Like all murders, Jamal Khashoggi’s was an evil deed. Should the United States respond to it with a major disruption in relations with Saudi Arabia? No — emphatically no.
Far from being indifferent to Khashoggi’s fate, I was deeply anguished by his murder. I once had the pleasure of a lengthy, cordial, and fascinating conversation with Khashoggi. The occasion was an international public relations conference in Dubai in March 2012. I took the last open chair at one of the luncheon tables, and it happened that the man seated at my right was Jamal Khashoggi.
He was a very charming and powerful person. Whenever I read the endless reports of his savage murder I shudder with horror, and I remember his pleasant voice and the merry twinkle in his eyes. He enjoyed his life and his work.
I also remember who and what he really was. He was the scion of one of the wealthiest families in Saudi Arabia and a tremendously privileged member of the Saudi power structure. In Saudi Arabia he was well known as a sometime writer and editor for newspapers and a television news presenter. In the rest of the world, it was no secret that he was from time to time one of the closest advisers to the head of the Saudi state intelligence and secret police apparatus. In authoritarian states, it is not unusual for persons like Khashoggi to perform both roles.
In Saudi Arabia there is no free and independent news media. It is profoundly misleading, therefore, to call Khashoggi a mere “journalist,” because under Western eyes that term is meant to describe someone who works at least mostly in freedom and independence from state control.
Jamal Khashoggi’s entire career in Saudi Arabia, when he was not working directly for the head of the fearsome national intelligence agency, involved writing, editing, and broadcasting for media enterprises owned or controlled by the government and members of the Saudi royal family. All of his writings and utterances, no matter how nuanced they may have been calculated to appear or sound, were completely controlled by strict Saudi government dictate and censorship. This is how effective influence operations work.
When I sat with Khashoggi we compared stories of our own careers. I told him I had been first a newspaper writer, then an appointee in the State Department and a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. When Khashoggi and I met, I was working as a speechwriter for the CEO of Aramco, the Saudi oil company. He needed no introduction for me; I already knew the outline of his previous career. He told me enthusiastically about his upcoming project.
Khashoggi had been assigned to establish Al-Arab, a new, Saudi-controlled television news network that was intended to compete with Qatar’s enormously successful Aljazeera. It was to be headquartered in the island country of Bahrain, just a half-hour’s drive over the King Fahd Causeway from Aramco headquarters in Saudi Arabia. Its placement in Bahrain would be for “greater ease of doing business,” Khashoggi told me, explaining that expat personnel and interview subjects would be much more comfortable living in, or traveling in or out of, the more carefree conditions of Bahrain, a formally independent client state of Saudi Arabia. In Bahrain, women drove cars and went unveiled and also did even naughtier things. Wine and liquor flowed on the island, too.
In other words, the new enterprise was to be a sophisticated influence operation, an attempt to project Saudi “soft power” and propaganda in a fashion similar to the successful Aljazeera model.
It took a while for Al-Arab to get organized. Inconveniently, in early 2015 King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch who had authorized the project, died a week before the network was scheduled to begin broadcasting. It went on the air for a grand total of 11 hours before the government of Bahrain arrived to shut it down. This had to have been done on orders of the new Saudi ruler, King Salman. Apparently he was not confident the new enterprise, bankrolled by his jet-setting nephew the “super-investor” Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, would be sufficiently loyal to the new monarch’s interests.
In late 2017, by which time the king’s son Mohammed bin Salman had become Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the Kingdom, the regime staged a dramatic crackdown allegedly to curb corruption, arresting and detaining Prince Alwaleed and other Saudi billionaires, turning the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton owned by Alwaleed into a five-star prison.
When his patron Alwaleed was incarcerated, Jamal Khashoggi left the country. He made his way to Washington, D.C., where he had cultivated relationships with mainstream media mandarins. He arranged to write columns for the Washington Post, criticizing the same harsh and anti-democratic conditions in his home country that he had spent his whole previous career artfully covering up. Khashoggi completely changed his tune, but the only thing that had changed in Saudi Arabia was that Khashoggi’s faction in the Saudi power structure was no longer on top.
