“I Can’t Explain It”

How a onetime believer in the Saudi crown prince views the alleged assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.

Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul
This image taken from CCTV video obtained by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet claims to show Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. CCTV/Hurriyet via AP

A week ago, the Saudi Arabian dissident and writer Jamal Khashoggi was in Istanbul, where he visited the Saudi Consulate. Since that time, there is no record of his whereabouts, and Turkish investigators believe he was murdered inside the consulate, his body dismembered. Not only has this situation thrown a wrench into the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but it has caused a worldwide uproar and threatens to damage the rose-tinted image of Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, the 33-year old Saudi crown prince who is close to the Trump administration and family and who has tried—successfully—to convince many people in the West that he is a reformer. Though we still don’t know what happened to Khashoggi, stifling dissent lines up more with the reality of MBS’s rule than the moderate fantasy: Despite lifting a ban on women driving, he has overseen a brutal war in Yemen, a blockade of Qatar, a bizarre quasi-kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and a continuing crackdown on dissidents in his own country.

To talk about the Khashoggi case and the MBS era in Saudi Arabia, I spoke by phone with Karen Elliott House, a former diplomatic correspondent and foreign editor at the Wall Street Journal and the author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why Saudi Arabia might have killed Khashoggi, the future of MBS’s agenda, and whether or not she is willing to re-evaluate her earlier, positive impression of him.

Isaac Chotiner: How much of a break do you think this feels like with the general way that Saudi Arabia deals with dissent, which has obviously not been gently?

Karen Elliott House: If it is true what the Turks say happened to Khashoggi, it is, I think, a marked change from the way they have by and large dealt with dissenters over the course of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 1932. [Turkish President] Erdoğan, as you know, is not an honest man. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but I wouldn’t trust Erdoğan’s view of what happened. I think the call to “let us see the videotape” is the right one.

If the Saudis are ramping up the way they go after dissent, how do you understand that?

I can’t explain it. That is exactly what interests me: If this is true, what is going on that the rest of us don’t know about that would make this seem like an intelligent and wise thing to do? MBS gave an interview to Bloomberg last week in which he says that he is trying to reform the country, carry out his Vision 2030 without causing a civil war. I found that fascinating because nothing I know—and I go to Saudi Arabia at least twice a year—makes me believe that the country is that precarious. [But] he seems to be saying that there is a serious extremism and terrorism issue in Saudi Arabia … not in the region as a whole, in Saudi Arabia. From everything one sees, his openings, his reforms have been received quite well. There’s no doubt there are people who oppose them, but I wouldn’t have the sense that the country is teeming with the potential for civil war because Saudis very much prize stability.

Even if it is true, why does killing a dissident or cracking down on dissidents help your modernization plan and protect it from terrorists?

He also goes on in that Bloomberg interview to say that there are people in the country who are cooperating with Qatar and Iran and we can’t allow them to go around stirring up trouble, by which I assume he means stirring up the extremism in the country. In other words, that this is a clash between extremism and modernity. There are people who oppose letting women drive and [opening the] cinema and all of the things he’s doing, but you don’t get the sense that there are enough of them that there is a real risk of some fundamentalist backlash unless he is planning to do something going forward that none of us know about.

Also, people like Khashoggi and other dissidents are not the ones opposing letting women drive or opening movie theaters.

No, no. As you know, Khashoggi lost his job at a Saudi newspaper for, in essence, running articles against fundamentalism and for women driving and other openings in the past. It’s odd that he winds up in this trouble at the time when he, in that sense, is sharing the crown prince’s view of fundamentalism: Extremism is a bad thing and women driving is a good thing. Again, I cannot explain this.

A lot of the conversations in the American press about MBS for a very long time took the line that he was a well-meaning reformer who was trying to do right by his country, and occasionally there’d be something that wasn’t great but fundamentally his intentions were good. Do you have reason to think that we should necessarily believe that that’s the prism through which to view him?

