Princess executed for eloping

The Observer, 22 January 1978, page 1

EXCLUSIVE

A Saudi Arabian Princess and her husband have been executed in public because she eloped with a commoner. A Special Correspondent reports

When Saudi Arabia issued a decree last summer banning travel by unaccompanied women, young Saudi Arabs bridled at what they believed was an excess of conservative Islamic zeal on the part of the ruling royal family.

Irritation over this measure has gradually changed to horrified disbelief and then indignation among many Saudis and other Arabs as word has gradually leaked out about the real reason for ban - a tragic romance last year in the desert kingdom involving the ultimately fatal bid of a Saudi princess to marry the man she loved.

The 23-year-old Princess Misha was one of the 2,000 princesses belonging to the house of Saud. Her grandfather was prince Muhammad Bin Adbul Aziz, the eldest surviving son of Ibn Saud and senior prince of the Saudi royal family.

The house of Saud increasingly intermarries as a means of protecting the family interest. It forbids its women to marry outside the family or a closely associated line, like that of the Sudeiris.

So when reports came back to Riyadh last summer of a romance in Beirut involving Princess Misha, the girl was swiftly summoned home and told that she must marry her family's choice - a man her father's age.

Her own suitor, whom she had met while studying in the Lebanon, was rejected by the family as a commoner, even though he was the cousin of Saudi Arabia's influential ambassador in Beirut, the former General Ali Shaar, who was Riyadh's proconsul in the Arab pact which ended the Lebanese civil war.

The princess, rather then submit to the family's choice, eloped with the young Shaar. They persuaded a sheikh to marry them and went to ground at the Hotel Al-Attras in a seaside resort called The Creek, north of Jedda.

There, last autumn, despite the travel ban imposed to prevent their escape, the young couple prepared to flee the country.

First, the princess staged a fake death by drowning, leaving her clothes on the shore. Then, disguised as a man in Saudi robes, her hair cut short under the head- cloth, the princess went to Jedda airport to board a plane with a group of friends. Her husband was to travel separately in the same plane.

But her identity was discovered when the passengers were searched by security guards before boarding the plane. They were both arrested on a royal warrant.

Dragged before her grand-father, the head of her branch of the royal family, the girl pleaded for mercy at least for her husband.

Traditionally a woman guilty of sexual offences is punished by her own family to cleanse their sense of family honour. In this case, the royal family was also enforcing its own rules forbidding mesalliance with commoners. Prince Muhammad, twice passed over for the kingship because of his rather choleric temperament and his drinking problem - sources of his nickname, Muhammad Abu Shaarain (Muhammad of the

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Fatal love of a princess

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Two Evils) - is a traditionalist who predictably turned a deaf ear to his granddaughter's appeals.

Saudi Arabia's supreme religious court under the Qadi refused to judge the case, implicitly confirming the subsequent contention of many Saudis that Muslim law had not been violated by the elopement, since the couple had married.

King Khaled, the sole surviving full brother of Prince Muhammad, refused to sign an execution order against the couple, but he did not intervene to prevent his brother from imposing his own form of family discipline.

On Prince Muhammad's orders, the couple were taken to the bazaar in Jedda on the following Friday midday - the customary time and place for the punishment of criminals. Other Saudi princesses were taken there to witness the spectacle.

The grandfather's retainers shot the princess dead in front of her husband.

The husband was then beheaded, in a way that was especially gruesome because it was inflicted not by a Saudi executioner used to wielding the special sword but by the old prince's bodyguards.

The episode is in the first place a personal tragedy, a ghastly lapse in a society in rapid transition, where social changes which covered centuries in Europe are taking place over a few years.

It is not typical of Saudi Arabia today and has shocked even conservative supporters of the royal family. But it does illustrate the extraordinary confusion created by the ruling family's attempt to modernise the country without losing its grip on power or alienating conservative religious opinion.

The Saudi rulers, increasingly sophisticated and influential in world finance and politics, have used their oil wealth to launch a vast plan of economic and social development which is bound to have a profound effect on Saudi society. Yet the balance of power between rivals within the ruling family has meant that social liberalisation at home has proceeded at an erratic pace and political power-sharing taken place hardly at all.

The Saudi rulers have, however, tolerated some improvements in the position of women, especially in their access to education, at a relatively fast pace in Saudi terms.

Saudi women are still forbidden to drive a car or appear unveiled in public. But they are gaining ground in the kingdom and their talents must one day be more fully mobilised, if Saudi Arabia is to manage its own oil wealth without excessive reliance on foreigners.