On this date in 1977, a 19-year-old royal adulteress and her paramour were executed in a Jeddah parking lot by the order of the girl’s powerful grandfather.
Princess Misha’al‘s fate has been obscured by secrecy and the Rashomon-like interpretations imposed upon it by observers.
In its outline (and the first stock interpretation we’re imposing) it’s that timeless human tragedy, the love story, in which headstrong royal daughter and suffocating traditional family square off over the seditious power of the feminine libido.
The princess, in a youthful arranged marriage by most accounts, took up with a Saudi boy while both were studying abroad in cosmopolitan Beirut, and dangerously attempted to maintain the affair back in the royal kingdom to the point of a quixotic (and obviously foiled) escape attempt. Whether under color of a judicial proceeding — the story says Misha’al refused to walk away by simply renouncing her lover and defiantly brought down the death sentence by confessing adultery — or simply on his own authority, the girl’s staunchly conservative* grandfather exercised his right as tribal patriarch to inflict an honor killing for the disgrace they had brought on the family.
The execution in Jeddah — she by gunshot,** he by a very clumsy beheading — that is supposed to have occurred on this date was public, but quiet; news of it got abroad only slowly and incompletely. Small wonder that, once it did, the blended motifs of Romeo and Juliet, harem titillation and oil politics made dynamite material for high-, middle- or lowbrow exploitation.
In 1980, the affair became the subject of one of the most notorious television programs ever aired, the docudrama Death of a Princess. This film’s airing in Britain in 1980 led Riyadh to expel the British ambassador, and cost £200 million of lost revenue for the UK from canceled orders and product boycotts by the Saudis.†
It was aired on in the United States on PBS in 1980 to similar controversy, as oil companies rushed to distance themselves from it.
Rebroadcast in 2005, Death of a Princess is available online for your judgment (as is this partial script): is this a muckraking expose of a shameful crime? orientalist heavy petting? “a sensitive and thoughtful exploration of the Arab dilemma,” as per its own advance publicity? and what did the official apologies (and in only a few countries, censorship) say about the political weight of the petroleum industry?
These, meanwhile, are the western reactions, already removed from events by a further layer of mediation, a forest of axes seeking grinding. If the writer who composed this piece is to be believed, the executed girl has posthumously achieved a sort of universal symbolic gravity in the Arab world, standing for the plight of any hopeless cause of justice dashed against authoritarian power.
* For the House of Saud, it must be recalled, the personal was political in the problematic confrontation between tradition and modernity athwart the desert kingdom’s sea of oil.
** “Princess Misha’al” was executed fully veiled, which permits the rumor that the slain woman was actually a surrogate and the onetime royal favorite lives on incognito somewhere.
† According to the July 4, 1980 London Times.
Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.
Editor’s note: References to “Princess Misha” corrected; thanks to hannah for the clarification.