I am one of those who, from meeting him several times, believed that he did understand the need for changing Saudi Arabia’s economy and social structure, because doing the latter is necessary to do the former. To change the economy, you have to let women work and women drive. [I believed] that he truly understood the economic risks and thus the social and political risks that the country faced if it did not change and [believed] that he was both courageous and charismatic enough to push that forward. His critics say he’s irrational. He’s impulsive. He may be impulsive, but I really don’t think he’s irrational, so I keep asking myself, what does he know or what has he convinced himself of? I don’t see any threats to him or to the country. So I would like to know what is this threat that he sees that … if this is true, that would make one go to this length?

Couldn’t one answer simply be that he doesn’t like criticism the way a lot of authoritarian rulers do not like criticism?

Absolutely. No authoritarian ruler likes criticism, but it’s only people like Putin and Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-un who actually kill their critics. Most authoritarian rulers lock them up. They throw away the key. They try them and then eliminate them after a trial, which we wouldn’t regard as free and fair, but they go at least through that process. It’s only, I repeat, the Saddams and the Putins and the Kim Jong-uns who just—

Wait. I don’t want to get into a moral weighing of the scales because I’m not equipped to do that, but there were reports that people were being tortured at the hotel where MBS had a bunch of people locked up. There have been reports just generally of dissidents being treated very poorly. I’m not sure why he doesn’t belong more in that Putin category than the others, especially when you add in things like what’s going on in the war in Yemen, where he is overseeing a war where many civilians are dying and people are starving to death for very little purpose as far as I can tell. Why would we not put him in that Putin category?

I personally see the war in Yemen … he believes, and I believe he truly believes, that the Iranians are a threat to him in Yemen and that he has to fight that war. It is not going well, and I don’t think it’s likely to go well. I don’t think they know how to win it or get out of it, but to me, at least, war casualties are a different thing from taking one of your citizens and hacking him to bits.

You said that there are some people who see MBS as impulsive and reckless. Given what you’ve just described—him getting involved in this Yemen thing that doesn’t feel like it’s going well, given what happened with the Lebanese prime minister, given the blockade of Qatar that he has helped see through—why would we not think of him as impulsive? What has he done to make us not think that he’s impulsive and reckless?

This is like, if you disagree with somebody, you can believe they were impulsive and reckless. He went into the Yemen war. That’s like how we went into the Vietnam War. We didn’t think it was so hopeless in the beginning. Now he’s stuck. I don’t think that’s proof of impulsiveness. The severing of relations with Qatar, I have never been able to understand. I don’t know whether that’s irrationality or impulsiveness or what. For me, it’s not sane policy to have a fight with Qatar. What the Saudis will tell you is the Qataris are trying to infiltrate our country, trying to take over. I don’t know if they truly believe it, but they certainly say it. The Hariri thing, that probably was not his wisest move either.

My point is he may be impulsive. I don’t think he’s irrational. I think he convinces himself that he’s got a reason to do this. The problem is many of these things don’t work out for him.

The point I brought up earlier about a lot of people certainly in the American press and America viewing him through this prism even if there’s not necessarily the evidence to back it up: It feels like you’re saying you were impressed by him, but at the same time, there are all these things that you can’t understand or that seem to not make sense.

I think he had an image as a reformer. Most Americans, as you know, don’t pay attention to Saudi Arabia, but the people who do, they saw this bright young man who didn’t look like all the other old rulers for the past 50 years. He was saying sensible things, talking about reform, reforming the economy and letting Saudi Arabia do things that the rest of the world didn’t even … they know women can’t drive, but I think most people didn’t really understand that you can’t go to a movie in Saudi Arabia or a concert, or women can’t go to a soccer game, all of that stuff. He did manage to burst into the American consciousness as a young, attractive reformer.

I think since November last year with the Ritz Carlton event, imprisoning businessmen and princes and Cabinet ministers and former ministers: That raised a red flag for people. I think it did cause people to pause and look. This Jamal Khashoggi thing is getting a lot of press in America, and that is clearly, as Tom Friedman tweeted, not good for the image of the crown prince.