The FRONTLINE Interview: Ali Shihabi
Ali Shihabi is the founder of the Arabia Foundation, a think tank focused on the Middle East that ceased operations in July 2019.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith for The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. It has been edited in parts for clarity and length.
You’re often accused of being an apologist for the Saudi government. How do you respond to that?
I am a fan of the reforms of Prince Mohammed. I wrote a book four or five years ago where I was very critical about the system. I felt the ship was sinking. And I actually argued in the book that you needed a strong man with guts to make surgical change. And he appeared on the scene, and he has had that. He has exhibited that.
And I think that deserves support. Now, nobody’s perfect, and the system makes mistakes. But I think what he has done, particularly in terms of reforming the religious cultural space, something that people thought was impossible, integrating women, making key reforms in the economy in terms of subsidies and other deep structural reforms, in education — are historic things that leaders were unable to do over the last 50 years. So I think that deserves support.
Why all the controversy surrounding the crown prince? To what do you attribute that?
Well, I mean, first of all — the succession was always going to be controversial and Saudi Arabia between generations. That’s something that’s been hanging over the heads of the system for the last 20 years. So that attracted attention. His youth attracted attention. I mean, his father, you know, went over older brothers of his, not just other older members of the royal family.
His father clearly saw something in him that he didn’t see in other members of the royal family, even in his family. And then he has moved with uncharacteristic speed to deal with a lot of hot button issues. And I think that speed has taken everybody by surprise. The benefit of speed is you get things done that weren’t done before.
But you’re going to have bumps along the road. And my analogy is that the kingdom today — kingdom used to be a car driving down the highway at 30 miles an hour. Today it’s driving down it 120 miles an hour. It has hit a few potholes, and it will hit a few potholes.
Driving at 125 miles an hour down the highway is considered reckless.
Well, some people would say so. And, for example, people would’ve said so if he had come to them and said, “I’m going to put, you know, the quote Wahabi establishment back in a box. And I’m going to integrate women into the workforce.” It goes far beyond allowing women to drive.
If he had brought wise men around the table, they would have told him, “Your Highness, you have a 50-year career ahead of you. You’re not king yet. Do not alienate the conservative class.” Yet he did it, and so far he has succeeded. I mean, you are a witness to the fact that the role of women in Saudi Arabia in the last two years has gone through 180° change. That is something that people could call reckless — others would call bold. And I think it has served the country. The same in undertaking economic reforms. For example, he has addressed the subsidy issue.
You know, Greece, even after it went bankrupt, was unable to address its subsidy issue. And there were demonstrations in the streets when subsidies were reduced. He has addressed it — across the board, in energy and water and other subsidies.
So he’s also affecting the change in consumer behavior. So frankly, I mean, it depends on your perspective and where you are looking at. I think people are missing that story. People are focusing on the negatives are totally ignoring or missing the, frankly, historic changes that are taking place in the country.
There were many in the U.S. and in the West in general who applauded the reforms that he was initiating. It seems unfair to say that the West missed what was happening. People like Thomas Friedman in the New York Times or even David Ignatius of the Washington Post. Others wrote very, very favorably of the crown prince. So to say that they missed the story—
Well, they didn’t—
—that seems untrue.
—miss the story, but I have been here watching it in Western media. And even with their stories, they were all criticized when those stories came out. They got a lot of criticism from mainstream academia and media who really were ignoring the story, who are not aware of it, who don’t want to be aware of it.
When the crown prince came to the United States, toured in 2018, he was lauded wherever he went. He was received in Hollywood well. He was lauded in Silicon Valley. He came to Washington. Everybody describes it as a so-called victory tour. So how do you square that with the idea that he was being widely criticized?
Well, I mean, he has been widely criticized, even then. Yes, he was received by some people, but there was a lot of criticism. There was a lack of willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt, lack of willingness to go deep and look at the complexity of Saudi society, lack of willingness to appreciate that time of dramatic change is a time of maximum risk for a government, throughout history.
That’s why governments are always so reluctant to take on change. Yes, he got praise from a lot of people when he came, but there was still a lot of criticism. I was watching that space very, very carefully. And that has been the case from the beginning. There are a lot of people that instinctively don’t like the Saudi system, because it’s a monarchy, because it doesn’t have democratic freedoms, because it’s socially conservative, because it represents a very conservative school of Islam.
And, frankly, are not open to give it the benefit of the doubt. When the mishaps happened or the catastrophe of Khashoggi happened and the Canada thing happened, that, of course, exacerbated everything and elevated to a much higher level.
Right from the beginning he becomes the minister of defense, while he’s still deputy crown prince. He launches a war in Yemen, a war that has generated a lot of criticism.
Even those, however, who would accept that the Iranians had ambitions in Yemen, are highly critical of the way in which the war has been conducted. The bombing campaign, the indiscriminate killings that have taken place — that there’s a difference between the reasons for going in and the execution of the war.
There’s no doubt that the execution has been messy, but wars are messy. If you look, for example, at the congressman just two days ago in Washington, he said that when he was in the military, in defense of somebody who’s been acquitted for war crimes in California — he said when he was in the mili– bombing Fallujah, they killed hundreds of civilians, women and children.
So war is, by definition, messy. The Saudi military, this was the first real war they have fought. One of Prince Mohammed’s ambitions was to turn the military from a parade ground military to a fighting military, because everybody sees that the American umbrella is slowly being withdrawn from the Gulf. And they’ve gone up a steep learning curve.
But frankly, when you look at America in Afghanistan, after 18 years, the best army in the world, and all the mistakes that they’ve made, when you look at the civilian casualties in Iraq that have taken place, again, by Western armies and the Western Coalition, you know, the mistakes and the messiness of the Saudi execution don’t look so different from what the Western Coalition have done.
But certainly, war is a horrible business. And I think, to the credit of Saudi Arabia, they’ve tried to mitigate that with humanitarian help. Now cynics belittle that. But I don’t remember any other counterparty that has made such an effort in a war to address the civilian casualties of its fighting in the manner that Saudi Arabia and its coalition and the UAE have done, and in the resources that they’ve poured into that.
The criticism is that they have fought this war from the air, they have attempted to defeat the Houthis, who are in fact embedded amongst the population. They’ve attempted to fight this war from the air, and that has created a lot of civilian casualties. The Saudis have refused to go in on the ground.
Well, I mean, the feeling is that if they go in on the ground with ground troops and artillery and tanks, that the civilian casualties will grow exponentially. But remember, I mean, Americans fought it from the air in Mosul and Raqqa, and Americans fought a lot from the air in Afghanistan.
