Part Two. Execution

How will your first day in Saudi Arabia begin?

Friday, noon. A crowd has surrounded the center of old Riyadh. Just moments ago, a large Friday prayer concluded at the city’s main mosque, al-Jumah. A sharp sword, slightly over a meter long, with a curved end in Arabic style, forged from sunlit steel, is now held high above the figure kneeling on the ground. Only the bared neck is visible, peeking out from under the white clothing that covers the entire body. Sixty or more people stand still along the perimeter of the wide quadrangular square, guarded by an erratic row of eight soldiers dressed in bronze-colored uniforms.

The executioner, carrying the sword, assumes threatening proportions and appears somewhat mystical and ghostly in his long white robe called a dishdasha and a red checkered headband known as a kufiya. He is ready to deliver the decisive strike but suddenly steps back. Retreats a couple of steps away from the scaffold. Quietly confers with two policemen and another individual — the only person who can stop him: the victim of the criminal sentenced to death.

The brief consultation is over. The executioner returns to the scaffold. He places his right foot forward and spreads his left foot wide back, as if stretching. The raised sword glimmers in a momentary sunbeam. A split second — and...!

However, the executioner simply lowers the sword smoothly onto the neck of the condemned. He lets feel the tempered steel. The criminal’s body tenses up and freezes in anticipation. The sword is once again raised high above, but this time it’s for real. One precise and powerful strike cleaves through the skin, muscles, and bones with a dull, hollow sound. A bloody waterfall bursts forth from the severed neck onto the granite square with a distinctive sound, as if wet laundry is being wrung out in a steel basin. The decapitated body leans forward, tilts slightly, and falls onto its right side.

The executioner wipes the sword with a piece of white fabric. The crowd disperses as two individuals in blue jumpsuits emerge from the depths of the low arches surrounding the square. They lift the body and place it on a stretcher. One of them picks up the head by the cloth it was wrapped in. The composition of the crime is loudly read out: rape, drug trafficking, and demonic possession. The executioner sheathes the sword. A bearded man in a soldier’s uniform claps his hands and raises them towards the sky.

In five minutes, there will be no one left in the square except for a cleaner who is rinsing the bloody granite with water from a hose.

The death penalty is practiced in many countries. Public executions are popular only in four locations worldwide. Well, as for public executions utilizing the full spectrum of “technologies,” such as hanging, beheading, stoning, firing squad, as well as decapitation followed by crucifixion using cranes, it is applied only in Saudi Arabia. In Iran, they execute seven times more people per year, but even there, they manage without beheadings. When comparing Saudi Arabia to other countries, this important detail is often overlooked for some reason.

Someone claims that recently public executions have ceased in Saudi Arabia and the situation is improving. Nothing of the sort. The wide quadrangular square where the executed person’s head flew off is locally known as Chop-Chop Square.

Chop-Chop Square doesn’t have anything interesting to offer. It’s just an empty space in the center of old Riyadh, surrounded by low walls. One of the adjacent buildings houses the central city mosque. The court and various ministries are located nearby the square. It’s an ideal place for carrying out executions.

Completing the architectural complex of the square is the Ministry of “Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice,” whose sand-colored facade bears a poster with the slogan: “My prayer is my happiness.”

On all days except Friday, the square is unremarkable and even dull. Arabs sit in the shade at tables, drinking tea, prayers take place in the mosque, and overall, it’s very pleasant to relax under the palm trees in the heat.

On Friday, a special and lengthy Friday prayer takes place, which is very important for Muslims. Countless crowds of Riyadh residents gather at the nearest mosques from all sides. The area around the central square is cordoned off by the police. Sirens are constantly blaring, and dozens of red and blue lights are flashing. It feels as if they are here not to protect against a terrorist attack, but as if the attack has already occurred.

Even close to the Chop-Chop Square, there is no desire to be present during this time, let alone thinking of going inside. Armed soldiers stop any non-Muslim and conduct thorough searches. After that, they are allowed to proceed.

And then disappointment awaits. Muslims go into the mosque. The square is patrolled by police in a jeep. The tension is incredibly high: “it” is about to happen. But still, disappointment awaits further.

