One year ago today, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) hosted a panel discussion on Saudi Arabia that featured, among other experts, Saudi journalist, Washington Post columnist, and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. The event, “Mohammed bin Salman: A Deeper Look,” coincided with the Saudi leader’s first visit to the United States as crown prince. At the time, many in Washington were heralding bin Salman as a modernizing reformer. Amid the fanfare that accompanied Mohammed bin Salman’s trip to the United States, POMED decided to hold this event to subject the crown prince’s reform credentials to critical examination and to highlight acts of repression that had been lost in the discourse about the Kingdom.
In the past year, we have sadly seen Saudi Arabia under bin Salman sink to new levels of oppression, vindictiveness, and violence. The Saudi regime’s October 2018 assassination of Jamal at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the detention and torture of women’s rights activists, and many other egregious acts have shattered the false narrative surrounding bin Salman’s rule, sparking the greatest crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations since the attacks of September 11. As POMED continues to push for accountability for Jamal’s murder, we mark the anniversary of this event, at which we were honored to host him, by releasing the transcript of his remarks.
“Jamal’s remarks at our event are a striking reminder of just who Jamal was—a thoughtful Saudi citizen who cared deeply about the direction of his country and who wanted to engage in debates and discussions on exactly that topic,” said POMED Executive Director Stephen McInerney. “Tragically, the Saudi state under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has gone to extreme lengths to prevent any Saudi citizens—even those outside the kingdom—from expressing dissenting or critical views, and Jamal’s brutal murder is one of the most horrific examples of that.”
Andrew Miller (moderator): What is Mohammed bin Salman’s vision for Saudi Arabia? What motivates him? What effect has he had on universal freedoms in the Kingdom, such as freedom of the press, speech, and assembly?
Jamal Khashoggi: I think he wants to make Saudi Arabia great again—and more enjoyable. That is very important. He grew up in a very interesting time in the early 2000s. At that time, Saudi Arabia began to question the staggering status quo—the lack of freedom, the lack of entertainment, the pressure of the religious police, the heavy hand of the religious authority and the ‘ulama.
At that time, I played a role—when I was an editor of al-Watan—in pushing those ideas and discussing those pressures on us, the Saudis. We challenged for the first time the senior council of ‘ulama on a number of issues from the mixing of the sexes to the sighting of the moon. What was the sighting of the moon? It was an important issue in Saudi Arabia, because the Salafi understanding of religion was that the people should not see the moon through binoculars or by calculations; they have to see it physically. And that was a big issue and it consumed a number of pages in al-Watan newspaper that I was leading. Of course, when I look back, it was a waste of time.
At that time, I’m sure Mohammed bin Salman as a young man attended those gatherings where people would be complaining about—and exchanging stories about—the Mutaween [religious police] that came into coffee houses, and they arrested women, and they banned events. We would be complaining about it, and at the same time we would be complaining that the leaders of the country were not doing anything about it. I remember, for example, we ran a story in al-Watan about a man who was beaten to death by the religious police. And the governorate of Riyadh, which was led by King Salman, the father of Mohammed bin Salman, investigated the issue and came to the conclusion that beating a man on the head is not a cause of death. It was a ridiculous statement, and I only had to take it and publish it in the front page with no comments, because I couldn’t comment on it. But I am sure Mohammad bin Salman experienced that. I don’t know if Mohammed bin Salman went to his father and argued about that. Maybe at that time he said, “If I become king one day, I will change all of this.” And he is doing that.
So I appreciate what he is doing: he is pushing forward reform, he is opening up Saudi Arabia socially, he is freeing us from radicalism, he is creating the miracle that Saudi Arabia was reluctant to create. And that was probably his biggest selling point here in America today, and that is why he is being perceived already in America as departing Saudi Arabia from radicalism. Since 9/11, when every American president and every American secretary of state goes to Saudi Arabia, he will open this discussion [about radicalism] with the Saudi officials, and the Saudi officials will give and take. But Mohammed bin Salman does not give and take. He just departs Saudi Arabia from radicalism, and this is good for us too. I am not complaining as a Saudi Arabian that Americans are celebrating that. It is good for America, it is good for the world, it is good also for Saudi Arabia. He is being celebrated for that. But at the same time—obviously, and this is not spontaneous, it is all planned—I think he believes in leveling the field for his reforms. He doesn’t want any competition, he doesn’t want any counter opinion, he doesn’t want any critique. So, he almost shut down everybody, and he is moving ahead with his reforms and he thinks he can lead.