So countries generally try to avoid going in on the ground, because it– it causes their own civilian– their own military casualties to go up, and it– it causes much more destruction. Now, as I’ve said, you know, this is– this has not been– an easy battle. I think that the– there’s an illusion here that– that there was a feeling that Saudi Arabia would go in with shock and awe and close this in two weeks.
So the Saudi Arabia military did not expect this to finish very quickly. They knew they were going for the long haul. What they wanted to do was they wanted to close down the Iranian pipeline, so close down the airports and the ports, force the Iranians to move to smuggling– and send the Houthis a message that your alliance with Iran will be a very painful one.
It appears the Saudis are fighting an unwinnable war that’s resulting in massive, thousands, tens of thousands of casualties.
Well, I think that there were more casualties in the early days. Saudi Arabia is extremely careful now about these issues. They’re much more careful and they’ve gone up the learning curve.
They just bombed a school bus.
Well, these things, you know, and they said they will investigate it, right? So you’re going to continue bombing things and civilian things get– getting hit by mistake. But the quality of and performance of the air force has been improving, because they’re much more careful about it now, and they’re getting help in targeting.
Just one more thing on the Yemen war, and that is that you said something that raised an eyebrow for me. A side facet of the war is that you get an effective military once you fight a war. So yes, the war in Yemen is costing a bit more money, but I don’t see it as a huge additional allocation. In other words, it’s a practice.
Well, you– the– as I said, the Saudi military was a parade ground military for many years. The defense strategy was relying on America, really, in the Gulf. And I think when Prince Mohammed became minister of defense, he realized that the era of America is ending, and as the Americans say, we have to carry our own water.
You know, Americans criticize Saudi Arabia and have always criticized, and they said the Saudis want to fight Iran to the last American. So the military really was also a social security network. I mean, it employed a lot of people that didn’t need to be employed. It gave housing. It had excellent hospital care. Some of the best hospitals in Saudi Arabia are run by the military.
So it– military spending went far beyond what you needed for the military. And– it didn’t train much. It was not very effective in fighting. It never fought a real war. And– and I think part of the objective also, that– that he didn’t pick up the phone and call for help, he said, “We have to fight this war our self and we have to go up the learning curve because we’re going to be on our own.” And this is exactly what’s happened.
And you reject the idea that this has been a quagmire and a disaster for Mohammed bin Salman.
Well, it’s not been a disaster for him. It’s been like, in a way, of course, it is a quagmire. But it’s different from something like Vietnam or Iraq, whereby America went across oceans– where really there was a very logical argument that none of those countries or– the outcomes of wars there would have any effect on America’s security.
And that’s ultimately what made them the quagmire disaster that they were. But this is on Saudi Arabia’s borders. And war is messy, you know? Again, just look at what has happened in Afghanistan with the U.S. coalition, look at what has happened in Iraq, look at the quote of the congressman. There is an illusion that war can be clean. It is– it’s horrible. And there’s no other way to describe war. It’s nothing that anybody undertakes with any pleasure.
Were you there when Trump came to Saudi Arabia on his visit?
I was not in Riyadh, no. I was here.
No you– you didn’t go, okay. You wrote about the trip as underscoring the success of Saudi outreach to the new administration. What was that Saudi outreach to the new administration?
Well, I mean, you know, again, we– I get criticized that people– Saudi Arabia gets criticized in Washington by the anti-Trump crowd and says, “You have put your cards or your eggs in Mr. Trump’s basket.” And I said, “Saudi Arabia puts its eggs in every president’s basket.”
The American president is very important, and they try to reach out to every American president that comes in, and build up a relationship with every one. And in the case of Mr. Trump, he was receptive. And I think it was a diplomatic pull to get him to come to Saudi Arabia.
How was that achieved?
How was that achieved? I think the, you know, very early on that the government reached out, they met with members of the administration. I think that there was a feeling that there was a kindred spirit, particularly in his attitude towards Iran. The biggest issue with the Obama administration was their benign view of the Iranian regime, which Saudi Arabia– saw as very naive and dangerous.
So this new administration came in exactly on point– and shared exactly the vision that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had towards Iran. So I think that created an opening, really, to come and say, “You know, we see you as– seeing things exactly the way we do, and– you know, we would like to increase our cooperation with you.” And the Trump administration was very receptive to that.
You’ve met Jared Kushner.
I have not met Mr. Kushner, no–
I don’t think so.
What role did he play in that outreach?
I think when the prince met him they were both young, and– and they both hit it off, and they established a relationship, and they liked each other. And– you know, they started communicating. So it was a benign– you know, people come and tell me, for example, in Washington that the Saudis and the UAE were trying to influence the election in 2016 in the summer.
And I tell them in 2016 in the summer, even Mr. Trump did not think he was going to win. Nobody was going to try to influence the election in his favor and alienate Hillary Clinton, that everybody thought was for sure going to be the president. Nobody in his right mind would have. People woke up to Mr. Trump becoming president that night when he woke up to it. So the concept that there was some sort of insidious plan to support him is nonsensical, really, because frankly nobody thought he’d make it.
But the relationship that you talked about, that was struck up between Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman. Could you talk a little bit more about that and what that has resulted in?
Well, I think, you know, I think it’s helpful, because when you have a senior member of the administration who’s close to the president who has a good relationship with a senior foreign leader, there is– there’s a lot of useful communication. And it improves communication, frankly.
It reduces misunderstandings, and it builds goodwill. And I think Mr. Kushner, from what I’ve heard, again, I’ve not been a participant in any of this, that he’s established a lot of goodwill and has a very good working relationship not just with Saudi Arabia, but with a number of foreign countries.
But you happen very spoken to those inside the royal court about Jared Kushner and the role he plays.
Well, I mean, it’s been positive. Everybody– I think the view is that he has played a positive role. I think also America has given Saudi Arabia tough love when they’ve seen Saudi Arabia has made mistakes. But they’ve done it privately. And I think that’s much more effective than virtue signaling, which a lot of Western politicians like to do where they’re more interested in the domestic audience than in effecting change in Saudi Arabia. My understanding is that both Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Kushner have been very, very open and very honest in their critiques also about mistakes that they felt that the Saudi government has undertaken. So–
Can you give me an example of that?
Yes. I mean, I think on the Khashoggi case, on other things, even like Canada, even issues with the Yemen war that they’ve been much more blunt in private, which works, frankly, and has an impact, than virtue signaling in public.
What impact has that had? In the Khashoggi affair, what impact– in the case of the Khashoggi murder– the reports are that Jared Kushner was in touch with Mohammed bin Salman, texting with him not very many days after the murder. What was the impact of that communication, as you understand it?
Well, I think– as I understand it, at a remove from those discussions…he drove home the seriousness of the way this is being perceived, and–
But what impact did they have?
