Last Nov. 7, I wrote a column about the new Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. It ended this way: “As a veteran Saudi journalist remarked to me of MBS: ‘This guy saved Saudi Arabia from a slow death, but he needs to broaden his base. It is good that he is freeing the house of Saud of the influence of the clergy, but he is also not allowing any second opinion of his political and economic decisions.’ ”
I don’t think that Saudi journalist, who was also a friend, would mind if I now identified him. His name was Jamal Khashoggi.
Jamal had come to my office a few days earlier for a long talk about Saudi Arabia and MBS. My views on Saudi Arabia are my own, but Jamal had a big impact on them. He had been inside the government. He understood that perfect was never on the menu there; you had to work with what you had. He loved his country and wanted to see it succeed, and he believed that MBS could shake things up and make the needed radical reforms — but also believed that MBS needed a lot of coaching, because he had a dark side and was too isolated inside a small ruling circle.
As the year went on, Jamal came to believe that MBS’ dark side was completely taking over. When we last spoke in August — thanks to a chance encounter at 17th and K streets in Washington — he told me that he was getting married to a Turkish woman and could not go back to Saudi Arabia right now, and that I must ring an alarm bell about the increasingly harsh crackdowns and the arrests of critics — left, right and center — in Saudi Arabia by MBS.
So on Sept. 4, I wrote a column that doubled down on the view of Saudi Arabia and MBS that I had been making for the past year. It said:
“I have little doubt that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the only one in his family who would have initiated the vital social, religious and economic reforms that he’s dared to do all at once — and that he is also the only one in that family who’d have undertaken the bullying foreign policy initiatives, domestic power plays and excessive personal buying sprees he’s dared to do all at once. These are two halves of the same MB package, and, as I’ve argued, our job is to help curb his bad impulses and nurture his good ones. But (Donald) Trump — who still doesn’t even have an ambassador in Saudi Arabia — is AWOL.”
I went on to explain that I never believed that democracy was on the MBS agenda — he was not trying to create Denmark — but that social, economic and, most important, religious reforms were. And the latter to me was the most important, but it depended on the first two moving forward. Considering the hugely damaging role that Saudi Arabia played in the Arab Muslim world, when, post-1979, it began to aggressively spread its puritanical form of Islam — which helped seed 9/11 — the idea that the kingdom might have a leader today who was beginning to shift Saudi Sunni Islam onto a more open and inclusive path, one that would isolate radical Islamists and strengthen moderates everywhere, was a vital American interest. It had to start in Saudi Arabia, the home of Mecca and Medina.