Is the blueprint for that in some book? I don’t know. But he is obviously not doing things unintentionally. It is planned; it is prepared. When he arrested intellectuals last September, it was planned to silence everybody. The “corruption” purge, it was planned to make everybody be at his mercy. So he is leveling the field and pushing for reform on his own. If he succeeds, he will succeed alone, and of course we will all celebrate him. If not, maybe he will start looking at us [the Saudi people] and that will be an interesting phase. That is what I’m hoping for: that eventually one day he will be looking out for the people of Saudi Arabia, to include them in his reform. I wish he could do that today, but I don’t think he will. He has all the power, he has all the support, and the international community is not pressuring him. The issues of human rights or arrests were not raised in America or in the United Kingdom, except by a journalist or in a brief statement. So bin Salman has all the power and he is going to move forward. I don’t think he will look at us for now, but maybe in the near future, I hope.
Andrew Miller: One of the key things that emerged from all of your commentaries is that there is a high level of image involved in what is taking place, and that is not unusual. Public relations image is integral to most aspects of modern life and certainly to governments. Do you think that Mohammed bin Salman recognizes the difference between what is propaganda, what is a public relations message, and what is actually happening? And I ask that because there was that extraordinary article in the New York Times yesterday by David Kirkpatrick on this cartoon that portrayed Saudi Arabia conducting a military operation against Iran that results in the capture of Qassem Soleimani. I think most military experts would say that Saudi Arabia does not have the military capacity to undertaking such an operation, but there is value in presenting that image. Does bin Salman recognize what’s real from what is manufactured? Because that can certainly have a major impact on what Saudi behavior is. Is he really overestimating what’s capable of being produced or are the people who are seeking to curry favor with him playing in or exacerbating the problem?
Jamal Khashoggi: When I see some of the statements he made recently, I wonder, is it hopeful thinking, is it being diplomatic, or is it a departure from reality? For example, he said to [Washington Post columnist] David Ignatius that Saad Hariri is more powerful today after Riyadh than he was before Riyadh. That, I’m sure everyone in this room agrees, is not true. Saad Hariri is much weaker in the hand of Hezbollah after what happened in Riyadh.
When the crown prince was in Cairo, he met with a group of Egyptian journalists and he said a number of things: that he did not expect Egypt to come out of its predicament, that he was very much overwhelmed by what he saw, and that he thinks President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is doing a great job. Many of you here in this room can write an article arguing whether Egypt is making a comeback economically or not. Bin Salman also said 80 percent of the Arab world is safe and that it is not true that the Arab world is falling apart. Again, we can argue about that too. He also—and this is in my article today in the Washington Post, about his top-down approach— said to the Egyptian journalists that he is planning to build a “Red Sea Riviera” that will attract 3 million tourists every year. I said in the article that there is no free press in Egypt—nor in Saudi Arabia—to question him and to say that we already have thousands of tourist locations in Egypt—buildings, and resorts, and hotels—that lack tourists. Let’s fix what we have today before we build a new “Red Sea Riviera.” Is that public relations talk or reality?
I will come to what happened yesterday [in bin Salman’s meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House]. I see President Trump talked about Saudi money coming into America, which I don’t think was appropriate of him. I am sure Mohammed bin Salman wasn’t comfortable with the way that Trump portrayed Saudi Arabia. Trump is also wrong when he talks about how that money is peanuts to us. Saudi Arabia has a serious poverty problem. Money is not peanuts to us. To spend billions of dollars on frigates or air force is a serious thing. Today the Saudi Shura Council is talking for the first time about 40 percent or 35 percent unemployment—the official number is 12 percent or 12.5 percent. When I met with [Saudi economist] Essam al-Zamil before he left for Saudi Arabia—two days later he was arrested and jailed—he showed me a graph where he argued that unemployment has to be more than 20 percent. But now we are talking about 35 percent. So as much as Donald Trump is concerned about providing jobs for Americans, Mohammed bin Salman should be concerned about providing jobs for Saudis. When foreigners in Saudi Arabia object, or go out in the street, or burn tires if their salaries are late, we will deport them. But if Saudis do that in five years’ time, we cannot deport them. He has to deal with that.
So I will end with the following: we need to see the reality of politics between President Trump and Saudi Arabia. If it is true that Mohammed bin Salman invested all that money in the American economy, I’m sure that he wants something in return. I see three things that he wants. He wants the Trump administration to help Saudi Arabia push Iran out of the region. Can that happen? Does bin Salman realize the limitation on the Americans in being able to push Iran out of Syria and Lebanon and Iraq is that actually Donald Trump wants to get out? The story in the Washington Post is that he asked Saudi Arabia for help, for $4 billion dollars to get [the United States] out of Syria. I am sure Saudi Arabia would rather pay him money to stay in Syria, not to leave Syria. This is number one. Number two, the nuclear plans of Saudi Arabia. I am sure Mohammed bin Salman wants an agreement with the Americans, maybe we can get that, to ease some of the regulations that will allow Saudi Arabia to compete with Iran. And if the Iranians can enrich to certain levels, we have the right to do the same. The last thing that I presume Mohammed bin Salman will be asking of the Americans is to lay off the Qatari issue. Can that happen? So again about reality and politics, it is easy to say that the Arab world—80 percent of the Arab world—is still in safe hands, is still good; but reality doesn’t say so. So I’m not sure if he’s saying that as public relations, assuring the masses, or he really sees things differently from how we see them.