Oh, it had a big impact. I mean, look — a number of senior people were removed and fired. A number of people are on trial. This is unprecedented in Saudi Arabia. Unprecedented. There was much more public discussion than usually happens. The norm in Saudi Arabia is everything goes quiet. Everything is handled quietly.
So the operating procedure pursued post-Khashoggi, yes, people are not happy with it in the West. But frankly, it was much more aggressive and open than it would’ve been traditionally. And I think, you know, both Jared Kushner and Mr. Pompeo drove home to the Saudi leadership the seriousness of the issue, and how the world saw it, and–
At the same time, the president was saying, “I don’t know, maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t do it.” And he said that he was standing by the Saudis.
Well, and that was appreciated. But at the same time, my understanding is that the Americans, you know, gave a lot of tough love and were very honest and open with the Saudi leadership. And I think– and that’s appreciated, because it’s coming from a friendly country and a friendly administration, and it’s said in private. It’s not said to posture. It’s not said to look nice on MSNBC. The desire is to send a message to help your friends — understand the severity of a mistake and a crisis.
You’re saying that pressure from Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Pompeo resulted in pressuring the Saudis to take unprecedented action.
I think contributed would be the word.
Contributed. The removal of two top officials, a cabinet ranking, very powerful and close advisor of MBS, head of foreign intelligence, four other generals in foreign intelligence.
Yes. I mean, it contributed, certainly.
I spoke to Adel al-Jubeir about this. He had gone on Fox News a few week– a couple weeks after the murder. He said that none of the people involved in that operation were close to or had close ties with Mohammed bin Salman.
That’s in direct contradiction to what you say.
Well, I think no, I mean, because I don’t– I’m not aware of what Adel said, exactly. But, clearly, I mean, the people fired, one was an advisor in the World Court who was understood to be close to the crown prince.
But he’s not on trial.
Well, but he’s not in government. Now he’s under investigation. What is happening with him, I don’t know. But he’s certainly not in government anymore.
You’re sure of that.
Oh, I’m sure about that, because I mean, I– I ask people that in Riyadh that would know. And he’s gone out of sight, really, I mean–
But when you talk about the deputy head of foreign intelligence, four other generals in foreign intelligence, these are people that are at the top of the power structure in–
Well, these are people that would be known to Mohammed bin Salman.
And they are known to Mohammed bin Salman. And the deputy head of intelligence was somebody who was known to be close to the crown prince. And I think this is why the crown prince–
Yes. I think that’s why the crown prince was so disappointed, really, because I think what happened is, you know, this was an operation that went wrong. Now, as I said, success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. Trying to find out, as you know, when things go wrong anywhere in the world, even if you have the biggest investigation, trying to find out exactly at what point did it go wrong, what signals did people get, what did they misunderstand?
Clearly there was, I mean, laughable incompetence, also in carrying it out. It was carried out outside the range– it was not carried out by the Intelligence Directorate. It was carried out by a team that was put– an ad hoc team that was put together. And clearly people abused the perception of their power close to the crown prince to get things done outside of the bureaucracy in a manner that was disastrous, and that’s why they were fired. And that–
How do we know that Mohammed bin Salman himself didn’t order the murder?
Well, I give him the benefit of the doubt. You may not want to, but at the end of the day I think this conviction among so many that in a country like Saudi Arabia he had to know what was happening assumes that he is like a supercharged Jack Welch, who knows everything going on in the system, and every action taken by any of his top advisors.
And history has taught us that that is not necessarily the case. History’s full of examples of top advisors who carry out things that go beyond the mandate or go sour, misunderstandings, mis-signalings. You know, all sorts of things can happen.
You say you give him the benefit of the doubt. You don’t know whether or not he did or didn’t order the murder–
No, how can–
–you say you give him–
–I know? Yeah–
You don’t know–
Nobody, and by the way, nobody knows that he did, because there is no smoking gun. There is no piece of evidence. And even to the degree, you know, that the royal court was so eager to — because the CIA supposedly leaked, or an anonymous intelligence source leaked the fact that he had exchange with Mr. Qahtani SMS messages — during that day.
My response to people when they asked me was I said I’m sure he exchanges every day, continuously, messages with Mr. Qahtani. Still, they invited (UNINTELLIGIBLE) associates to come in, and they did a forensic audit of Mr. Qahtani’s phone. And they showed that those messages were on something totally different– which was happening that day. And, in fact, they showed the report, I think, to the Wall Street Journal, and the Wall Street Journal wrote about it.
I saw the report myself. But what does that prove?
Well, it proves that that was not– it proves that that element of circumstantial evidence was flawed, it’s false. You cannot prove a negative. I mean, I cannot prove that you didn’t do something bad yesterday when nobody has any evidence, direct evidence that you did.
Right. They could have been communicating on– in another way, on another app–
Of course, of course. Well, not on– I mean, of course they could’ve communicated. But my point is that there is no evidence, there is no smoking gun that shows that this was an order from Prince Mohammed to go and kill Jamal.
But why is Qahtani removed, as you say, from his position, if there is evidence that, in all his communications that day with Mohammed bin Salman, there was no mention of any kind of operation–
No, because I think–
I think there was– that he was involved in this whole affair somehow, now that this story hasn’t fully come out, and exactly. But I think he was involved somehow in Istanbul (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
How do you know that?
Well, that– my deduction that he would not have been removed otherwise, you see?
I’ve had other high-ranking officials tell me there’s no evidence that he was involved.
Well, if there was no– there must have been something there, because he– that is why he was– he was removed, is my understanding. He would not have been removed. Now maybe it was– it was a lack of communication. Maybe the prince had expected him to be more on top of things. I mean, we never know, right, what– but it was enough for the crown prince to remove him. Because he was somehow in that space.
There are reports that he’s still operating, that he had ongoing work. You’ve talked about that, in fact, that you can’t get rid of somebody like that immediately.
No, I haven’t said that. I– look– my understanding, again, is that he is under house arrest, and that he has no involvement in government.
Who’s told you that he’s under house arrest?
Many people have told me. Many people who should know, I mean, again, have told me that he’s under house arrest.
People in the royal court have told you–
People close to the circles of power.
Have you talked to Mohammed bin Salman about it?
I have not talked to him about it, no.
Have you talked to Khalid bin Salman, his brother–
I’m not going sit and discuss who I talk to and who I don’t talk to–
But I’m just trying to get an idea, because–
No, I mean, I–
–it’s an important question as to who’s told you–
–that he is under house arrest.
People even who worked for him have told me that, that they have lost communication with him. He has no involvement in their work. And they have had no communication. I mean– I mean, his staff have told me that. So–
The people that used to work for him.
