I last saw Jamal Khashoggi in early July, over breakfast at our favorite London restaurant, the Wolseley. He and I first met 39 years ago in Jidda, but we developed a close friendship over regular breakfasts at this former automobile showroom on Piccadilly when he worked in the Saudi Arabian embassy in London in 2003.
Everyone at the mission, including Jamal’s boss, Prince Turki, the Saudi intelligence chief turned ambassador, referred to him fondly as Uncle Jamal. And how he loved his scrambled eggs! As well as breakfasting, he and I spent a lot of time putting the world to rights, until the prince whisked him off to Washington to be his spokesman there. Jamal was always on the inside track, at some of the very highest levels–and the power of his critique as an informed insider likely contributed to his fate.
On that July morning earlier this year, Jamal wanted to talk to me about one of the articles we had composed together for the Washington Post in his early months of exile: “What Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Can Learn From Queen Elizabeth II.” Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had been due for an audience that March in Buckingham Palace on his way to Washington.
We had written quite positively about MBS, who had just jailed 11 minor princelings for refusing to pay their electricity and water bills. Why stop there? we asked. Why not go on to cut down the numbers of useless Saudi princelings as a whole? One reason the House of Windsor is the world’s most successful reigning family is its strict rationing of royalness to the core relatives around the Queen.
But the greatest lesson we suggested that the House of Saud might learn from British royalty was to listen to its people–“What touches all should be approved by all,” the principle that King Edward I proclaimed when he summoned the Model Parliament of 1295. It had been a throwaway line in our February collaboration, but Jamal had come to feel that MBS’s failure to consult with his people lay at the heart of his problems, quoting the medieval King Edward in several radio interviews. Saudi Arabia’s young prince in a hurry would not brook the slightest criticism.
Over coffee, Jamal and I went back into Saudi history to remember another young prince in a hurry–Abdul Aziz, who created modern Saudi Arabia in the first half of the 20th century. Like his grandson MBS, he worked for two decades in a theoretically subordinate capacity. He always deferred to his father, Abdul Rahman, following the Saudi code to treat elders with deep respect.
It was a cornerstone of Abdul Aziz’s style to listen–to the clerics who sanctified his mission, to the merchants who financed it and especially to the tribes and families he needed to co-opt. On a regular basis, he would confer with all comers, however humble, discussing the affairs of the day and hearing grievances. The tradition lives on today in the majlis, or sitting place, that every Saudi provincial governor holds regularly. Nationwide, the Shura Council (consultative assembly) built up by several Saudi rulers sits in Riyadh as a prototype parliament.
You would have thought, Jamal told me, that a reform agenda whose objectives were aimed at the year 2030, a dozen years hence, would at least pay lip service to the need for popular consultation in the future. These democratic forums already exist in Saudi Arabia, and they include representation for women. But does MBS even nod toward a role for them? Economic and social change, yes. But genuine and solid political reform? Not a whisper.
Listening is not in the crown prince’s plan, and it is certainly not in his style. MBS apparently sees the destiny of the House of Saud as to grow ever more powerful and despotic, like any other Arab autocracy. It was when he hit on this truth, Jamal said, that he realized he was no longer safe in Saudi Arabia.
As we left our table and walked out onto Piccadilly, the two of us lamented the rise of political gangsters around the world who seem to be turning our decade into the age of the bullies, vaunting their thuggery and elevating their threats into a technique of government. “Bullies must always be faced down. We must never be scared,” my friend explained as his guiding principle when we said goodbye–for what now seems tragically to have been the last time.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been asking myself why he did it. Why, Jamal? How could you stride so confidently into that Saudi consulate in a foreign land, knowing the hazards that might lie inside?
Well, there was his Turkish fiancée, for a start, the lovely Hatice Cengiz. Jamal talked so very fondly of her that bright summer morning and of the sunniness she had brought to his life. He told me how much he was looking forward to getting married and to making a base with her in Turkey. Obtaining that divorce paperwork from Saudi Arabia was clearly very important for him.
Then there were his trusting instincts–but trust can so often be abused. According to reports, Jamal was hospitably received by junior officials when he first made inquiries there the previous week. The exile felt at home with their style.
Jamal was a Saudi to the end. He loved the perverse old kingdom to which he had devoted his life, trying to make it a more open, honest and responsive place. And if part of him did worry deep inside, there was, of course, that guiding principle.
Always face down the bullies. Never be scared.