As details continue to emerge about the disappearance and probable murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, we speak with Saudi dissident Madawi Al-Rasheed about Khashoggi’s history as a Saudi journalist and government insider, and the future of Saudi Arabia. She is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre. She was stripped of her Saudi citizenship in 2005 for criticizing Saudi authorities. Her new piece in The New York Times is titled “Why King Salman Must Replace M.B.S.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. After weeks of defending Saudi Arabia, President Trump says he now believes Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is dead and that evidence—but has not said that evidence is mounting that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is directly implicated in the assassination.
On Tuesday morning, Trump tried to deflect claims his financial ties to Saudi Arabia may have clouded his judgment on possible Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Trump tweeted, “For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia (or Russia, for that matter). Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!” That’s what he tweeted. However, during a 2015 campaign rally in Mobile, Alabama, Trump boasted about how he financially benefited from Saudi clients.
DONALD TRUMP: Saudi Arabia—and I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Trump in 2015. Our guest is Madawi Al-Rasheed, Saudi dissident, visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. Can you respond to what he is saying there?
MADAWI AL-RASHEED: Yes. It’s the mixing of business and politics that has gone too far, I think. It is extremely difficult to actually run political affairs if it is entangled with business, especially in a foreign country. And I think this is probably going to continue, unless the American people do something about it. And it is the first condition that leads to undermining certain common, universal values that the whole world is looking forward to implementing. It’s about humans. It’s about whether freedom of speech is respected in countries like Saudi Arabia and many, many other countries, not only in the Arab world, but elsewhere.
And if this kind of pattern of behavior continues in the place that boasts about upholding democratic values, the rule of law, separation of powers—if that is not happening in the place where it should happen, then I think we have no hope for other countries, especially in a country like Saudi Arabia. That position of Mr. Trump actually undermines the argument of people like myself who see themselves as looking for a country with serious respect of human rights, with political representation, where there is no corruption and no dubious relations that undermine the security of people. But now, if we have examples from the United States, and even from Britain, where certain rights that we take for granted are being eroded, then people like myself can’t actually argue with force, because the Saudis would say to me that, “Well, you live in—if we did it, it’s OK, because so many other so-called democratic countries do it.” And therefore, it has a setback on the development of respectable world order and also the accountability of regimes like the Saudi one.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Al-Rasheed, you were stripped of your citizenship for being a Saudi dissident in 2005. I was wondering if you can start to talk about who Jamal Khashoggi was, deeply enmeshed in the Washington establishment, not to mention the Saudi establishment. There is now word that a group of right-wing U.S. congressmembers are going to try to develop a smear campaign against him. Can you talk about his history?
MADAWI AL-RASHEED: Yes. Jamal Khashoggi is not a usual or a typical dissident or opposition figure. He started his career in Saudi Arabia as a journalist, and he was very close to the Saudi government. So, let me just explain what it means to be a journalist in Saudi Arabia. It is nothing like being a journalist in any other country in the West, for example. So, all the newspapers are either owned by the government or by individual princes, and therefore, he was an employee of the state in his capacity as a journalist. And he developed his career writing in Arabic in several Saudi newspapers. Some of them are pan-Arab. They are directed towards the Arab world. But he continued to be very, very close to the Saudi regime as a writer, but also as a defender of policies that were introduced over the years.
So, to give you an example, he had—probably his best days were during the rule of King Abdullah. So, he was promoting not democracy—because if he did that at the time, he would have ended up in prison. But he was almost like praising King Abdullah and praising his so-called reforms. I mean, the word “reform” comes up every time we have a new king, but we don’t go far in that reform.
So, also, there was a—he was close to Al-Waleed bin Talal, who is probably known to Western audiences as the tycoon, the businessman, who owns a media empire that he started in Saudi Arabia. And he wanted Jamal Khashoggi to be the director of a new news channel based in Bahrain called Al-Arab. And Khashoggi was meant to go there and inaugurate this news channel. But it is very, very interesting that that news channel lasted two hours, and it was shut down on orders from the Saudi regime. And therefore, Khashoggi returned to Saudi Arabia and continued to write, until King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman came to power. And that’s when he began to have a difficult relationship.
Also, let’s not forget that one of his main jobs was as an adviser and spokesperson to Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was the ex-director of intelligence in Saudi Arabia. Later, he became the ambassador of Saudi Arabia in Washington and London. So he was very close to that person. Then, Khashoggi, at the time when Mohammed bin Salman came to power, he almost like had no patron anymore, because he wasn’t close to the new guards that came with Mohammed bin Salman, and therefore, he was banned from writing, he was suspended, until, suddenly, he appeared in Washington and started writing for The Washington Post.
So, my guess is Jamal Khashoggi should not be regarded as an opposition figure, as a dissident. He is a defector from within the corridors of power of the Saudi regime, and he moved to Washington, which really worried the Saudis, I think, simply because he’s close to the patrons, the protectors of the Saudi regime. Let’s not forget that Saudi Arabia depends for its security on the U.S. And therefore, he began to write critically of the time of Mohammed bin Salman and his reforms—not all of them. He appreciated some of them—for example, giving women the right to drive, introducing cinemas and theater in Saudi Arabia. But he was desperate to have freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia as a journalist, and he started writing for a different audience, an English-speaking audience, which probably worried the Saudi regime, as Jamal Khashoggi knows too much, perhaps, and they did not want this to go further.