Like Osama al-Naser?
I don’t know, I mean, I’m not going to give names. But I’m gonna tell you that people who used to work in the royal court with him have said that they have had no contact with him since he was removed. They don’t see him. He doesn’t ever come to the royal court. He’s not involved.
Okay, I’m gonna come back to it, because I wanna talk– I wanna talk about our conversation on the roof that I had with Mohammed bin Salman. We’ll come back to that. I jumped ahead because you jumped into it. But I wanna go back and talk a little bit more about events prior to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. We talked about Yemen, we talked about the outreach.
One of the things that you’ve written about is how he– you wrote this: “Since his appointment as crown prince, he has moved swiftly to consolidate power by bringing the most important internal security organs including the domestic intelligence service and elite special forces under his direct control.” That’s an important point–
Of course it’s important.
Why was that done?
Well, I mean, I think, again– well, there were– there were two reasons. I think there was, first of all, structural organizational reason, because the body that owns those units, the Ministry of Interior, had become such a huge organization. It was the largest employer in the kingdom.
And it had, you know, multiple agencies underneath it. So I think there has always been talk about dividing that ministry, and people have been debating, even under King Abdullah, about how you slice that cake. And I think he felt that creating a separate unit, which is called State Security, it will be much more focused. And State Security is a highly sensitive, important thing. And it should report directly to the prime minister or his deputy.
And I think that’s the case, actually, in many organizations. I think the head of the CIA reports to the president. And in many other countries, the head of the secret service reports to the chief executive. So I think it was a normal bureaucratic development that made sense for him to implement.
Particularly in a transitionary period — because, you know, as I said, time of change is very sensitive. You’ve had succession, you’ve had massive social, cultural change, you have– you’ve had painful economic reforms. And that requires a firm hand.
Many people were concerned about the concentration of power in the royal court under Mohammed bin Salman. And immediately after this consolidation takes places, there’s a crackdown on a number of Saudis, prominent clerics, moderate clerics — others, writers, intellectuals. This is mid ’17. We see the first evidence of sort of using this state security apparatus to crack down on dissent. That gave people pause.
It did give people pause. Again, what I’ve tried to– and, you know, you can look at different actions taken and agree or disagree with them. But again, you are going through a historically extremely sensitive period, with all the change. As you continue to be threatened or you see yourself as being threatened by Iran and by Sunni jihadi movements, inside and outside the country.
But how is somebody like the Salman al-Ouda, for instance, seen as a threat?
Well, I haven’t seen the file, and I haven’t seen the details. And I would hope that the government releases these details. But my understanding also was that, you know, a couple tried to dabble in internal Saudi politics. And that some of these clerics started to be financial beneficiaries in a fashion. That raised eyebrows.
But you’re saying this, but you say you haven’t seen the file. So which is it? I mean, you have the evidence or you haven’t seen the evidence.
No, I have heard it, again, from– I mean, this is what one hears on the grapevine. But as I have publicly advised and said that I wish the Saudi government would come out with the chart sheets and everybody (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Because I think what is happening in this environment is it’s not getting the benefit of the doubt. And from people.
Why should it until people see the evidence?
Why should we give him the benefit of the doubt?
Right, and I mean, I–
I mean, in all fairness, in all respect, why should we give him the benefit of the doubt if he does not reveal what the charges are, and people–
And I think that’s a legitimate point. And they have to show, they should show the evidence. It’s just that the Saudi legal system, I mean, you change so much. But ultimately there’s also a bureaucracy, there’s a DNA, there are attitudes, there are way of doing things. And the system has operated like this for decades. And–
But this is the great reformer.
Yes, but he– look, he has done more in three years than any leader, frankly, I can think of anywhere in the world. Right? I mean, so he can’t do everything, right? And he can’t battle every single force he has to battle. And certainly the legal system is always the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And it’s entrenched, and it’s also part of the religious establishment. So again, that’s a delicate constituency. But certainly, the lack of transparency has not helped the kingdom. No doubt about it.
I mean, he’s widely seen as an abuser of human rights.
Yes, I think that has been exaggerated, compared to his peers, and compared to, you know, a country like Iran that has a million times more abuse of human rights. But certain–
That’s a very, very inappropriate comparison.
Well, I think not when people in Washington actually put them together, you see, and in the Western media, in fact, sometimes people argue that Iran is a more benign form of government. And, you know, Saudi Arabia is in political and military competition, if you want, with Iran.
A defensive competition, but still. So it is a fact. Because at the end of the day, a lot of the virtue signalers that are making a lot of noise about understandable things in Saudi Arabia that need to be addressed ignore them when they’re happening in Iran to a far more egregious standard. My point is, have values and have justice, absolutely.
Well, we can always–
But try to–
–look around the world and find the–
No, but apply them — apply them with equity to everybody and to the peer group. Do not selectively call for justice, you see? Now, again, that does not dispute the fact that Saudi Arabia has to address that space.
Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally. It has business and political state-to-state relations in ways that other, let’s say, pariah states like Iran or Syria or North Korea don’t have.
You know, Martin, I’ll tell you, it’s a U.S. ally, and it’s stressed, because it’s — again, I repeat myself — it’s going through change, and it’s threatened by multiple credible sources outside the country. When America and Britain felt threatened after 9/11 and with terrorism, they both threw the rulebook out the window. If you look at the Guantanamo Bay history, if you look at the — what was it called — the people that were kidnapped and sent off to security jails in the Middle East where torture was outsourced.
The renditions, exactly. So my point is when countries get– if you look at America during the wars, for example, my point is if you get stressed you are prone in your anxiety to go into excess. And everybody assumes that Saudi Arabia is like living in Scandinavia. It’s not. It’s going through tremendous change.
It will make mistakes and it has made mistakes. But, again, look at yourself and look at how you have reacted when you are stressed, and when you feel you are under threat. The rulebook was thrown out the book in Britain, in France, in Europe–
You’re using America and the West’s worst human rights abuses of the last decade to justify what’s going on in Saudi Arabia. We’re simply talking here about Saudi Arabia, and I hear–
But you can’t talk-–
–I’m not here to defend–
–what the United States has done or not done.
Well, I’m saying that you have to look at the circumstances of what is happening. Yes, there are human rights issues that have to be addressed, certainly, and I hope they’re addressed sooner rather than later. But in the grand scheme of things, given what is happening, this sort of behavior is not abnormal for an advanced Western country, let alone a country that is relatively underdeveloped, like Saudi Arabia.
It’s a strange defense. You’re giving them a pass because–
No, I’m not giving them a pass. I’m just saying that we should be a bit less self-righteous and a bit more understanding and look at ourself also, and understand that when countries are stressed, they behave in an anxious fashion. And some– and usually in excess. It has happened in the best democracies with the most advanced legal systems on Earth, with full transparency and a vibrant media. And it has happened in Saudi Arabia, unfortunately.
