Why are Saudi Executions the Highest for 20 Years?

Saudi Arabia is executing its prisoners at its fastest rate for 20 years. In the first 11 months of 2015, 151 people have met their deaths: beheaded in public by a single stroke of the executioner's sword—at a rate of more than one every other day.

According to figures published by Amnesty International, the last time the state's executions surpassed 150 in a year was 1995, when authorities executed 192 people. Saudi Arabia still ranks behind China and Iran in the grisly league table of execution rates, but analysts are divided on what has suddenly prompted Riyadh, under its new leader King Salman, to hit its 20-year high.

"I think it is a combination of factors," says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Associate Fellow on the Middle East Programme at U.K.-based international affairs think tank Chatham House. "One is obviously there is a new government, there may be a new set of factors going on internally."

In common with states across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is facing instability from domestic jihadis, and Ulrichsen says the regime may be keen to flex its muscles in a bid to deter potential militants. The Arab Spring uprisings, and perceived domestic and external threats, may have prompted an increase in the most visible imposition of state law.

"ISIS is an issue for them internally," Ulrichsen says. "There has been an increasing pressure on Saudi in the last four years so they may feel under pressure to act forcefully to deter any form of unrest. The deterrence effect is quite important."

He adds: "The message is as much to their own people as to people in the region around them. They are going to be tough on security. Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. To that extent, there's absolutely a message being sent."

Adam Coogle, Saudi researcher at Human Rights Watch, agrees that there are a number of factors that could explain the increase in executions, including judicial changes within Saudi Arabia.

The emirate has overhauled its courts over the past three or four years and expanded the whole justice system. Coogle says it has led to the theory that a backlog of death sentences is being accelerated now there is sufficient capacity for cases to be referred for capital punishment.

"That's possible," Coogle says, adding that there is a general regional trend towards more executions, which ties in with the increase in Saudi Arabia. "You see a movement towards more death penalties. The idea being that with all of the regional instability going on, governments at some point want to look like they can bring law and order and send a deterrent message that violent crimes and other types of crimes will not be tolerated."

Pakistan and Jordan both ended moratoriums on the death penalty within the past year in reaction to incidents of extremism affecting the countries. A militant group affiliated with the Taliban murdered 145 people in a Peshawar school last December. In February, ISIS killed a Jordanian pilot, who was captured by the militant group when his plane crashed over Syria.

Clemency Wells of U.K.-based human rights organization Reprieve points to the succession of King Salman as a determining factor in the increase in executions. Wells says that Salman is more conservative and less pro-reform than his predecessor King Abdullah, who died in January.

Soon after his accession, Salman made a "key change" the judicial rules around death sentences, Wells says.

"Whereas previously there had to be a unanimous decision by five court judges to hand out a death sentence, Salman scrapped this need for unanimity, resulting in many more death sentences," Wells says.

She adds: "There are also reports that because of the way King Salman came to power—and the nature of his rather precarious position in power—he is trying to show his 'tough on crime' status."

Whatever the reason for the increase in executions, there are still more than six weeks remaining in the year and many detainees still on Saudi death row—including 20-year-old Ali al-Nimr and two other Shia activists, Dawood Hussein al-Marhoon and Abdullah Hasan al-Zaher.

The execution toll has likely not yet reached its peak.