Ahmed: Jamal Khashoggi is missing, presumed kidnapped.
In case you don’t know who that is, let me give you a quick bio. He is a Saudi journalism heavyweight who made his career in the 80s and 90s as a foreign correspondent for Saudi newspapers across the Middle East, even interviewing Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora Mountains of Afghanistan.
In the 2000s he rose to editorship of several newspapers in the country and also served as a royal adviser. That’s why he has been seen as close to the ruling family and very aware of what’s going on. And he has 1.67 million Twitter followers.
But in September 2017 he left Saudi Arabia. It was six months after he received an official ban on writing and tweeting in the midst of Crown Prince MBS’ campaign of silencing every independent voice in the country. You can find out more about that in episodes 1 and 8 of this podcast. After relocating to the US, Jamal wrote a column for the Washington Post in which he said the following:
“My friends and I living abroad feelhelpless. We want our country to thrive and to see the 2030 vision realised. Weare not opposed to our government and care deeply about Saudi Arabia. It is theonly home we know or want – yet we are the enemy.”
This March, here is what he said to Mehdi Hassan on Al Jazeera’s Upfront programme:
“[M.H:] You no longer live in SaudiArabia, you’ve said that friends of yours have been arrested and detained,you’ve said that friends of yours in Saudi think twice about sharing whateverisn’t fully in line with official government group think you’ve said. Why areyou in “self exile”, explain that to our viewers.
[J.K.:] Simply because I don’t want tobe arrested, I don’t want to be next to Essam al-Zamil or Salman al-Odah.”
This Tuesday, 2 October, Jamal entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get some paperwork done. Not unusual, he is charged with no crime in his country and the consulates are obliged to provide services to all citizens, but he hasn’t been seen since. The Saudi government insists he left the consulate and the Turkish government says he’s still inside.
We were with Jamal at the Oslo Freedom Forum five months ago. Here’s a section of our discussion so you can understand a bit more about him and what it means that this is happening.
Iyad: So we’re sitting in the press centre of the Oslo Freedom Forum and we’re sitting here with Mr Jamal Khashoggi, who is a Saudi journalist and probably one of the most famous and notable Arab journalists of his generation. Mr Jamal, currently living in DC, let’s say in exile after the recent changes in Saudi government, and we’re here to ask him a few questions not only about his impressions of the Oslo Freedom Forum but also about Saudi Arabia, about the future of the Arab world and about the prospects of reform in the region. And you know this podcast is called the Arab Tyrant Manual, this is how it started, it started actually as a project to document the similarity between different dictatorships and the repression or how the techniques are similar.”
Jamal: “And also the struggle for freedom is similar! When the Arab Spring started I wrote an article, where I predicted that many of what happened in Tunisia will happen everywhere else. And it did happen, in Yemen and in Syria, of course with different results. But yeah, dictators they learn from each other. They even learn when they see how the west, the European Union for example, when one country succeeds in overcoming pressure from the EU or from the Americans, they want to learn how we can do that too. How we can get the Americans off our shoulders the same way Sisi got the Americans off his shoulders and so yeah they do share a manual.
But there is something they also talked about in the Forum which is interesting. As much as social media scared Arab dictators at the begin of the Arab Spring – even a joke was said once that one of the Arab monarchs suggested that we should buy facebook and shut it down, it was a joke it was not true – the dictators, the Arab regimes, they learned how to manipulate social media. If you cannot beat these young people, let’s join them so they are joining in many forms. In the form of electronic armies, utilising social media, spying on the people, trying to find out using experts through IP addresses the activists and go after them. In many countries, including my country, there are individuals who are being sentenced to jail for a tweet they made.
Iyad: Yeah there is actually fresh news that we got right now that Emirati authorities have sentenced Ahmed Mansour, who was the last remaining independent voice for human rights in the country, he’s just been sentenced to ten years in prison.
Jamal: Because of tweets he made?
Iyad: Well, he was actually arrested on the background of tweeting but i think the official charge – I haven’t read the entire statement yet – but it seemed that the official charge is contacting human rights organisations. So they’re actually literally putting a human rights activist in jail for the crime of being a human rights activist.
Jamal: Yeah they’ve been doing that for years, but I’m referring to tweeting and putting posts on facebook is being criminalised also, and not only for individuals who are using their true name but even activists who are not using their true name but the governments are learning how to track them down and go after them and taking their tweets into court and sentencing them. What is more scary is that journalist who was in China – the Chinese government, with their vast knowledge in IT, they are beginning to monitor the people in Kashgar – East Turkestan as we call it – and Xinjiang as they call it and this is a scary technology.