You agree that Saudi Arabia is stressed and has, as a result, committed human rights abuses that should be addressed.
I think so. I think it has an issue in the human rights space, and it should be much more transparent. I will not know if there are abuses ‘til I see all the evidence. But I think that the failure of the Saudi government to produce evidence has confirmed people’s biases and has resulted in nobody giving them the benefit of the doubt.
When you say these things to your friends inside the Saudi royal court, what do they say?
I think there’s a realization that that’s true, you know? But they are dealing with multiple factors. They are also dealing with a local entrenched bureaucracy and attitudes. They’re dealing with a security service that has a perspective. They’re dealing with a legal system that has a perspective.
And as I said, you can’t fight everybody every time, and ultimately what is most important for any leader is his domestic base. It’s not pleasing Western public opinion. And as a result, you know, the situation is not being handled with the speed that I would have liked.
At some point in late 2016, Jamal Khashoggi is banned from attending conferences, speaking on television and publishing articles. And throughout the next year, into 2017, he is criticizing, commenting on what’s going on in Saudi Arabia. He was a great supporter of Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms, but slowly over time, he’s being marginalized. He’s being prevented from expressing himself. And by the time we get to September of 2017, according to the National Security Agency here, they picked up intercepts where Mohammed bin Salman is h–
Have you seen that evidence?
I have not.
Who have you spoken to at the National Security Agency that has told you that?
So how can you– what you say be credible then?
Well, I’ve talked to reporters who have–
And how can reporters be credible? Who have they spoken to? Have they told you who they spoke to? Have they seen the evidence? They haven’t, you see.
Well, you– how can–
So the same argument applies to you that you threw at me–
Of course it does–
–of course it does.
Nobody knows that. And I think that–
So you discount that the– I mean, what do you think, this is a fabrication? Completely fake news? You–
I think that there’s a big chance it’s fake news, and I think it’s a big– a big chance that– I mean, again, had he– would he have been critical of Jamal? Absolutely. Would he have been discussing Jamal in a critical fashion? Maybe. You know–
Would he have said, “Maybe he needs to be taken away and brought back here and disciplined”–
No, I mean, maybe–
–”and if he doesn’t come”–
–at that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) yes–
–”give him a bullet”?
No. I mean, look, I don’t know that. And I mean, also, you can use these metaphorically. But again, unless you see the evidence, and you give me the line of sourcing from who told it to you, and that person is willing to come out publicly and say it, it cannot– it does not stand up to scrutiny.
It’s the same logic that you use against me, and I think there is no smoking gun. And unless people have that, they are reaching conclusions based off– in fact, the CIA came out and said, “Medium to high eviden– medium to high confidence.” Everybody forgot the medium and started quoting high confidence. And they said it, supposedly said it–
Now we’re talking about–
–in the leak–
–the murder itself.
Yes. They said it in a leak. So these are all leaks, Martin, and we know leaks are leaked for a purpose, for an agenda. The media has a vested interest at sort of sensationalizing things, also. And I just think that unless there is hard evidence, one cannot comment on it and one has to discount it.
But when you say that Saudi Arabia has a human rights problem, that Mohammed bin Salman is stressed, and there has been a crackdown on dissent, what are you basing that on?
No, I’m basing that on the fact that there have been many people arrested, some of them I don’t understand why. And particularly among the women. And I’ve heard through the grapevine different logic for it, and I would wish– the system’s not going to arrest people for nothing, right? There’s a price when you arrest people.
You upset their friends, you upset their family, aside from a global public relations (UNINTELLIGIBLE). So there must have been a reason that they were arrested. But the lack of transparency is very damaging to the country, you see? And I think maybe also it’s difficult for governments sometimes to admit that they made a mistake, you see?
So I think that based on that, I think that certainly the environment has become more– there’s the limited space of– debate has been squeezed further in the last three years. I understand that because of change, but I would’ve hoped that the government would be much more transparent about the reasons.
Jamal Khashoggi left, came in September of 2017 to the U.S., and published a column, his first column in the Washington Post, and said that he came because to do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. Do you think he had become, by that time, a threat?
He was never a threat, and I think there’s a conclusion in Saudi Arabia also he was never a threat. He was an irritant — certainly, he was an irritant, but he was not a threat. That’s why, you know, the absurdity of what happened to him still today, you know, makes everybody’s head scratch, frankly — in Saudi Arabia, also. Because it was totally illogical, and there was no sense behind it. He certainly was not a threat.
Yet very high-ranking officials, four generals, deputy of intelligence–
Well, I think–
–again, my understanding from talking to people is part of the reason that a number of bureaucrats in the intelligence agency were fired was that there was an internal cover-up in the few days after, and the full story was not conveyed to the crown prince. And people were helping their colleagues. People were covering up the story. And I think that’s what made the crown prince extremely upset, also, because he came off and made public statements that turned out to be wrong.
But then why isn’t Saud al-Qahtani, who was his close aide, who he was in touch with on the day of the murder— we know that as a fact — I mean, why is–why was he not–
How do you know he was not? I mean, we don’t know anything yet–
Why– we don’t– he’s not on trial. We know that–
Well, he may not be–
–why is he not on trial–
–on this trial.
Why is he not on trial?
I don’t know. But I mean, in my understanding, again, is that he’s under house arrest and he is being– there’s an ongoing investigation. But, you know, ‘til I see the file, again, I have seen no public manifestation to negate that.
Does the possibility remain, as long as an investigation is still going on, that Mohammed bin Salman himself ordered the murder of Khashoggi?
I think that the possibility, frankly, is not there, because the–
Well, because at the end of the day, he would not. I give him the benefit of the doubt that he would not have made something– he’s a highly intelligent person, and he would have– and– and it’s not– it’s not in his habit. He hasn’t done that before. Look, he has political enemies that are a threat that are sitting in his jails in Saudi Arabia.
To go and carry out something– it’s just illogical. Now, to go and carry out something in Istanbul, in the public arena, in the city which is, you know, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, and where Erdogan is a friend of– I mean, there’s so many things that show you the absurdity of the thing. That if Prince Mohammed was the type of person who eliminated his opponents, there’s a far bigger list of people who are sitting in his jails who he could have eliminated, and he hasn’t.
There’s been some– the have been a number of renditions as well, and those people have disappeared since returning to Saudi Arabia.
Well, I don’t know– well, give me names of people who have disappeared and we can look at them. I don’t know about that, but I– the renditions were specifically for three members of the royal family, who, I think two were arrested in Morocco and were extradited. And it went to the Moroccan legal system, and they were handed over to Saudi authorities. And one was taken in Europe.