Audience Member: What is the relationship between Mohammed bin Salman and Islam? Is there an emerging form of state Islam that he is trying to push and what is his relationship with other forms of modern Islam that exist in other countries, such as Muslim Brotherhood-related forms of Islam that Saudi Arabia has not agreed upon since the Arab Spring?
Jamal Khashoggi: I think this is one of the most challenging questions for the crown prince. It is easy to say, “I am going to return to moderate Islam.” But what is moderate Islam? It is easy to say, “I am going to return Saudi Arabia [to how it was] before 1979.” What was there before 1979? I grew up before 1979 and it wasn’t a moderate Saudi Arabia. The only difference between before 1979 and after was that before the Saudi government did not empower the religious establishment to go out in the streets, but the religious establishment was as rigid as they were today. So if someone is to blame, it is the government who allowed the establishment to come out in the streets and force their views on the people. He has a serious problem with the Brotherhood, even though the Brotherhood could be the answer for modernity and Islam. He despises—he doesn’t disagree, he despises—the Brotherhood. But the problem is Saudi Arabia cannot be a secular state, it cannot depart from Islam for its history. It was established as an Islamic state—a Wahhabi Islamic state—and it has the two grand mosques, Mecca and Medina. So there is no way, even if he wants to, he cannot depart from Islam as the guiding force, the guiding structure for Saudi Arabia. Actually the “constitution,” Al Nizam Al Asassi lil Hukm, which is the basic law of Saudi Arabia, describes Saudi Arabia as an Islamic state (we don’t call it the constitution because Islamically we shouldn’t call it a constitution). So we are an Islamic state. So Islam is going to follow Saudi Arabia. It has to find an answer to what Islam to follow, but right now there is no environment for a proper discourse about that. Often you will find Saudi writers, commentators, an authority on television or at a Saudi gathering, who will go bashing political Islam. And it is ironic to bash political Islam in a country that is the mother and father of political Islam. So what I expect is there will be less of religion in Saudi Arabia for the time being until he needs to discover some form to accommodate Islam as a guiding force in Saudi Arabia.
Just briefly, now the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh and Myanmar, there is hardly a Saudi relief organization there. There are Kuwaitis, there are Qataris, but Saudis are not there. Why? Because we are in limbo right now. We don’t know what to do with our relief organization that one day we were so big on. Should we go there or not? Should we support the Rohingya? Saudi Arabia is in confusion in its relationship to Islam today. There is no answer yet, but it’s going to haunt Mohammed bin Salman, and he has to provide that. He’s not under pressure today, but eventually he has to come up with an answer. The intimidation that spread in the kingdom, he’s not allowing voices of Islamic activists to come out, for the time being. Everybody is keeping silent. But what to do with Islam when you are in an Islamic state? You have to accommodate some form of Islam in your country.
Audience Member: What does the tipping point look like in Saudi Arabia, when there may be a realization that they’re not seeing the benefit from Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms? When might we see that in Saudi Arabia?
Jamal Khashoggi: Jobs. He has to provide jobs…. There are very important economic transformations happening in Saudi Arabia and it is worth spending extensive time studying it. I don’t see even Mohammed bin Salman taking credit for that. As much as his reform, social reform, is changing the country—when it comes to entertainment, when it comes to departure from radicalism—there are two things happening today that are going unnoticed. Number one, an emerging new merchant class, because the old merchant class is very much bruised after the Ritz Carlton. It’s not used to the new rules of the game, and many of them will probably be departing the scene. Many companies probably will be going bankrupt. There are many companies right now that are signing IOU notices to the government. Because the government really doesn’t want to keep companies under the Public Investment Fund, they would rather have cash. So they are telling those released from the Ritz Carlton hotel, or detainees, that we will keep those companies, or those lands of yours, or those assets of yours, under control until you pay us that amount of money. So there will be many business people in Saudi Arabia who will be working for the government for the foreseeable future. That is going to change the private sector in Saudi Arabia.
