Watch Tuesday, July 12, 2016 at 10pm on WMHT TV
Forty-seven. That’s how many people the government of Saudi Arabia executed on terror charges in a single day at the start of 2016, in the kingdom’s largest wave of executions in more than three decades.
That bloody day — which included the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a controversial Shia cleric and opponent of the Saudi government – sent shock waves around the region and the world, prompting fresh scrutiny of the oil-rich kingdom, long a U.S. ally.
Now, a new FRONTLINE documentary, Saudi Arabia Uncovered, goes inside the tightly-controlled kingdom to tell the stories of men and women who are risking everything to try to change their country, and challenge the powerful ruling regime.
With undercover footage, on-the-ground reporting, and unique access to al-Nimr’s family (his 21-year-old nephew Ali is now on death row for his alleged role in anti-government protests as a teenager), the documentary shows a side of Saudi Arabia rarely seen by the outside world: enormous wealth and modernity alongside stark poverty, public violence, and restrictions on women, such as the prohibition of driving.
“Saudi Arabia is at a critical moment right now, facing all sorts of economic, religious, and political pressure from both within and without,” says director and producer James Jones, who previously made the acclaimed FRONTLINE film Secret State of North Korea. “As the kingdom grapples with economic distress, the complicated wars in Syria and Yemen, and a resurgent Iran, we wanted to see firsthand what is happening on the ground.”
Though Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter and King Salman, the royal family, and their inner circle are among the wealthiest people in the world, the global crash in oil prices has hit the Saudi economy hard: As undercover footage obtained by FRONTLINE illustrates, as much as a quarter of the population is estimated to live in poverty.
“All the people are angry, but the problem is that they can’t speak. Everyone is scared of being imprisoned,” says an activist named Yasser who filmed for FRONTLINE. “If the truth comes out it will be the beginning of the end for [the regime].”
The undercover footage filmed by Yasser’s network of activists documents public violence against women, reveals brutal conditions inside a Saudi prison, and captures scenes of protest in the Shia-dominated east of the country after the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Saudi Arabia Uncovered also shows the kingdom’s notorious religious police – the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice – patrolling streets and shopping malls to enforce their strict form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, and how children are taught in school that Christians, Jews and Shia Muslims are the enemy.
Along the way, the film follows key figures leading efforts to make change in Saudi Arabia: Raif Badawi, a blogger who was imprisoned and sentenced to 1,000 lashes for posts critical of the government and Islam; and Loujain Hathloul, a prominent women’s rights activist who filmed herself driving in defiance of the kingdom’s laws.
“I’ve been threatened since the beginning,” Hathloul tells FRONTLINE, in a rare, in-person interview filmed inside Saudi Arabia at a secret location. “It’s scary, but I’m continuing … I’m not giving up.”
Neither is the family of Sheikh Nimr and his nephew Ali, who are now fighting for the young man’s life.
“I feel that the sword is against his neck,” Ali’s father tells FRONTLINE. “They say there will be repercussions. They expect that there will be chaos on the streets. So what do you think will happen, God forbid, if they execute him?“