Praying for Jamal Khashoggi

Last Nov. 7, I wrote a column about the new Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. It ended this way: “As a veteran Saudi journalist remarked to me of MBS: ‘This guy saved Saudi Arabia from a slow death, but he needs to broaden his base. It is good that he is freeing the house of Saud of the influence of the clergy, but he is also not allowing any second opinion of his political and economic decisions.'”

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Thomas L. Friedman
, New York Times

Last Nov. 7, I wrote a column about the new Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. It ended this way: “As a veteran Saudi journalist remarked to me of MBS: ‘This guy saved Saudi Arabia from a slow death, but he needs to broaden his base. It is good that he is freeing the house of Saud of the influence of the clergy, but he is also not allowing any second opinion of his political and economic decisions.'”

I don’t think that Saudi journalist, who was also a friend, would mind if I now identified him. His name was Jamal Khashoggi.

Jamal had come to my office a few days earlier for a long talk about Saudi Arabia and MBS. My views on Saudi Arabia are my own, but Jamal had a big impact on them. He had been inside the government. He understood that perfect was never on the menu there; you had to work with what you had. He loved his country and wanted to see it succeed, and believed that MBS could shake things up and make the needed radical reforms — but also believed that MBS needed a lot of coaching, because he had a dark side and was too isolated inside a small ruling circle.

As the year went on, Jamal came to believe that MBS’ dark side was completely taking over. When we last spoke in August — thanks to a chance encounter at 17th and K streets in Washington — he told me that he was getting married to a Turkish woman, and could not go back to Saudi Arabia right now and that I must ring an alarm bell about the increasingly harsh crackdowns and the arrests of critics — left, right and center — in Saudi Arabia by MBS.

And so on Sept. 4 I wrote a column that doubled down on the view of Saudi Arabia and MBS that I had been making for the past year. It said:

“I have little doubt that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the only one in his family who would have initiated the vital social, religious and economic reforms that he’s dared to do all at once — and that he is also the only one in that family who’d have undertaken the bullying foreign policy initiatives, domestic power plays and excessive personal buying sprees he’s dared to do all at once. These are two halves of the same MB package, and, as I’ve argued, our job is to help curb his bad impulses and nurture his good ones. But Trump — who still doesn’t even have an ambassador in Saudi Arabia — is AWOL.”

I went on to explain that I never believed that democracy was on the MBS agenda — he was not trying to create Denmark — but that social, economic and, most important, religious reforms were. And the latter to me was the most important, but it depended on the first two moving forward. Considering the hugely damaging role that Saudi Arabia played in the Arab Muslim world, when, post-1979, it began to aggressively spread its puritanical form of Islam — which helped seed 9/11 — the idea that the kingdom might have a leader today who was beginning to shift Saudi Sunni Islam onto a more open and inclusive path, one that would isolate radical Islamists and strengthen moderates everywhere, was a vital American interest. It had to start in Saudi Arabia, the home of Mecca and Medina.

It was obvious, though, I added, that in recent months MBS had undertaken a series of ill-considered steps that were hurting him, Saudi Arabia and us. I explained that MBS had some hard-line advisers who were urging him to follow the “China model.'’ These advisers pointed out to him what happened when China asserted itself in the South China Sea: After it seized islands, the world complained, but when China responded by saying “get lost,'’ the world backed down. So when Canada mildly criticized a Saudi Arabian human rights abuse, MBS took the China approach, went nuclear and virtually broke off relations. It was an “absurd overreaction,'’ I noted. “Saudi Arabia is not China. It needs friends. It needs to be more Dubai than Shanghai — more soft power, less bullying.'’

Whatever goodwill MBS got for empowering women to drive beginning in June, I added, was undermined by his arrests of female driving activists on charges of being related to some anti-Saudi groups in London. “Seriously,” I asked, “is Saudi Arabia really threatened by women driving activists?” And the Saudi-United Arab Emirates war in Yemen has been so badly botched that the Saudis have been accused of possible war crimes, even though Iran and the Houthi rebels had also contributed mightily to Yemen’s destruction.

The future stability of Saudi Arabia and the whole Arab Gulf depends on the reform process in Saudi succeeding, and it can’t succeed without significant investments by foreigners and Saudis to create a more vibrant and diverse private sector that can offer decent jobs to all the young Saudis, men and women, coming out of universities at home and abroad. MBS is still popular with many of them, but if they can’t find jobs, the religious extremists in Saudi Arabia will find many recruits among them.

But for good reasons Saudi and foreign investors have become wary. They saw over the last six months in particular, I noted, a deepening pattern by MBS, on the advice of hard-liners around him, to put “security'’ issues ahead of the need to attract investors and talent and ministers ready to take chances and tell him the truth. Money was flowing out of the Kingdom, not in.

Each MBS action, I concluded, “may have been individually justifiable, but taken together they suggest that he’s lost the plot; he’s creating more uncertainty than respect.” President Donald Trump and his team don’t understand: “The U.S. can’t just subcontract order-making in the Middle East to Israel, Russia and Saudi Arabia and write them blank checks. Their leaders actually need us to draw redlines for them, too, so they can tell their own hotheads and extremists, ‘Hey, I am with you — but the Americans won’t let me do that.'”

That point about the “China model” was leaked to me over the summer by people close to the Saudi crown prince, who were becoming increasingly alarmed.

So I was shocked — but not surprised — to pick up the paper and read that Saudi Arabia stood accused of abducting or murdering Jamal Khashoggi while he was on a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get some marriage papers in order. We still need to see hard evidence that these allegations are true. I truly hope that they are not. But this smells to high heaven, and it fits a steadily worsening trend.

If Jamal has been abducted or murdered by agents of the Saudi government, it will be a disaster for MBS and a tragedy for Saudi Arabia and all the Arab Gulf countries. It would be an unfathomable violation of norms of human decency, worse not in numbers but in principle than even the Yemen war. What Western leader, and how many Western investors, will want to stand alongside MBS if it is proved that his government abducted or murdered Jamal? (And the truth will come out.)

And those of us who were ready to see both the upsides and downsides of MBS’ initiatives — and sincerely wanted his reforms to succeed because the upsides, if realized, were so strategically important for the future of the whole Arab-Muslim world — will conclude that the downsides have swamped the upsides and that this Saudi regime has become a threat to Saudi Arabia’s needed transformation not an engine of it.

So I am praying for Jamal. Every country needs its constructive critics. The medicine they dispense is distasteful to most leaders, but it often makes them more healthy in the end. MBS should be praying for him as well.

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