Put on a plane–
Put on a plane where he thought he was going somewhere else, and it landed in Riyadh. And frankly, that was more a question of internal family discipline. They were not political figures of any consequence. But, you know, everybody starts to call themselves a political dissident when they are on the other side of the argument.
In July of 2018, a number of women are arrested, activists.
Your opinion about that move?
I mean, that surprised me, and I think I said publicly at that time that I found it unfortunate. When I spoke to friends of mine in Riyadh they said that they had not been arrested because they were activists, but because they had broken the law in other areas. And then I said, “You know, I would wish that you would make that public.”
We’ve now seen the charges filed against Loujain al-Hathloul. There’s nothing about the kind of charges that you might imagine of conspiring with Qatar or some other foreign entity to subvert crown prince. There are things like talking to journalists, applying for a job at the United Nations.
And sundry things. I mean, there–
I mean, Martin, you are a journalist, you’ve talked to many people in Saudi Arabia, right? People don’t get arrested for just talking to journalists. My point is we saw certain elements of it. Now, at the end of the day–
The charges are that Loujain–
Again, I haven’t seen–
–spoke to journalists. One of them worked for FRONTLINE.
Yes, I do not believe that the full case has been made public–
This is the charge sheet–
–having said that–
–after ten months in prison, she–
I don’t know if that is the complete charge sheet or not, number one. Number two, in any event, they– I think there was excess, there was judicial excess. I think that– a level of transparency is lacking. But the final judgment will be when judgments come out, and whether they are acquitted or not. And I think there’s a general realization at least that there was– the government went overboard and overreacted.
That’s not what the government– they’re not acting that way–
The government’s not gonna tell you that. But I think, I mean, I think that many people feel that that’s the case. But I think you have to see the issue with the women to its conclusion. And I would hope that the government is much more transparent. That has been– that has been an issue, really. There are a number of people that have been arrested, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that surprise me and surprise many people. And that question still stays, because there has been no transparency.
And they were held, these women were held, for many, many months without seeing a list of charges, without seeing attorneys, and reportedly some of them report being tortured. One of them–
One of them reports being tortured by Saud al-Qahtani himself.
Yeah, I mean, that’s horrifying. Yeah, I mean, again, you know, again, people are– that story should come out. I hope it’s been investigated. I think it’s been investigated. And, you know, it will come out in the end. And it’s horrifying, and I think it shocked everybody–
I mean– you–
–I mean it shocked people in the leadership, it shocked Saudi public. This is something that– I mean, one of the fringe benefits of being a woman in the Middle East and in the Muslim world and in the Arab world is that they’re seen as a weaker party. And the concept of inflicting any punishment or torture on them is horrific to people.
So I think that’s something that people are shocked about, and– even within the system. I mean, there isn’t a minister that I have not talked to that wasn’t shocked and horrified by it. Let’s see the full story. You know, again, I would wish that they were more transparent. But I think at the end, the full story will come out.
Will you condemn the behavior of the royal court?
I condemned it. I condemned it in the past, I mean, when Loujain’s sister — look at my Twitter feed — when Loujain’s sister came out with–
An op-ed. I said it, that it’s, I mean– (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
That was January of 2019.
And you said, “I think she will be released soon.”
Yes, I thought–
Six months have now passed.
Yes. I mean, soon, you know, it doesn’t mean next week. But my understanding was that issue was being looked at. Again, you hear that through the grapevine. And that there was a realization that there had been excess in that space. And that the women are slowly going to get released.
You say you were initially surprised by what you saw happening at the Ritz-Carlton, then you came to understand it and support it. You were shocked by the arrests of activists in summer of 2018.
And you’re certainly shocked by what happened to Jamal Khashoggi.
Is there anything that this government can do to change your opinion about its morality, about its–
Well, I mean, at the end of the day, to me, the glass is half full. To you, it’s half empty. Because I look at the totality of what the leadership has done, and I think on a historically basis, for example, to affect all– first of all, you had a succession, a bloodless succession, no blood on the streets.
You had a huge social, religious, cultural change, which empowered women, brought them out to the streets, put them into work, without any bloodshed. I mean, in other countries these things have caused internal civil wars. Again, also deep economic– painful economic adjustment. So I see all these important things happening, and there’s no blood on the streets.
Is there anything that would–
Let me finish. So I put that on one side. And then I see, yes, I see Khashoggi, I see the women — maybe elements of the Yemen war also. And I balance them. And I’m sure you are, too, but history is a hobby of mine. And when I look at that, in the grand scheme of things, I think that the report card deserves to be much more favorable to the king and Prince Mohammed than everybody– by totally focusing on the mistakes that have happened, yes.
Is there anything that the crown prince could do that would turn you skeptical about his suitability?
I mean, that’s a hypothetical, you know? I can’t, you know, nobody’s perfect on Earth. Again, I mean, I’ve written and said sometimes that he has made mistakes, and some people in Saudi Arabia have told me– criticized me. And I said, “Look– the only perfect people are prophets, and the supreme leader of Iran, because he’s supposedly Massoum, as they say, he is guided by God, right? But normal mortals make mistakes.”
And for all he has done in his report card, the right side of his balance sheet has so much that I think that– that on balance he has been a great success for the country. Now, clearly, I’m emotionally detached in a way; if my daughter was in jail or if my brother was Jamal, I would take it differently. But in the grand scheme of history–
Your brother is Jamal. He was a fellow Saudi.
No. I mean, Jamal was an acquaintance of mine. I’d known him for many years. In fact, I had been with him right after his– a week after his first op-ed in the Washington Post came out. And God bless his soul, but I mean, I remember asking him, I said, “Jamal, you’ve said Saudi Arabia is unbearable because the king and crown prince have arrested 70 people.”
But I said, “You spent the last two years arguing Erdogan’s case, and Erdogan has arrested 100,000 people.” And, you know, God as my witness, but Jamal responded to me and said, “It’s different.” He said, “Erdogan was facing the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) deep state.” And in a sense, that justified it. And I had issues with that with Jamal. I thought that he was, you know, again, nothing justifies what happened to him, and he was not a threat.
But I thought that he, you know, looked at Turkey and looked at what Mr. Erdogan did — who he was close to personally — and gave him a pass. And he applied a totally different measuring stick to Prince Mohammed. And, you know, Jamal has gone on record in Arabic. But it was in the Arabic media. And I even remember going on Twitter and mentioning the issue of Mr. Erdogan. So Jamal and I agree to disagree. But we maintained a cordial relationship. And, you know, it’s very sad. I know his relatives and I know his cousins for many, many years.