So, there was the story of him attending conferences in London and going also to Istanbul, until we saw that video of him entering the Saudi Consulate looking for a document. That’s the story that we got from his fiancée, who was waiting for him outside the consulate, that he needed a document to say that he’s divorced his wife in Saudi Arabia, and therefore he will be able to remarry in Turkey. So, this is the story that we have. This is Jamal Khashoggi.
I appeared with Jamal Khashoggi on television and on radio when he was the spokesperson of Prince Turki al-Faisal, the ambassador in London. We disagreed about so many things, but I must say that he was a very polite person who was defending the realm. He was defending the king, the policies of the kingdom at the time, in his role as the spokesperson for the ambassador.
AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, the Middle East Eye is reporting Saudi authorities banned Khashoggi from writing in newspapers, appearing on TV and attending conferences, after his remarks during a presentation he made at a Washington think tank on November 10th, in which he was critical of Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. It was right after Trump’s election. In the last minute that we have, your piece in The New York Times, “Why King Salman Must Replace M.B.S.”—talk about what you think has to happen now.
MADAWI AL-RASHEED: Well, I mean, I think here we should leave the investigation of the possible murder of Jamal to the right people who are actually—who know what they’re doing. What is going to happen in Saudi Arabia and what should happen is that, first, we need to know who the murderers are and who gave them orders.
And if it is proven that Mohammed bin Salman is responsible, there are two things that could save Saudi Arabia at this moment. One, King Salman must sack his son and find an alternative crown prince. He should go into—sink into oblivion, because his name is associated with this murder, if there is evidence to prove that.
The second thing, I believe that just replacing Mohammed bin Salman with another prince is not enough. There has to be a political change in Saudi Arabia to mitigate against the emergence of a new MBS. In an absolute monarchy, we can’t just simply wait and hope that the future king will be better than the previous one. There is no mechanism in Saudi Arabia to mitigate against the emergence of somebody like MBS or previous kings. I mean, we focus on MBS as if Saudi Arabia had like enjoyed a certain kind of openness or democracy or the elements of free speech. It’s never been a free country. And therefore, King Salman, if he wants to save Saudi Arabia from future upheaval, civil wars, etc., he needs to start thinking and making a pledge that Saudi Arabia will become a constitutional monarchy, in which the al-Saud will become symbolic figures in order to allow a transition to more democratic systems.
AMY GOODMAN: And we haven’t even mentioned—
MADAWI AL-RASHEED: Personally, I do not support any monarchy, whether it’s an absolute monarchy or a constitutional monarchy like the ones that we have in the Arab world. Even in that constitutional arrangement, we still have that the king interferes in everything. And we have examples, from Morocco to Jordan to Kuwait to Bahrain. And therefore—but as a transitional period, as a period to prepare Saudi Arabia for a better future, then the king must act now.
However, I have my doubts, because King Salman is very old and he may not be aware of the severity of what his son may have done. And therefore, to focus the mind of the world on this change is extremely important, because Saudi Arabia is not a country with resources for its own people; it’s a country that is relevant to the world economy. And if we have a situation in Saudi Arabia along the lines of Syria, Yemen or Iraq, then the whole world will feel the shock.
AMY GOODMAN: And we haven’t even talked about Yemen. As the crown prince is being accused of orchestrating the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, dismembering him piece by piece, you have the children of Yemen being blown to pieces. You have a country being destroyed by Saudi Arabia, backed by the United States. We just have 30 seconds.
MADAWI AL-RASHEED: Yes, absolutely. I think, from the very beginning, almost 2015, I predicted that the Yemen war that the Saudis are launching is a war impossible to win. You cannot bomb a very, very poor country and kill over 10,000 civilians and stabilize a country. It’s just not going to happen. The Saudis should have stayed outside that country and not interfered so much in its internal politics. There had been a struggle for power in Yemen, but the Saudi intervention has made it worse and has actually contributed to that struggle for power not ending soon.
So the war in Yemen should stop immediately, because it’s going nowhere, and it has become—Yemen itself has become a training ground for an inexperienced Saudi Army that has never actually participated in a war or launched a war or let alone achieved victory in a war. Let’s remember that in 1991, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the Saudi regime had to invite 500,000 troops to defend itself against a possible invasion by Saddam Hussein. And therefore, the Saudi Army now is using Yemen as a training ground. Even if it doesn’t achieve victory there, it’s still a battleground where they practice, and practice killing in Yemen, which should not go unchecked.
And unfortunately, the United States and Britain, the two countries that are actually extremely heavily involved in this war through selling arms to Saudi Arabia, are keeping quiet, and they keep assuring us that they have constructive engagement with the Saudis to minimize civilian death. But day after day, we have targets being hit, and they happen to be a bus with schoolchildren. So I’m not sure how this precision bombing and the constructive engagement of the two Western countries supporting the war is leading to some kind of improvement in the military practices of the Saudi Army.
AMY GOODMAN: Madawi Al-Rasheed, we thank you very much for joining us. There is so much to discuss. Madawi Al-Rasheed is a Saudi dissident, visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, stripped of her citizenship more than a decade ago. We’ll link to your piece in The New York Times, “Why King Salman Must Replace M.B.S.” And I should add that, as in so many countries, the Trump administration has no ambassador in Saudi Arabia, no ambassador in Turkey.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, testifies before the U.N. Security Council. We’ll speak with the executive director who did. Stay with us.