Another major change happening is the levy imposed on foreign labor, driving foreigners out of the country. I fully support that. I wrote a book about that. I think it is the right thing to do, and it’s going to have an effect, a major effect, socially. It will change the work ethic, it will change the way Saudi people see job opportunity and business opportunity. Let’s remember that when we are talking about foreigners, we are not talking about 12 percent [of the population] as you have here in America, we are talking about 70 percent. Seventy percent of the labor force of Saudi Arabia is controlled by foreigners’ jobs, and a number I don’t have, many of those, many of the small and medium businesses of Saudi Arabia are controlled and owned by foreigners—with Saudi Arabia as a front only. And the government is addressing that today. I haven’t seen a story, but there should be a story coming out about the vacancies, the jobs, the shops that are being closed down; there are vacant apartments. I met Yemenis who left Saudi Arabia and they are moving to Turkey. And I’m talking about the rich Yemenis who made good money who are able to buy a house and move to Turkey. Others are moving to Egypt. That is a huge transformation. I could call it reform; I could call it transformation; and, ironically, Prince Mohammed has not taken credit for it. That is as much of a transformation as empowering women, in my opinion. So the success of this transformation could be a turning point. It has to succeed. If that transformation will lead to Saudi Arabians’ owning businesses and owning jobs, then Mohammed bin Salman will be saved for another 10 or 20 years, maybe indefinitely—50 years.
Audience Member: You mentioned that 70 percent of labor is controlled by foreigners in Saudi Arabia. Most of these jobs are low paying and in construction, with a deficit of $52 billion this year. Could the government in the next year create good paying jobs for Saudis, and could we see the unemployment rate go down?
Jamal Khashoggi: We need a very open narrative about that. This morning I saw news that the Shura Council is debating the true number of unemployed Saudis and they used the number 40 percent. That is scary, and it could be true. Can the government provide jobs? I don’t know. The only way to provide jobs, in my opinion, right now is to push foreigners out. I get many angry comments about that when I write those ideas of mine. A book was written about that, it called me racist or my approach wrong. I’m not, but it’s just unnatural for a country as big as Saudi Arabia to have a labor force that is 70 percent foreign. It’s just unnatural.
I’m worried that Mohammed bin Salman still believes in the rentier state, like when he is talking about diversifying sources of income to the Saudi budget, to the Saudi national treasury. Oil is the number one source of income and now he wants to create money generated from investment coming from the Public Investment Fund, which is not yet as efficient as the Norwegian one. So I don’t think really the Public Investment Fund can provide the alternative. But even if it does, he is still operating along the same old line that the government will be providing the income and the income will be passed to the people. It is not the other way around. It will be much better for Saudi Arabia to convert into a Western democratic system, where the people work, pay taxes, and become a source of income, to convert us, the Saudi people, from being a cost center into a profit center. But that has a practical implication that he has to address. But it is more sustainable, it is much better for Saudi Arabia to go down that road. Even if it will lead to downsizing the economy by doing only the things that we the Saudi people will do. There are many industries in Saudi Arabia that will collapse with the levy on foreign labor because the only advantage they have is cheap workers. It is just like if you in America, rather than sending your products to China to be manufactured, you bring Chinese to America to manufacture them. Of course, that will make a huge social transformation in America if you do that. That’s what we are doing. So there would be factories shut down.
But again, there is a need for Mohammed bin Salman to spend more time on Economy 101 rather than on the futuristic project of building futuristic cities, because those cities might be another white elephant. He already has two major cities that were built with great attention by King Abdullah, and they are staggering, they are standing still. King Abdullah Financial City has 70-something beautiful buildings that don’t have occupants in the middle of Riyadh. There is King Abdullah Economic City by the Red Sea, where something like maybe 20 percent of its capacity is being utilized. This is where bin Salman needs to work, this is where he needs to spend more time, not on building this new city of the future that could consume all of our fortune—like half a trillion dollars. That is what has been budgeted for the new project.
Audience Member: I am Saudi and I am about the same age as Mohammed bin Salman, and when the attacks of September 11, 2001 took place, I was attending a public school on a military base inside Saudi Arabia, and many people were celebrating by distributing cakes. How should those concerns be addressed?
Jamal Khashoggi: Who can help us with that? Of course I would wish rather for us, the Saudi people, to do that, the Saudi people should take part in sharing the reform with Mohammed bin Salman, the Shura Council, and the Saudi media. But I know this isn’t going to happen. I like the advice that Thomas Friedman gave in his memo to the President, where he suggested that the Americans should send a high-level ambassador to Saudi Arabia. I would like the ambassador to be an economist, too, because that is the issue confronting Saudi Arabia. So America should stay engaged.
He, Mohammed bin Salman, very much likes Donald Trump. He is probably the only leader in the world who describes Donald Trump as the right leader at the right time. So, if Donald Trump truly cares for Saudi Arabia or the success of Mohammed bin Salman, he should stay engaged and should appoint an ambassador to Saudi Arabia—a reliable, strong ambassador. I was about to suggest someone like Tillerson, but no one liked Tillerson.