Last week, the Biden administration released the long-awaited U.S. intelligence report finding that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was almost certainly responsible for ordering the murder of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. However, while the administration announced new sanctions on dozens of individuals over the killing, it is taking no direct action against the crown prince, known internationally as MBS.
For Iyad el-Baghdadi, the killing of Khashoggi and the U.S. reluctance to punish the man responsible for it are personal. Raised in the United Arab Emirates in a family of Palestinian refugees, the self-described Islamic libertarian rose to prominence during the Arab Spring thanks to his trenchant and sarcastic social media commentary on authoritarian governments throughout the Arab world. He was deported by the UAE over his political activities in 2014 and given asylum with his family in Norway. In 2019, he was warned by Norwegian authorities that they had received information from the CIA about a threat against him from the Saudi government, which he has frequently criticized. Today he is president of the Kawaakibi Foundation, an organization set up to support pro-democracy activists in the Arab world.
I spoke with el-Baghdadi on Monday about how the crown prince is likely to respond to the mild U.S. response to the report, and what that means for the journalists and activists in his crosshairs. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Joshua Keating: What message do you think the action the U.S. took last week sends to activists and journalists working on Saudi Arabia?
Iyad el-Baghdadi: It’s a sensitive question, honestly, because we don’t know if what they announced is it. If this is it, it’s potentially putting us more at risk.
During the Trump period, Trump actually denied that MBS did it at all, right? He covered up for him. And that was the basis upon which he said, “We don’t really have to respond, because he didn’t do it.” Now we’re in this weird situation where the crime is acknowledged, but then there’s no accountability.
In a sense, normalizing this was even worse than Trump, because this was kind of saying that these things can happen but there are certain people who cannot be touched. The best that we can do is punish his henchmen. As we all know, he can always get new henchmen.
Biden’s officials are now using this new phrase, “extraterritorial repression,” to talk about how authoritarian regimes attack their critics abroad. What do you think would be an actually effective response to this problem, if they’re serious about stopping it?
This is what’s really sensitive, because he will have to use intelligence services to keep a check on what Saudi Arabia is doing, even though it’s an ally. We know from MBS’ own history that you can’t really check his behavior. Just a few weeks after the Jamal Khashoggi murder, at the height of the international outrage, he actually sent another team into Canada for an attempted assassination of [exiled former Saudi Cabinet minister] Saad al-Jabry. Then there was another rendition attempt that year in Los Angeles, reported by the Daily Beast. Not to mention, of course, the threat against myself, which happened in 2019, well after the Khashoggi murder. It’s very clear that he has not learned the lesson. It’s very clear that if you don’t hold him accountable, he’s going to take it as permission.
Right, but unlike Trump, Biden has at least taken some steps with regard to Saudi Arabia—cutting off support for the war in Yemen, freezing arms sales, announcing that they are no longer speaking directly with MBS. Do you anticipate this will have any kind of impact on Saudi behavior going forward?
Honestly, no. First of all, let’s talk about the weapons ban. The weapons ban is about the Yemen war. Even if Jamal was not killed, there were already very good moral and legal arguments to stop the weapons sales. So you can’t mix these two issues. Jamal’s murder needs a different response from that.
As for not speaking to MBS directly, I think we have to think about to what extent the king is actually in control of things in Saudi Arabia. We know that MBS is the de facto ruler. We know that the king really does not have that much power. There’s a lot of speculation that the king is senile. I’m really surprised by this idea that the king can actually control MBS because we have very clearly seen that he can’t. He’s either unable to or unwilling. Probably, I think, he’s unable.
Is there a scenario where MBS could actually be taken out of the line of succession? Is there anyone in the kingdom with the authority to do that?
It is possible. If, for example, the United States pressures MBS into releasing some of the important princes who are now in prison or house arrest, the family could change their calculus about him. The whole point here is that some of the family members have been persecuted or imprisoned or tortured, but then there are others who are not, but they’re weighing their options and they have seen how brutal MBS can be. So what really has to happen is that the incentive structure around MBS has to change, in order to send us a message for the family.
What did you make of the decision a few weeks ago to release Loujain al-Hathloul, the activist known for challenging the ban on women driving, from prison? Does that indicate anything about how the regime is responding to the new U.S. administration?
Yeah. I do believe that if Trump had won in 2020 and if we didn’t have President Biden now, Loujain would still be in prison. Loujain is a problem, has been a problem for MBS for a while, and she continues to be a problem for him. He needed to kind of create a counternarrative. MBS needed to create a situation where Loujain is neither free nor a prisoner. He needed to create a situation where the campaigns calling for her release cease, because they were really having an effect. But also he didn’t want her to be free enough to actually campaign and continue her work. So he created the situation, this kind of in-between situation, where she’s not in prison, but she’s on probation. She’s banned from travel, she’s banned from speaking. And there’s no justice, of course, for everything that has been done to her.
I guess, when I read about her case and of course Khashoggi’s, I’m still a little confused by MBS’ motives. Just a few years ago, he was being celebrated not just by Trump but by the Western media as this great modernizing reformer. Now, even if he’s not being sanctioned, the global perception of him has completely changed. Was going after these people really worth it for him?
MBS is not a rational actor. The thing about the Jamal Khashoggi murder is that it seems like a completely outrageous story, but just because it’s outrageous doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t do it. I mean, just look at the Jeff Bezos hack. It seems completely outrageous.
This is the thing, not just about him, but about dictatorship. Because power is so centralized, it becomes about the personality and the psychology of the person in power, rather than about the rationality of an institution. There’s nobody to check him. There’s nobody to say, “Hey, this was wrong.” Again, this is not only in MBS but dictators generally: They surround themselves with people who simply reflect to them what they already want.
Are you worried that once this period of controversy dies down, governments and the business community will fully embrace him again?
Yeah, this is the role of civil society and this is why we cannot let our guard down. This is why our campaigns have to continue. If we don’t continue to shine the light, then those who are looking for profits, who are looking for money, they will jump on the opportunity to embrace him again. So this is our job.