The three men are all described as "moderate" Sunni clerics: wad al-Qarni, a Sunni preacher, academic and author; Ali al-Omari, a popular broadcaster; and Sheikh Salman al-Odah, all of whom were arrested in September 2017 alongside 20 other clerics in a renewed crackdown on dissent.
Saudi to execute three scholars after Ramadan#SaudiArabia is likely to execute three renowned scholars after the holy #fasting month of #Ramadan on charges of expressing political and social views that differed from those of the kingdom’s rulers.#stlblues #instagramdown pic.twitter.com/fv5pd6Fr34— thevoiceofresistance (@thevoiceofresi1) May 22, 2019
Al-Odah is by far the most well-known of the three, with a Twitter following of 13.4 million users who spawned hashtags like #freesalmanalodah and "Salman al-Odah is not a terrorist" following his arrest. His TV station, "For Youth," also has a massive following, Middle East Eye noted.
Al-Odah was given 37 charges of terrorism for criticizing the government — part of a move by Riyadh begun in 2014 to categorize even tweets as "terrorist activities, Sputnik reported.
He was also charged with affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist movement that is moderate by the standards of Wahhabism, the state's official ultra-conservative Muslim sect. The Brotherhood once had close ties to the Saudi monarchy, but in recent years they have drifted apart as the group grew increasingly critical of Riyadh's harsh rule and became identified with its regional rival of Qatar.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had the Brotherhood declared a terrorist organization in 2014, turning it into the scapegoat for all of Riyadh's political problems.
Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who according to the CIA, was murdered in Istanbul at the behest of bin Salman in October 2018, was also a critic of the Saudi government and close to the Brotherhood.
It is remarkable that, while the anti-terrorist laws were made primarily to enable Riyadh to more effectively crack down on rebellious Shiites in the heavily oppressed Eastern Province, the law is also being used to destroy moderate Sunni critics of the regime as well.
A source told Middle East Eye that Riyadh was initially cautious about pursuing execution for the clerics, but "when they found out there was very little international reaction, particularly at the level of governments and heads of state, they decided to proceed."
"The executions, if they go ahead, would be very serious, and could present a dangerous tipping point," a family member of one of the condemned told Middle East Eye.
The source also said the government hopes to take advantage of US tensions with Iran, Saudi Arabia's bete noire, to minimize international blowback from the executions. The Saudi Foreign Ministry made clear on Sunday its intention to "respond with full force and determination" to a war between its ally, the United States, and Iran, Sputnik reported.
"They are encouraged to do it, especially with the tension in the Gulf at the moment.
Washington wants to please the Saudis at the moment," the source said. "The [Saudi] government calculates that this enables them to get away with this."
Last month, Saudi Arabia executed 37 people, mostly Shiite activists, on terrorism charges, beheading them and crucifying their corpses. The country has executed 105 people in 2019 so far — 44 of them foreign nationals — according to human rights group Reprieve. Last year it executed 149 people, the third-highest total for any country, behind Iran and China, according to Amnesty International.