Was Khashoggi a sincere convert to a radically different system of government than that which had enriched and empowered him all of his life? Here is why that is unlikely. There was, and will be — long into the foreseeable future — no feasibility of reforming Saudi Arabia along democratic lines. Any real or perceived internal threat to the Saud family dynasty is effectively suppressed.
Was Khashoggi working alone as a genuine, quixotic voice for impossible reforms? That’s unlikely too. It would be totally out of character for him. He was an extremely intelligent, well-informed, practical person. Almost certainly his Washington Post columns and his other acts of agitation were in service to one or another faction of the Saudi power structure.
Khashoggi knew, and his worldly-wise friends in the U.S. media know, that the only possible consequence of success in Khashoggi’s final project — stridently criticizing the current Saudi ruler Prince Mohammed bin Salman — would be to weaken Prince Mohammed or bring about his downfall and replacement by another Saudi prince. Prince Mohammed’s successor, whether he takes power five minutes or five decades from now, will be another Saudi prince, and the world won’t know whether or not it likes his regime until they’ve experienced it.
Unless, of course, the Saud family dynasty is overthrown.
Overthrowing the Saudi monarchy is something no sane person should hope for. This does not mean that the Saudi monarchy is good. It does not mean that the world should love it or praise it. But the world needs to live with it.
Politics is the art of the possible, and the only possible alternative to the Saud family dynasty would be so much worse that it likely would bring about a global catastrophe — hundreds of thousands of innocent women, men and children dead in Arabia and a collapse of the petroleum-dependent world economy.
This is not an exaggeration. Iraq and Libya will have been Sunday school picnics compared with the bloodshed and anarchy of an Islamic Republic of Wahhabi Arabia.
Make no mistake: The American politicians today calling for the overthrow of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are perceived within the Saudi royal family and its power structure — and by every other regime in the Middle East — as calling for the overthrow of the Saudi regime itself. This is not what American politicians from Chattanooga and other provincial outposts think they are doing, but perceptions on the other side are what really matter.
A Saudi monarch holds his throne according to consensus of all of the senior princes. An overt — and let’s emphasize that word overt — external intervention by a faraway, non-Islamic power to depose the monarch rightly would be perceived not just as replacement of one replaceable individual, but as the overthrow of the regime. The autonomy of the Saudi dynasty will have been violated. America would transform from ally into mortal enemy. Do we really want to become the “Great Satan” on both sides of the Persian Gulf?
Not many people could manage to push Saudi Arabia into the embrace of nuclear-armed, America-hating Iran — but Lindsey Graham could.
Reform does not happen easily in Saudi Arabia, but it can and does happen organically. Could Saudi Arabia become considerably more liberalized and humane over time, without a bloody overthrow of the regime? Probably so. The regime won’t allow itself to be voted out of office, but it is genuinely sensitive to public contentment or discontent. Today’s young Saudi citizens have much more exposure to the West than previous generations. Overall, young Saudi citizens ± Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s key constituency — admire and even love the United States.
Insisting that Khashoggi’s murder was an attack on freedom of the press, journalistic integrity, and prospects for greater freedom and more humane regimes in the Middle East is dangerous self-delusion.
Repeatedly describing Khashoggi as a “Washington Post journalist” is as preposterous as calling Ed Rogers, the Republican superlobbyist who also writes a regular column for that newspaper, a “Washington Post journalist.”
Those who are propagandized by the First Amendment-protected American mainstream media may be fooled by its Khashoggi narrative, but, ironically, in the Middle East — where of course there is much less press freedom — people know better. That is because the people of that region know how to read deeply between the lines. They understand themselves, their cultures, and their regimes.
American politicians who are attempting overtly to overthrow the Saudi ruler are threatening to destabilize the entire world. As much as we may regret that our dreams are not coming true, that is reality.
Joseph P. Duggan lived from 2009-2015 in Saudi Arabia as speechwriter for the president of Aramco, the Saudi-government owned oil enterprise and the largest company in the world. Earlier, he was speechwriter for the late President George H.W. Bush.