Jamal: Maybe there is a need for freedom loving people to, as much as governments are using technology to oppress activists or freedom organisations like the Forum, they need to develop also a mechanism to counter such power.
Iyad: Absolutely, one recurring theme in the forum. Of course, a lot of technologists come to the forum, a lot of panels about technology. But as human rights activist and the activist community in general, we have become very sensitive towards the topic of technological utopianism where people who think that technology is going to solve all the problems because technology has a dark side as well, it can empower governments to create the kind of mass surveillance that we see in China.
I mean I can speak about the United Arab Emirates because I know they subcontract this to Italian companies – even Ahmed Mansour actually was spied upon with a piece of software a few years ago which they spent a million dollars to develop a piece of software specifically for his iPhone. So there is also this supply chain. Sometimes they don’t have to develop the technology themselves, they can actually subcontract it from another company, and the company can be in a country that pretends to be a liberal democracy.
Nasser: The vast, deep pockets of the Gulf states have been a lure for many outsiders trying to make a buck on the quick, knowing full well that they are not going to face any consequences, because I remember before the Arab uprisings when some of us started raising concerns about surveillance technologies, the response – for example in Iran at the time, Siemens built an entire telecom hub and was actively assisting the Iranian crackdown on the internet – the response was: ‘Well if we don’t sell it the Chinese will sell it so it better be us’. But flipping back a little bit Mr. Jamal, you’re an insiders insider. You’re someone who has seen the permutations of the Gulf region and the Arab world for a long period of time and you possess experience and knowledge that many of us lack frankly. And I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to feel through a couple of tough questions – but it’s done respectively with love. And at the same time trying to get you to help us unpack some of the latest dynamics.
So the first question is: How is someone like you, who has been for decades a prominent Saudi journalist and sometimes – whether right or not – being presented as has his pulse on what the rulers are thinking. How does a man like that, after these decades, become opposed to that very system. What happened?
Jamal: I still don’t want to see myself as opposed to the system, opposed to some of the policies of the system. I believe in the Saudi system and I support the Saudi system.
Nasser: Meaning absolute monarchy?
Jamal: A reformed [one] hopefully. But I am not against the system per se. But of course if I can push for reform I will not hesitate to. But I know that there is no environment right now in Saudi Arabia for such a thing. Especially after what happened in the Arab Spring.
Jamal: Because the failure of the Arab Spring, that turned off the people from pushing for reform, authoritarianism is growing rapidly throughout the Arab world, but what changed? It is the Arab Spring that changed me, and changed the system. I am a believer in reform from within the system, and Saudi Arabia was doing reform since the time of King Abdullah.
We all realise that we need to change in Saudi Arabia and we were hoping to see more reform. When the Arab Spring happened I wrote repeatedly, encouraging and hoping my government will embrace the Arab Spring rather than confront it. Unfortunately they chose the other way around. There were mistakes from also the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which maybe alienated – but that will complicate my answer. But [they were] not supporting the Arab Spring, confronting the Arab Spring – while I maintained my support for the Arab Spring which I saw as an opportunity as an historical and inevitable event. It had to happen, because those Arab republics have failed.
I wrote repeatedly that Gulf states haven’t failed and they shouldn’t feel threatened by the Arab Spring, they can embrace it. The more I wrote about that, the more I was pushed away from government circles, they did not like this narrative of mine. Until there came a time when I was ordered to shut up, not to write not to tweet, not to do anything. That was six months before my decision to leave the country. So it is all about the Arab Spring. And I still, until today, hope that particularly young Prince MBS will see the other side of the Arab Spring – as an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to lead and that it cannot be fought off – but of course it is very hard to convince.
Ahmed: It’s touching that he would speak so positively about the Arab Spring. We only think about it in relation to young people, but Jamal is about 60 and he saw its promise and importance and still does and he also thought that the Saudi paranoia towards it was unjustified. I find it really striking how he still insisted that he was not and never had been a member of an opposition and that the government had his support, even whilst he’d been forced to flee the country. Even when he disagreed on policy, he did so from the inside, urging the country to back the Arab Spring while making it clear that he was doing this as someone who wished success for his government, not its overthrow. And he paid a price for offering his sincere advice.
