the information released by the kingdom itself. Islam guarantees human rights, so that’s all there is to be said about that. State-run news agencies issue beautiful photos of natural and architectural sites foreigners can’t visit and ever upbeat tidings of economic growth and satisfied people, so there’s nothing much to add.
Now and then, however, an image drifts over the ether that addresses multiple kinds of inquiry. Amateur stills and video clips posted on Twitter and YouTube around May 20-21 say a lot about human rights and something about why there are no tourist visas and why access for journalists is so restricted.
Five corpses dangle from a bar slung between two construction cranes in Jizan in the southwest corner of the kingdom near the Yemeni border. The severed heads appear to be in plastic bags tied to the bodies. The sun is blazing. It looks like a busy intersection, with both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Boys gather to gawk. Their elders either avert their eyes or snap their cell phone cameras to record the scene. According to Reuters, Al Jazeera, the BBC and Amnesty International, the dead are five Yemeni gang members “beheaded by the sword” for killing a Saudi Arabian national and committing several robberies. The “crucifixion” (as it was called) was evidently imposed as additional punishment, post-execution and pre-burial.
Why did authorities arrange the macabre display? A court in Jizan must have deemed it shari‘a-based justice. But maybe there was a purpose beyond giving these murdering thieves their proper desserts. Maybe stringing their bodies 25 feet off the ground was meant to send a message to others as well. Was it supposed to deter potential criminals who happened to be passing by? The Kingdom is in the process of expelling tens of thousands of Yemeni migrant workers — were authorities signaling to other Yemenis to go back south over the border where they belong?
Or — wait — are the intended audience the eyewitnesses visible in the surreptitious photographs? If so, what would be the message to apparently normal, law-abiding citizens crossing the street or driving down the road? What can they be thinking their government is telling them about the power of the state and the force of law?
It might be another blank notebook, but it is certainly no joke.