Is Beheading Really the Punishment for Homosexuality in Saudi Arabia?
By Mubarak Dahir, syndicated column, December, 2002
A few weeks before taking a trip to Saudi Arabia in October, I sent out a
notice to my friends in America and the Arab World, letting them know that I
wanted to interview gay men while I was there and asking for their help in
In response to my request, I got a flood of frantic e-mails.
Even gay Arab friends, long accustomed to the harsh treatment their own
governments give homosexual citizens, sent me urgent and alarmed notes
pleading with me to be careful. Saudi Arabia, the e-mails warned me, was
exponentially more repressive than any other place I’d visited in the Arab
World, and was therefore that much more dangerous.
I knew what was on everyone’s minds: Isn’t beheading the punishment for
being gay in Saudi Arabia?
As an openly gay reporter digging around for interviews in a kingdom
infamous for its public decapitation rituals, the question was foremost in my
mind as well.
But when I got to Saudi Arabia, I found that the answer to this question is
not as simple as we in the West often portray it. As far as I could make out,
the answer is both yes and no.
We often focus somewhat sensationally and simplistically on the
"yes" part of this complicated answer, and that obscures a more
accurate picture of what it is like to be gay in probably the world’s most
This isn’t to dismiss the news of gay men being beheaded in Saudi Arabia.
In January 2002, sketchy reports emerged about the beheading of three men in
Abha, a city in the country’s southwest. The information was first published
by the Arab News, an English-language daily in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s
capitol. Citing a statement from the Interior Ministry, the paper reported the
names of three men who had been beheaded January 1, 2002, for "engaging
in the extreme obscenity and ugly acts of homosexuality, marrying among
themselves and molesting the young." The report said the men repeated the
acts (of alleged rape of minors) and assaulted people who tried to stop them.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty and the International Gay and
Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), were unable to unearth any further
details about the executions.
There have been other beheadings, too. For example, in July 2000, IGLHRC
received reports that six gay men were executed in Saudi Arabia. But again, it’s
been impossible to collect much meaningful information about the executions
that would help us paint a clear picture of the circumstances.
From what I was able to determine while I was in Saudi Arabia, however, it
seems unlikely that simply being discovered to be gay is sufficient to get you
I was able to do in-depth interviews with five gay men—three in Riyadh,
the largest city and the seat of government, and two in Jeddah, the country’s
most progressive city. I found these men worrying more about how to meet
others for sex and companionship, how to date and keep their sexual
orientation secret, whether they would be forced by their families to marry,
and what to wear to show off their bodies. Getting beheaded was just about the
last thing on anyone’s mind.
All of the men I interviewed were well educated and highly sophisticated as
gay men. They weren’t battling internal demons about their sexual
orientation. They had all traveled outside Saudi Arabia, and were well aware
of the intricate gay life possible beyond their borders. None of them were out
to their families or employers, but all of them had gay friends, and some had
even confided their secret in a few liberal straight friends.
I brought up the executions that had taken place earlier in the year, and
asked point-blank if they feared dying should they be found out. None of the
men seemed to know anything more about the executions than the rest of the
world does. But they all scoffed at the notion that simply being discovered to
be gay would lead to the death penalty.
"Our government controls information tightly, and excels in
propaganda," says "Salim," a 46-year-old civil engineer with
gray hair and a bushy mustache. "So I can’t tell you why those men
died." Salim—who asked that his real name not be used—eloquently
summarized most of what the other men had also told me.
"I can tell you there is more sex between men in Saudi Arabia than
other places," he believes, largely because men simply do not have the
opportunity to interact with women in Saudi society. If you are quiet about
it, you can have as much sex with men as you want, he says, and it’s easy to
find. "Sometimes I go to the mall, and I see men staring at me in that
way, and I know what they want."
There are real dangers if the police discover men cruising or having sex,
he admits, but the threat is not getting your head chopped off. "They
might threaten to expose you to your family if you don’t pay them money, or
they might [sexually] abuse you," says Salim. If you are arrested for gay
conduct, the typical reaction, says Salim, is to be sent to a hospital for the
equivalent of so-called "reparative therapy," that tries to make
People are beheaded for murder, rape and drug smuggling, he insists. Not
for being gay.
But, he adds, in a country where it is an act of rebellion for a woman to
drive, anything that defies the strict social codes in Saudi Arabia could be
construed as political. If as a gay person you are seen as ‘too open,"
in a way that might "threaten society"—meaning the heavy hand of
the government—it’s possible you could be executed for being gay, the men
I spoke to theorized. Or if you are seen as doing anything that might resemble
gay political organizing—whether it be in the Western tradition, or on a
much more basic level, such as trying to construct too much of a gay community—
then your life might be in danger, the men I spoke to conceded.
"You have to remember," Salim says with caution, "the
government does not tolerate threats of any nature."
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