Jamal is obviously supportive of reforms, and appeals directly to MBS as a supporter of the Saudi system, and yet MBS went after him. Essentially MBS wants to hear only the echo of his own voice, even silence isn’t enough and no other opinion is allowed.
Nasser: If I may follow up, when you say you are not opposed to Saudi system per se, does that include the alliance between the house of Saud and the religious establishment? Because you have to understand that for many people outside, Saudi Arabia stands out for the years and years that either the government or private citizens have been exporting a certain brand of ideology, religious ideology that has caused disasters across the planet. Help me understand, how does one want to reform Saudi Arabia and not oppose the Saudi system, with that particular duality in mind, because I’ll tell you bluntly, and this goes to the audience, there are many people around the globe, the world is much larger than the Arab world itself, who tell you we don’t care what happens with Saudi Arabia, but as long as these guys stop exporting this stuff, that is progress in our minds, so how do you square all of this?
Jamal: You’re right, since you see that as progress you got it. It is happening now. Saudi Arabia right now is not supporting any Salafi movement, any Salafi mosque in Europe, northern Europe. I think Salafis are going to suffer the most in the coming…and many people who are monitoring the Islamic scene throughout, begin to see that Salafism is in decline for two reasons, the defeat of ISIS and the stopping of funding coming from Saudi Arabia, not a single Saudi individual will dare now openly to send a single Euro or dollar to a Salafi organisation, and Saudi Arabia as a government has seized all of that. So if you see that as progress then you have it, it is happening and MBS should be complimented for it. But again the notion that there is an alliance between House of Saud or the government and the Wahhabi establishment or the religious establishment is over hyped. It has been proven particularly this year by the decision of MBS to disengage from radicalism, to contain the religious establishment, limit the power of the religious police, that this alliance doesn’t exist.
I always believe that the sole power in Saudi Arabia is the government, is the house of Saud, they are the most powerful entity and I am hoping that eventually the government will see the people as the partners, see the people for an alliance and not the establishment. Why the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia has lost? They lost for two reasons. Reason number one, because they couldn’t provide answers for modern day Islam. The Saudi Wahhabi establishment failed at that, they couldn’t find an answer so the government had to just push them aside.
Nasser: Was there a particular point where – either King Abdullah, or King Fahd or King Salman – was there a particular event that made them realise that the religious establishment had failed?
Iyad: What was the moment of reckoning?
Jamal: I think they realised that early on. But they tolerated it until 9/11 happened.
Nasser: I see
Jamal: And after 9/11 there was a reluctant departure. Mohammed Bin Salman was assertive enough to take the final step. Even though he is not – he never said that he is going after the Wahabis, that he is going after the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] and this and that, But look he his going… he is going after his own establishment like he cannot stop the Ikhwan because the Ikhwan are not within his domain. The Ikhwan, the modern Islamic movement, they have a power of their own, and they are moving according to their own utilisation and funding and ability in Europe and everywhere else.
Ahmed: When Jamal said that the alliance with
Nasser: And so by extension, I’m sorry to interrupt you here, by extension, it’s good that you stopped, that you brought up the Ikhwan. In your opinion do you think that the Ikhwan, I’m talking here about the Muslim Brotherhood, do you think that they too failed, in a certain respect, to come up with a modernity, to pass the test of modernity like the Saudi religious establishment failed, or is the story more complicated?
Jamal: The Ikhwan made the largest mistake when they allowed Salafism to takeover some of their narrative, particularly the Egyptian Ikhwan. While North African Ikhwan are free from that, and that allowed them to evolve much faster.
Nasser: You mean Ennahda al-Adl w al-Ihsan?
Jamal: And the others, but the Egyptian Ikhwan retreated from the progressive position that the early Ikhwan of the 30s and 40s had and they are paying a price for that. And for them to move on they need to evolve, and I feel there is a debate going now with the Egyptian Ikhwan after the coup and the major setbacks they are suffering, the Turkish model is becoming very attractive to most of young people.
Nasser: Which we need to point out is authoritarian.
Jamal: It is authoritarian in its… not structure but in day to day behaviour.
Nasser: The end result is authoritarian still.
Jamal: But when you compare the AKP realisation of society it is way more advanced from the perspective of the Egyptian Ikhwan, and the AKP in their realisation of the relation between the state and the people, their view of secularism is way ahead.
Nasser: But still that’s a low bar to measure against.