The problem that a lot of people are gonna have in listening to you is you apply a standard of looking around the region or around the world or through history and finding examples of people that have done worse things–
–rather than holding Saudi Arabia, as a Saudi, you’re a Saudi, to a moral standard with some integrity, rather than simply saying, “Well, you know”–
–”Saud is worse or this guy’s worse.”
–because, for example, when you judge somebody in a court of law, you look at legal precedence, right? What is law in the West? English law, for example, and American law. It’s precedence built up, right? When you judge people, you look at their peers. Look at people facing similar conditions. You look at people put under similar stress. You look at people at the certain level of development. And you have to factor those things in.\
Do you ever wake up–
–if there’s a poor– if there’s a homeless man who goes and steals fruit from a supermarket, right, I would look at him differently than if you and I go and steal fruit from a supermarket. So you cannot look at things in splendid isolation. You have to look at the– at the– at the factors.
And in the case of Jamal, I think in his case, because he was very close to the Turkish leadership he had defended them aggressively in media, and argued, and he did that to me, you see? Versus, you know, his country where all these changes have come with– with no civil unrest, with no blood on the street, with no civil war. And I think that that is something that is being ignored.
You know, you said, “To expect Mohammed bin Salman, a young leader with only a few years’ experience to have handled such a political calamity as the death of Jamal Khashoggi, with a virtuoso performance of a seasoned, wise, experienced, Western politician is unfair and malicious.”
Is there ever a day where you wake up and say, “Maybe I’m just being a little– I’m giving him too much of a pass”?
No. Because at the end of the day, I mean–
Is there nothing he could do that would make you–
No, no, I mean–
–change your views?
–who knows what he can do? But my point is that that is exactly the case when you are young you have less experience. The bureaucracy also doesn’t have much experience in crisis management. And Saudi Arabia was caught flat-footed after the Khashoggi crisis in its communication, there’s no doubt about that. And, you know, next time around they’ll have experience. You see, my point is that’s what life is.
Next time around?
There’s a crisis. You see? They’ll have experience. My point is that life teaches you. And you acquire experience. At the same time, sometimes if you have so much experience, I mean, we have very distinguished leaders who are kings, we had so much experience, they were in power for 50-60 years, that they were– sometimes you’re frozen into indecision, you know?
Because you can see all the negatives and all the potential downfalls. And I think in the case of a young leader, people might call it reckless. Others might call it bold. But you are willing to take risks that your elders are not. So it’s, again, it’s a cost-benefit analysis.
In December of 2018, I was in Saudi Arabia. I was talking with Crown Prince Mohammed. And he said, “Look, I get all the responsibility because it happened under my watch. I didn’t wanna tell you I didn’t do it or I did, that’s just words.” You were there, you heard him say it.
Why isn’t he willing to say that publicly?
I wish he did, because frankly it–
But why isn’t he willing to?
Look, I think part of it is the bureaucracy around him. Because one of the things that happened, let me explain that to you.
But he’s a bold–
–explain that to you. One of the things that was discovered post-Khashoggi, you know, in trying to effect change so quickly, he bypassed a lot of processes, dealt directly with people, dealt directly with ministers, pushed things along, because if he had waited for this bureaucratic system to work, he would not have been able to do that.
So he broke a lot of bureaucratic rules. The criticism internally — that of, you know, him and his brother and everybody around him realized — they said that, you know, “We’ve made mistakes. A lot of the mistakes that we made were made where things were not discussed.” And, for example, there’s an actual security council, you know? If anything was going to be done to somebody like Jamal, it should be presented.
Then you would have a lot of wise people around who would have said, if actually anybody had been planning to kill Jamal, they would have said, “This is insane.” It would have been crushed there, you see? So I think there was a feeling after Jamal that we have to reintroduce process. We have to reintroduce reduced access to the crown prince. And I think that question, again, went to a committee. And I think it’s a mistake, because I think– I wish–
The question of, you know, should he come out and say something publicly.
Well, it hasn’t come out of a committee, you see? And I–
It went to committee and they’re still talking about it?
Well, whatever. My– the point is that he has not come out and made that statement. I was very happy when he made that statement to you, and frankly when he says it to a Western journalist it’s public, which is why I repeated it on a panel in Washington. Because it’s no long– it’s not something that he said privately.
So I wish that– and I remember mentioning it to people. I mean, I said, “I wish I could’ve put that on Twitter,” you see? But the conservatism of the system came in, again–
–let’s think about it.
–what would happen to you if you put that on Twitter?
Well, I mean, I didn’t put it on Twitter. But I mean, I–
But why didn’t you?
Because I would have liked to have– I remember thinking that day, I said, “Can’t we record it?” I remember telling somebody that was on the balcony then, where we all were, and I said, “I wish we could record that statement and put it on Twitter.” Unfortunately, again, that’s a mistake, I think.
Because Prince Mohammed’s a courageous man. He told you. He said, “I assume– it happened under my watch. I assume ultimate responsibility.” And people have criticized him for not saying that when he feels that and when, you know, and he told a foreign journalist that on the record. So I think that is one of the mistakes where the system– just does not understand how to communicate.
And when you suggest to the royal court, to his handlers or to him, I don’t know if you’ve talked to him directly about this or not.
I have not, no.
But when you suggested to those who handle his affairs that he go on camera and make this statement and take responsibility for this, what do they say?
“Let’s think about it. Let’s not rush.” That we come back to a bit of the norm. You see, what has happened a bit now in Saudi Arabia is that people have said things have been going too quickly, so, let’s revert a little bit to the norm. Let’s put it to committee. Let’s discuss it.
And these things end up killing initiatives. But there’s a balance. You see, there’s a balance between speed and boldness and initiative and you make mistakes, and you know, process and bureaucracy and thoughtfulness and wisdom, but then you don’t get anything done. So one is always grappling. And Saudi Arabia was on this side of the fence for the last 50 years.
It got a big kick from Prince Mohammed, and a lot of great things have happened. But there’s a price, you see? And I think in the grand scheme of things. The price that has been paid is far less than other countries throughout history would have paid for such change, you see? I mean, you know, look at–
That doesn’t give any comfort to the family of Jamal Khashoggi–
–to the family of Loujain al-Hathloul–
–of the family of Salman al-Ouda–
And that is why I told you, personally, I can talk on an emotionally detached fashion, but if it was my daughter or my brother, obviously one is different, and there’s no doubt about that. So one can talk about the macro benefits to a society or to history, but for the people involved there’s always– it’s a much heavier price.
Is there no–
– is there no replacement for Mohammed bin Salman? Is he the indispensable Saudi ruler?
