Miss­ing jour­nal­ist dis­as­ter for Saudis

The Times-Tribune - - OP-ED - Thomas L. Fried­man THOMAS L. FRIED­MAN writes for The New York Times.

Nov. 7, I wrote a col­umn about Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man. It ended: “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.’”

That Saudi jour­nal­ist, a friend, 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. He loved his coun­try and wanted to see it suc­ceed, and be­lieved that MBS could make the needed rad­i­cal re­forms — but also that MBS needed coach­ing, be­cause he had a dark side and was too iso­lated in­side a small rul­ing cir­cle.

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

On Sept. 4 I wrote a col­umn that dou­bled down on the view of Saudi Ara­bia and MBS: “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 ... 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 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, post1979, 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: the world com­plained, but when China re­sponded by say­ing “get lost,’’ the world backed down. So when Canada mildly crit­i­cized a Saudi hu­man rights abuse, MBS went nu­clear and vir­tu­ally broke off re­la­tions.

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.

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 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 red lines 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 by peo­ple close to the Saudi crown prince, who were be­com­ing alarmed.

So I was shocked — but not sur­prised — to 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 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 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 those of us who were ready to see the up­sides and down­sides of MBS’ ini­tia­tives — and sin­cerely wanted his re­forms to suc­ceed be­cause the up­sides were so strate­gi­cally im­por­tant for the Arab­mus­lim 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.

So I pray 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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.