Jamal Khashoggi, MBS and the myth of the youthful reformer

The brutal killing of a Saudi journalist has exposed so many Western observers as fools for buying into the Saudi crown prince's own hype.

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This much we know for sure: on 2 October, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post op-ed writer Jamal Khashoggi left his fiancée waiting outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul while he picked up some documents. He never returned.

Citing anonymous sources, CNN is reporting that the Saudi Arabian government may finally be willing to concede what the rest of the world has long suspected: that it killed Khashoggi.

According to CNN, Saudi Arabia will publish a report alleging that Khashoggi was killed accidentally during a botched interrogation. Turkish officials say they have evidence to confirm there was nothing accidental about his killing. They say he was killed by a team of 15 Saudis, at least four of whom have ties to the Saudi crown prince, the New York Times reports. Turkey says it believes Khashoggi was dismembered using a bone saw bought for that purpose.

The gory details both matter horribly, and don’t matter at all. What matters most is that a journalist has been killed, it seems, in the Saudi consulate, an institution that ought to offer safety and sanctuary to its nationals but that now will serve as a reminder that one can never fully escape one’s home country. That for Saudi dissidents, a routine bureaucratic requirement – the need to obtain a passport, or marriage documents, or a birth certificate – can be deadly.

Khashoggi’s gruesome and shocking death is another unsettling reminder of the dangers faced by journalists worldwide, particularly in the moral vacuum created by the Trump administration’s attacks on the “fake news” media.

It should also serve to underline, in the most devastating way, that for all his youthfulness and apparent media appeal, Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (often known by his initials: MBS) was never the great reformer he wanted the world to see him as – and so many Western observers were fools for believing his hype.

They were fools for seeing youth as a proxy for progressiveness. Bin Salman has always been primarily concerned with preserving the status quo, or more accurately with cementing his power, whatever the humanitarian cost. If his youth counts for anything, it may have contributed to the brazenness and recklessness of Khashoggi’s murder on Turkish soil.

How easy it still is for young Middle Eastern dynasts with well-funded PR operations to convince the world that they are the only hope for their region, when so much evidence suggests the opposite.

Recent history has shown that the promises made by other “young reformers” once hailed by the international community – the Assads, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi – are hollow. The children of dictators might look slicker and more open-minded than their parents, but when their position is threatened they will defend it with the same violence as their fathers.

As Jim Rutenberg points out in the New York Times, just six months ago the US media was cheerfully reporting MBS’s tour of the US, where he went to Starbucks with Michael Bloomberg and toured Google’s grounds with Sergey Brin, and discussed the popularity of Snapchat in the Kingdom with the company’s founder Evan Spiegel at a dinner that also included Jeff Bezos.

Few reporters (the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins was an exception) questioned MBS’s carefully constructed image as the tech-savvy reformer who would modernise and open up the Kingdom.

Vanity Fair even featured him in its “New Establishment list”, just below the Democratic hopefuls Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke, noting that “through his family’s $1.4bn fortune, MBS has earned audiences with some of the American business community’s biggest names”.

Last November, the influential New York Times foreign affairs commentator Thomas L. Friedman hailed MBS’s reforms – his economic liberalisation and social reforms, such permitting women to drive – as an “Arab Spring, Saudi style”.

“Only a fool would not root for it!” Friedman wrote.

He seemed impressed by bin Salman’s “anti-corruption drive” – even though this involved rounding-up rich Saudis, imprisoning them in the Ritz and then brutally interrogating them (at least one of them is reported to have died) until they coughed up a total of $100bn, according to the crown prince.

The same article seemed to downplay the fact that Saudi Arabia literally kidnapped the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, put him on a plane to Saudi and forced him to announce his resignation on TV, Friedman accepting MBS’s justification that the “bottom line” is that as a Sunni Muslim Hariri would no longer provide “political cover” for a government controlled by Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Neither did he seem too perturbed by the reality that as the defence minister MBS spearheaded Saudi’s military intervention in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, creating what the United Nations calls the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”.

Friedman, to his credit, has expressed alarm in recent months at MBS’s recklessness and his arresting of critics and activists, including several women who led the campaign to legalise women driving. As it became increasingly likely that Khashoggi had been killed, Friedman concluded that “the downsides have swamped the upsides” of MBS’s reform agenda.

But it's not the first time that Western commentators have been played by young leaders of the Middle East and their empty promises for reform.

Consider, for instance, the accolades once given to Muammar Gaddafi’s handsome, Westernised heir apparent Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who secured his PhD in democracy from LSE, the university to which he shortly afterwards donated £300,000 via the Gadhafi Foundation.

Clean-shaven and well-suited, he fit the image of the liberal reformer, and in the year before the Arab Spring uprising newspapers such as the Washington Post were praising Gaddafi’s son’s “commitment to political reforms and free-market reforms”.

In February 2011, when the Gaddafi regime might still have been able to prevent civil war by responding to anti-government protests with reforms rather than bullets, Seif changed his script. He sounded more like his mad dog father than the urbane PhD student when he pledged to “fight to the last man, to the last woman, to the last bullet”.

Similarly, though it is hard to contemplate now, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was once considered the meek optician, a weak leader who assumed power only because his more charismatic brother died in a car accident. He assumed the presidency on his father’s death in 2000 with a speech promising reform.

In February 2011, Vogue magazine published a breathless profile Bashar’s wife, Asma al-Assad, calling her the “rose of the desert” and the “freshest and most magnetic of first ladies” and praising her “English but not plummy accent”. It described the Assads as “wildly democratic” and Syria as the “safest country in the Middle East”.

Within weeks, Syrian security forces would violently crush anti-government protests. More than five million people have fled Syria since the war began in early 2011; six million more have been internally displaced. The Assad regime has carried out chemical weapons attacks on their own people, bombed and starved whole towns into submission and systematically tortured and killed thousands of people in Syrian prisons.

Of course, there have always been people wise enough to see through the PR – not least, many ordinary people in the Middle East who have always understood well enough what government reforms mean for them, who are accustomed to adjusting to changing political moods and gauging what they can or can’t say, can or can’t do.

And Khashoggi himself had been sounding the alarm through his columns for the Washington Post, and through his on and off-record interviews with Western journalists and commentators.

In his first column for the Post, written after his exile to the US, he wrote about how MBS once spoke of progress, but said “now all I see is the recent wave of arrests”. He wrote of his pain a few years earlier on learning that several of his friends had been arrested, and of being too afraid to speak out.

“I have made a different choice now. I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better,” he concluded.

It hardly needs to be said that Khashoggi deserved better, that no journalist deserves to be killed for doing their job.

In the aftermath of his death, Western leaders and commentators (though not Trump, who told the AP that MBS was being treated as “guilty until proven innocent”) are waking up to what Khashoggi had long understood. But he should not have had to pay such a high price for speaking out, or for being heard. No one ever should.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.