What does a post-Khashoggi Saudi Arabia look like?
One topic preoccupied participants at both the recently concluded Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh, and the ongoing IISS Manama Dialogue in Bahrain: What does a post-Khashoggi Saudi Arabia look like?
As investigations into the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in Istanbul continue, some questions will clearly remain unanswered until those inquiries are complete. With all due respect to the many sudden “experts” on the Kingdom, the truth is that no one can confidently say what happens next.
Nevertheless, reassuring signals have come from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir.
To take the latter first, in his appearance at the Manama Dialogue the foreign minister comprehensively dismissed some recent media reports that, in response to the pressure it is under, Riyadh may desert its longstanding alliance with the United States. “That relationship is ironclad… it is not going to change,” Al-Jubeir said in response to a question from Arab News.
Of course, it would be naïve not to acknowledge that the Khashoggi incident will have an impact on Saudi Arabia’s global reputation, and that it will temporarily affect the country’s ability to do business. Indeed, in my opinion this is one of the worst times for the Kingdom since 9/11. However, a big part of the shock is because the international community simply does not expect such behavior from this country. No eyebrows would have been raised had a journalist been killed at the hands of a Syrian or Iranian regime, but those low standards simply do not apply to Saudi Arabia; as a speaker at FII noted, such awful crimes “are not in our DNA.”
It does not help that the Kingdom seems unable to get its story straight. Officially, Riyadh says information is being released “as it becomes available.” In fact, I believe the issue may be one of “who audits the auditors?” — many of the high-ranking officers detained or suspended over the Khashoggi case are the same people who would usually investigate and decide on it.
This is why, along with the restructuring of the intelligence services announced in response to the Khashoggi incident, it is now paramount for Saudi Arabia to pair this initiative with transparent procedures, a Freedom of Information Act and far more effective government press officers. When they hear transparent honesty, many may forgive a mistake; but they are unlikely to forgive a mistake AND not being told the truth at the same time.
No eyebrows would have been raised had a journalist been killed at the hands of a Syrian or Iranian regime, but those low standards simply do not apply to Saudi Arabia; as a speaker at FII noted, such awful crimes “are not in our DNA.”
Faisal J. Abbas
Finally, I believe the most important statement from Riyadh over the past few days was the Crown Prince’s declaration during FII that the “war on extremism is ongoing.”
For the past few weeks, one of many concerns has been whether the mounting pressure would result in the government halting its reform program. The biggest concern of all? Abandoning MBS’s pledge to return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam. For all the faults and shortcomings of the reform plans, it cannot be denied that MBS has stripped the infamous religious police of their power, allowed women to drive and enter sport stadiums, reopened cinemas and relaxed rules on gender-mixing and dress. The Saudi leadership also formed an Islamic military coalition against terrorism and met global religious leaders both inside and outside the Kingdom.
Also significant is the tolerant line being preached by Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, appointed by the crown prince as Secretary-General of the highly influential Muslim World League. In a recent interview I conducted with him, he rejected the idea that women must wear a hijab, and advised Muslims in Western countries to “obey local laws or leave.”
Of course, none of this comes without a price. The reforms have antagonized and marginalized previously empowered religious extremists, both inside the Kingdom and abroad. They have been waiting for a way back, and there was a fear that the Khashoggi case could supply it.
There is a precedent. In the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia had another young, visionary and liberal crown prince — Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. A former education minister, he was forward looking and dreamt of opening a grand opera house in Riyadh. But then came 1979, the Iranian revolution and the Juhayman take-over of the Grand Mosque in Makkah.
Fahd became king in 1982 but the opera house never opened. Instead, the government tolerated the rise of the infamous “Sahwa” clerics and their extremist ideas (indeed several of these clerics have recently been detained by the current government).
Forty years later, we are having another attempt at opening a grand opera house in Riyadh. For the sake of the Kingdom, the region and the whole world … I sincerely hope it succeeds.
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News