Day 6

Khashoggi's death casts a new light on Mohammed bin Salman's dark side

Seven months ago, Mohammed bin Salman was being celebrated as a young, progressive reformer. Now, a more sinister, authoritarian side is coming back into focus.

'The people who know him say he's fundamentally authoritarian'

Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, at the United Nations in New York on March 27, 2018. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)

The tone toward Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has changed drastically since his visit to the United States just seven months ago.

During that cross-country tour, Crown Prince Mohammed met with the who's who in politics, business and entertainment, including Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and even Oprah Winfrey.

"His reforms inside Saudi Arabia have been revolutionary. He's emancipating women, introducing music and cinema, and cracking down on corruption," read the introduction to his interview with the CBS program 60 Minutes in March.

Some of his models for leadership are people like  Abdel  Fattah  el-Sisi,  the president of Egypt, Vladimir Putin...- Kareem Fahim

Saudi Arabia finally admitted that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, more than two weeks after Khashoggi entered the consulate and never came out.

The furor around Khashoggi's death has changed the world's the perception of Crown Prince Mohammed.

In March, Mohammad was deep into a high profile and highly successful courtship of Western leaders and celebrities. He was feted as a young, progressive, reform-minded leader. 

Now, people very close to him are being implicated in Khashoggi's disappearance and death. The result? Some western business leaders and media companies are walking away from a high-profile Saudi investment conference,

Kareem Fahim, the Istanbul bureau chief for The Washington Post, tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that a different, darker picture of Crown Prince Mohammed is finally emerging.

There are these two very different images of Mohammed bin Salman now. There's the progressive reformer who cultivates the West's approval., then there's the brutal and ruthless hypersensitive autocrat. Which one of those do you think is most accurate?

I think we've seen different sides at different stages of his ascent. And obviously at the moment we're seized with the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi here in Istanbul, and it's focused attention on the darker side. You know, the roundup of dissidents, clamping down on free speech, but for a long time people were not paying very close attention.

It's a little different from me because before I started covering Saudi Arabia I spent quite a lot of time in Yemen. And over the last three years I've covered the war in Yemen. And Saudi Arabia has played a very large role in the conflict there. And so we had sort of carefully watched the conduct of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the accusations of careless air-strikes in Yemen. And this was really Mohammed bin Salman's war.

A Yemeni child walking in the rubble of a building destroyed in an air strike in the city of Taez on March 18, 2018. (Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images)

But when you talk to people — in the context of that war and his role in it, his centrality in it, he was minister of defense when that conflict began — when you spoke to people who knew him, did they talk about him as being somebody who was rash or somebody who was considered in his actions?

You know, people attributed some of his behaviour to this sort of youthful impulsiveness, and so the line between rash and bash was very hard to discern. The attributes that people wanted from a Saudi leader who might shake up this very hidebound kingdom — roll back some of the social restrictions, revitalize its economy — you know, those were the same qualities he displayed in some of these more aggressive foreign policy forays that we've also come to know him for.

I think there is a tendency sometimes among Western journalists to dismiss reports of human rights violations and arrests of dissidents.- Kareem Fahim

He did give Saudi women the right to drive, and then he jailed the women activists who'd been agitating for that right. So how do you reconcile those two actions? Or how do you reconcile those two sides of his character?

People who know him say he's fundamentally authoritarian and that some of his models for leadership are people like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the president of Egypt, Vladimir Putin. And that sort of admiration was not sort of widely considered when he was doing things like announcing that women would be able to drive or announcing that movie theaters were opening. I think people just weren't paying attention to that necessarily.

And I think there is a tendency sometimes among Western journalists to dismiss reports of human rights violations and arrests of dissidents, in the Gulf and in the wider Middle East, as part of the scenery or part of the landscape, when it's obviously a relevant and disturbing fact for the people living there.

We just listened to this segment from 60 Minutes, it was quite a flattering interview and quite a flattering intro. And that seemed to be a common view of him six months ago. Were you as convinced then, as others were, or were you critical at the time of the way American media handled the Prince?

President Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia are surrounded by the media as they meet at the White House on March 20, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty Images)

By that time we already knew quite a lot about his style of leadership. You know, we knew about the Ritz-Carlton for instance; the arrests of hundreds of businessmen and princes. Some people who were considered rivals, some people who were considered just too prominent. You know, at that point we already knew that some of those people had been tortured and that it was quite a brutal roundup.

And it wasn't the first, there was another one in September of 2017 that included well-known dissidents and clerics. We knew about the imprisonment of the Lebanese prime minister. So there was a fairly nuanced portrait of Mohamed bin Salman that had already emerged.

He had done other things that people thought were quite challenging for any Saudi leader to do, including curbing the authority of the religious police. And so he had gotten a lot of credit for that and garnered a lot of enthusiasm among young people — palpable enthusiasm among young people within the kingdom.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who, shortly before his death, spoke at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, Britain, September 29, 2018. (Middle East Monitor/Reuters)

And, you know, journalists who visit are immediately struck by that, and are often taken to meet some of these young people who are working at some of the foundations of the Crown Prince has established — art foundations and other initiatives, a group that's trying to develop tourism for instance. So that excitement is quite infectious. But I think probably what was required was to take a step back and do a fuller accounting of his tenure.

In the United States there seems to be a kind of deadlock. They're limited in what they can or will do in response. So, is this a case of recklessness and inexperience on behalf of the prince or is this somebody who understands exactly how powerful he actually is, in terms of real politic?

Obviously there are these signs. You know, we know that in the past U.S. intelligence has picked up conversations involving Saudi officials talking about a plot they said was directed by the Crown Prince, but we don't know all the facts in this case yet. And so it's a little hard to say whether this is due to his recklessness or some other factor.

If, as a result of what's happening now, the West withdraws its approval in some fundamental way, does Mohammed bin Salman have other options? Will he look elsewhere for partnerships and alliances for example? Or does he lose power? Does he then become endangered by what's happening?

It's a terrific question. I mean, what goes on within the Saudi leadership is very opaque. There was a report that King Salman is displeased with what's happened, for instance, but you know, whether that would mean replacing Mohamed bin Salman is very hard to tell. And the idea that the West is going to fundamentally alter its relationship with Saudi Arabia, at this point, also seems possibly far-fetched and it's a little early to tell whether that's on the cards.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Kareem Fahim, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.


  • The post has been updated to reflect reports of Jamal Khashoggi's death.
    Oct 20, 2018 11:07 AM ET


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