Well, I mean, he is different from the rest of his generation. And that’s, I think, what his father saw in him. There’s a boldness to him, there’s a strength of character to him. He grew up in the kingdom and I think, you know, I always say that leaders should be of the soil and grow up in the country.
You can send advisors to Oxford and Harvard, but you’re better off with a leader, you know, understanding what the people like — eating what they eat, watching what they watch — and he’s very much that. And I think he has been a very, frankly, successful choice for the kingdom by his father. Very bold choice. But his father’s a student of the system, of the kingdom. He has been watching it for 70 years. It was a very bold decision by the father, also.
Can you tell us what did Prince Mohammed do to the Ministry of Interior, specifically? You know, what parts of it were–
I mean, my understanding was it was domestic intelligence and the domestic elite special forces that were put under state security.
And the reason for doing that?
Well, as I told you before, that the model generally in the world is that these agencies report directly to the chief executive, number one. Number two, the Ministry of Interior became a behemoth. It some the largest employer in the country, and this issue of dividing the ministry up had been– in fact, the former ministry of interior had resigned over it in King Abdullah’s days, because they had wanted to divide it up differently.
They were going to create the Ministry of Local Governance, and give all the governors that, and separate everything else, and separate the security side, in those days, where Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was gonna become sort of minister of internal security, and his uncle was going to become minister of internal governance.
And the end result was to focus and concentrate power under the royal court.
Power– this is another fallacy, Martin, about Saudi Arabia.
Did it not do that?
My father served for 50 years in the bureaucracy. I watched the bureaucracy. Power has always been absolute with the king.
–also talk about– you reject the notion that there was some kind of consensus–
–building amongst the royal family–
Yes, yes, yes.
–and that this is different today.
I reject it because I have lived it, my father lived it, I watched it very carefully. And I can tell you that King Faisal and King Fahd, and King Abdullah were absolute rulers. They consulted the people they decided to consult, and there is a written testimony to that in the memoirs of General Schwarzkopf … He was on the plane with Rumsfeld, flying to Riyadh to tell King Fahd that you have to allow U.S. troops in, Saddam is on the border. And Rumsfeld said, “What do you think will happen?” He said, “Well, the king will say, ‘Okay, let me discuss it with my people and I’ll get back to you.’ And, you know, we’ll have to give him a few days to discuss it with, you know, the powers that be.”
And they sat down with the king, and Prince Abdullah, the crown prince, was sitting next to him. And the king said, “Okay, go ahead.” And Abdullah protested. The king, you know, basicall- spoke to him in Arabic and told Schwarzkopf, “Go ahead.” It was a momentous, historical decision. It would have huge implications. It was taken by King Fahd in a second.
So this illusion that Saudi Arabia was a sort of loya jirga, as the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and everybody was brought into the tent. No, power has always been in the person of the king, or the person he designates. For example, when King Khalid was king, Prince Fahd was the crown prince, and he had executive power. So this is an illusion, that somehow he has changed that mode of governance.
You have made it clear in your writings that this reformer is not about political reform, that the illusion in the West–
–that he is a liberalizing reformer–
No, and he’s not–
–he’s never pretended to be. He’s never pretended to be. And, you know, political reform is something that will have to be looked at in the future. But at this moment it’s not on the table.
It looks as if he’s likely to be the ruler of Saudi Arabia for the next 50 years. Should we be happy about that?
I think so. And I think many of the people you have met in Riyadh independently on the street, and young people, would have been quite positive on that.
They’re afraid to speak their minds.
Well, maybe. Maybe some, maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe with a camera they are. But I mean, if you walk the streets and talk to young people, again, I mean, you can talk to my colleague Faraz, who was in Riyadh with me a month ago, and he walked down the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) street at night with some friends. And a Saudi girl came without head covering and hugged one of his friends, and then said, “Oh my God, I’ve been hugging you in public,” and everybody laughed. And then she opened her abaya and she had a sticker that said “MBS Power.” You know? I mean, I think you have to do a bit of that, frankly, without minders, without cameras.
And we had already.
Well, yeah, you get different opinions. But people– when you bring up a difficult subject like Jamal Khashoggi and his murder, they say, “Well, I won’t talk about that.”
Yes, fair enough. That’s highly controversial.
But the question I end with is whether or not — and without making comparisons to other countries — simply whether repression of dissent, whether repression of free speech, whether repression of women’s rights, guardianship rules whereby women can’t make independent decisions about their lives — whether or not this doesn’t bottle up a lot of discontent, and over time, erode the system and threaten the stability of Saudi Arabia.
Two things. First of all, there’s no repression in the sense that the women have been liberated now. There have been issues of repression with some women, but what has happened to Saudi women in the last two years is life-changing.
They still can’t travel without permission from–
Well, yes, but they can do many more things that they couldn’t do. So my point is you cannot change everything overnight, Martin. And–
They’re still not happy. They’re still–
They’re still not happy?
Well, they’re still–
I mean, you can’t say that. How do you know that? I mean, what I’m telling you is that the world, for a Saudi woman, has changed…completely.
You’ve taken your foot off my neck, but you’re still standing on my head.
No. I mean, look, the guardianship is something, for example, that has been debated and everybody understands is an issue, but is also part of society and part of culture. And there’s only so much– look, the Shah got overthrown for going too quickly. They have been clipping it at the wings, you see? And certainly something they’re going to gradually work. But, again, they’re also trying to be sensitive to the local community. This is a judgment call.
But Ali — Loujain al-Hathloul is in prison for speaking to Western reporters, including one from FRONTLINE.
Martin, I have gone public and said that I do not understand why Loujain and the women were arrested, so–
Okay, but don’t paint a picture–
–do not ask me about them–
–of how great it is.
I do not understand that. But what has happened to women in the last three years is so extraordinary in Saudi Arabia. And you cannot ignore that.
Okay, so women’s situation has improved some. I’ll agree with that. The question is whether or not repression doesn’t lead to pent up sentiment among the population and lead to instability.
And that is the debate historians have been having from Aristotle ‘til today. And if you look at Huntington, for example, he tells you the king’s dilemma, because you reform and you develop, and after you develop the middle class, they want to overthrow you. So there’s always an issue, I think, about when you liberalize that also becomes a period of maximum risk.
Is the government nervous about that? You bet they are. Do they deserve to be nervous about that? You bet they do. You know? Would it be, you know, perfect if Swedish freedoms were in Saudi Arabia? Sure. It would be lovely if everybody could have had total freedom of speech.
But that’s the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that they’re worried about. So that transition from an authoritarian government to a more open space is fraught with risk. So they’re very worried about that, they’re very cautious, and they’ve done so much already that is risky. And on that note, I thank you very much, Martin.