Jamal: No, I don’t think so. Yes the AKP is receiving a great deal of criticism, but maybe we can blame it only on Erdogan.
Nasser: I see
Jamal: But the party itself, it is a way more advanced party compared to many Islamic parties in our part of the world.
Ahmed: So Jamal, this is your first time at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Have you ever been to any events similar to this?
Jamal: I have been to many events, but one that is similar to this no. This is different. It’s outstanding, it’s interesting and very depressing.
Iyad: Why do you say it is depressing though? I mean a lot of us find it inspiring that people are fighting.
Jamal: I wrote that down. And I’m taking notes during the sessions, and I said, is this uplifting or depressing? Sometimes it is uplifting, but in the overall it is depressing. What I found more depressing, is not the repeated stories of abuse that is almost the same whether it is happening in Egypt or happening in Togo. It is the same method of no respect for human rights and arrogance of a dictator, control of one family that goes on for years and years and years. What I found most depressing is the hopelessness. That the world know about that. The Americans, every year they put out a human rights report where they outline abuse of human rights, whether in Kazakhstan or in Syria, and they actually do nothing. I felt most depressed when everytime when somebody stand and say ‘please help us’, and he looks at the audience. ‘Please help us’. Think of Azerbaijan, think of Togo. And of course nothing will happen after that. That’s what I found depressing.
Ahmed: Now Jamal needs our help.
If Jamal has been kidnapped then this is reminiscent of the incident with Saad al-Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon, in November 2017. Whilst in Saudi Arabia on a visit, he unexpectedly released a video statement announcing his resignation from his position, declaring that he feared assassination by Iran or Hezbollah but giving no good explanation. Following frantic behind-the-scenes mediation by France, Hariri was able to leave Saudi Arabia, and later returned to Lebanon to resume his job. Credible leaks indicate that he was forcibly detained in Saudi and had his phone taken away, was roughed up and forced to record that video.
At the moment of this recording it’s not clear what has happened to Jamal. Turkish authorities insist he is still in the consulate and hasn’t left since entering. Saudi authorities, however, insist that he did leave the consulate. Some sources, such as the frequent Saudi whistleblower account Mujtahid, say that he was kidnapped and whisked away from Turkey to Saudi Arabia immediately upon entering the consulate, and that the current posturing is Turkey giving Saudi Arabia a chance to save face and return him quietly without incident. He also says that MBS is currently refusing. However, in the not unlikely event that Jamal releases a video statement announcing that he decided to return to Saudi Arabia of his own free will, then you will know how credible that is. And the key difference between the two cases; Hariri was detained on Saudi territory, not in a foreign country and smuggled out. But it does show the kind of duplicity and treachery of the new Saudi leadership and why they can’t be trusted with anything.
We heard in this recording Jamal’s feelings for his country. If you go after someone who is so pro-Saudi like that, what would you do to someone who is actually opposed to you? If Jamal gets kidnapped, what message does it send to those who have even more disagreements than Jamal?
If MBS gets away with these kidnappings, some fear that the next step could be assassinations. As with other dictators, MBS escalates the more he gets away with things. And this is frighteningly reminiscent of Gaddafi – hunting down dissidents and opposition abroad. We are potentially witnessing the rise of a new Gaddafi on the international stage – completely reckless and irresponsible, taking massively destabilising actions on a whim with no heed to consequences or international norms, and all of this made worse by delusions of grandeur.
And don’t forget this quote from Maryam Nayeb Yazdi in episode 14:
“If we can do this to a Canadianresident, what do you think we’re going to do to you? No one even cares aboutyou, no one even knows you exist. You’re living in Iran. You know what I mean,it was that kind of thing.”
Another behaviour in common between the Iranian regime and the Saudi one.
There has been an uproar in the west over Jamal’s disappearance. His gentle demeanour won over many friends everywhere he went, and he’s known by pretty much everyone who ever covered Saudi Arabia. His colleagues at the Washington Post ran a blank column on Friday where his should have been to protest his silencing. Even Tom Friedman has objected, though he hasn’t for any other political prisoner.
Politicians across the free world have to take action. Dictators only truly “reform” under severe existential pressure. You can’t appease them, you can’t give them space, give them money, give them world class PR, and also expect them to reform. That doesn’t happen, it only makes them more dictatorial.
We demand to know where Jamal Khashoggi is, and we demand that he is released unharmed. Free Jamal Khashoggi.