The author came to witness the execution, keeping a camera in a bag in the off state — I didn’t want to risk losing my own head for attempting to film the beheading. Armed soldiers at the approach to the square checked the bag, exchanged glances, communicated something over the radio, and let me through. Then I sat on a bench for half an hour, waiting to see what would happen.

After a few minutes, the Arabs who had finished their tea left. A police jeep pulled up, and the officer disembarked a few meters away. The jeep then drove into visibility at the other end of the square, while the soldier remained standing, pretending to have no concern for me. The author sat on a bench under the palm trees, folding hands, keeping the camera turned off inside the bag.

Nothing else happened on the square. No execution took place. But as soon as I stood up and started walking towards the exit, a soldier immediately stopped me. Asked me to open my bag. Took out the camera and turned it on. Asked me to flip through the photos, which depicted streets of Riyadh. Then snatched the camera from my hands and scrolled through them in reverse, reporting over the radio what he saw in each photo. Several minutes passed until he was convinced that I hadn’t captured the square.

I didn’t witness any execution. They have indeed stopped conducting them at Chop-Chop Square, but only at that particular square! To avoid gathering crowds of onlookers, Saudi authorities now carry out beheadings not at the central mosque but at the location where the crime was committed.

It’s incredible how insane the laws are here. First, they arrest the murderer and put him in prison. They hold a trial. The only thing that can save them from execution is ransom. Often, the relatives of the killer and the relatives of the victim negotiate among themselves for the payment of ransom. As a result, murderers are not always executed, while the heads roll for drug dealers, homosexuals, and political dissidents who either no one cares about or it’s too risky to get involved with them.

The most important thing is that after the trial, if the crime scene can be determined, the victim is taken to that specific location, wherever it may be, and their head is severed right there. Even if it’s right in the middle of the street. For example, like this woman who killed and raped a child, screaming until the end that she was innocent.

Well, nothing else happens at Chop-Chop Square. Not far from the former execution site, a city museum has been opened in the former fortress. Workers and businessmen often come here on weekends, and school excursions are organized. Practically none of these “tourists” even know that heads were being chopped off a hundred meters away.

Old Riyadh

Masmak Fortress is a beautifully executed modern reconstruction of the old fort.

The fortress features a restored 19th-century Arabian interior, which is deemed dull and meaningless, much like the entirety of Arabia.

Model of the old city.

On the wall, there are quotes from King Abdul-Aziz: “I conquered this country through the will of Allah and the Arab spirit.”

A working replica of Allah’s will is kept in the courtyard.


Interesting characters. A bit cunning, were sniffing out something.

Streets beyond the fortress.


Next to the fort, there is also a market, a typical bazaar, like in any third-world country. The market sells carpets, clothing, and gold.

As soon as I took this harmless shot, a police officer noticed me. He beckoned me to his car and asked for my passport. Examined my business visa for a long time. Realizing that he couldn’t do anything about it, he made a disappointed, almost upset face and with the tone of a kindergarten teacher said:

“Andrew... You... Photo?” (Like, aren’t you ashamed, you’re a businessman after all)
“No, only Fort Masmak!”
“Ah, okay, inshallah.”

A few kilometers from Riyadh, there is another historical site — the ruins of the old city of Ad-Diriyah.

The restored ruins, of course.

There is only one reason to write about them — it’s astonishingly empty and crude here, as if I stumbled into a plastic model.

But I must say, the Arabs are restoring with great skill. The doors seem to have been carved by the same master as 200 years ago.

However, there is no need to go to artificial ruins. Secretly speaking, there are plenty of real ruins in the city center. I wandered around the city for a long time, exploring all the non-touristy places. Hidden behind meager skyscrapers and a wealthy private sector, Riyadh, in its essence, consists of dirty, unkempt streets with dilapidated low-rise houses.

This is what is happening a hundred meters away from Chop-Chop Square.

This is what real Riyadh looks like. Just like those museum ruins, but for real. Old houses built from sand and corals, as if washed away by water — only piles of clay remain, no framework at all.

Such streets occupy more than half of the city. Riyadh is full of Pakistani neighborhoods that look even worse.

I explored the entire city and decided to take out my camera only in a couple of places. After all the Saudi paranoia and two detentions, who knows if they would have mistaken me for a spy or just a careless idiot.