Jamal Khashoggi told me he feared for his life. I was reporting a cover story on Saudi Arabia for Newsweek and we were speaking confidentially: That’s one reason I haven’t allowed this transcript to be published until now. The other reason is I hoped against hope that he was still alive. Despite ample signs of the extreme brutality of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his regime, I could never have imagined we would so soon be reflecting on Jamal’s death.
Jamal was calm and deliberate as we spoke in great detail about Saudi Arabia’s future and its recent past. “I don’t see myself as an opposition,” he said. He wanted only reform; he wanted “a better Saudi Arabia.” He was almost mournful as he confessed how he had tried, in vain, to advise the young crown prince, known as MBS, to choose a different path and open up Saudi civil society. He maintained a sliver of hope that MBS, despite being “an old-fashioned tribal leader,” could yet be steered toward reason. But he spoke frankly to me about the “thuggish” men around the crown prince. “You challenge them, you might end up in prison,” he said.
As someone who had been close to the Saudi royal court for decades, Jamal instinctively understood the limits of reform. He has been described as a dissident in the weeks following his disappearance. But until 18 months ago, he had been loyal to the official Saudi line on every major issue, from Yemen to Syria to state-sanctioned sectarianism inside the kingdom. Such loyalty did not spare him the repugnant fate—according to Turkish officials—of being tortured to death and dismembered in a Saudi consulate.
In his final Al-Hayat column, Jamal was calling for political pluralism, at a time when MBS was preparing to tour the West, boasting about his “reforms” and posing as a young liberator. Jamal wrote that the word “extremism” had been weaponized by the Saudi regime to criminalize dissent. He arguably embraced the promise of the Arab Spring six years too late—by then, Saudi Arabia and its allies had succeeded in restoring a brutal authoritarian order in Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere. Still, when Jamal added his voice to those calling for greater freedom and democracy, his words shook the Saudi regime.
It’s beyond irony that Saudi Arabia, whose chief exports are oil and extremism, is afforded the right in Washington to inform our government which democratic movements across the Arab world should be regarded as worthy allies or official enemies. Our addiction to oil, as well as to the tens of billions in annual orders by the largest customer of the U.S. arms industry, has led us to denial of the obvious. [Continue reading…]