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What's Really Known About Saudi Arabia's De Facto Ruler?


Jamal Khashoggi was well-known among Western journalists who have covered Saudi Arabia and the broader region, among them, NPR's Deborah Amos. Deb has been reporting from Saudi Arabia for decades. Her first trip there was back in 1991. And she joins us now.

Thanks for being with us, Deb.


MARTIN: What went through your mind as you read this final column from Jamal Khashoggi in The Washington Post?

AMOS: You know, in a way for me, it felt like an obit for a man who was passionate about free media. You know, he spent so much of his life in newsrooms. And I remember his disappointment a few years ago when a TV station he opened in Bahrain was closed in 24 hours. He put a prominent dissident in his first newscast, and so the powers that be shut him down.

You know, what turns out to be our last conversation, he wanted to build an Arabic version of public television for the region, and he said he had the money to do it. For the first time in his career, The Washington Post gave him this remarkable platform. The Post also translated his columns into Arabic, which extended his reach. But it may have been the reason for his demise.

MARTIN: We should also just remember that he had been living in the U.S. Right? He'd been in Virginia.

AMOS: Yes, for a year. He had come - he'd been there before. He'd been a spokesman at the embassy. But he was a Washington Post journalist. He was a resident of the United States. He had a profile in Washington, often at think tanks. You know, I'm beginning to think that he knew every journalist in town. And most of the people who are covering this story knew him.

MARTIN: So as we have heard, Turkish officials are pointing the finger, not just at the regime but in particular at the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. Can you explain his rise to power, what kind of leader he is proving to be?

AMOS: You know, he came on the scene - when he first arrived, we didn't even know how old he was. His older brothers have advanced degrees from the West. But the crown prince, he stayed by his father's side in the kingdom when his father was the governor of Riyadh. And back then, his father actually was an enforcer within the family. He was in charge of the paychecks for the royals. And he knew, you know, who owed money, who was in trouble.

Mohammed bin Salman's rise has been very quick. And sort of his goal is to move the kingdom, a conservative religious kingdom, into the modern age. But he's done it with incredible brutality. And a - he has no tolerance for critics. He has arrested many in the kingdom. He has also arrested royals in a crackdown on corruption.

MARTIN: Right. He was holding them in, like, a fancy hotel for weeks and weeks at a time?

AMOS: Yes, indeed. And everybody had to pay up to get out. You know, I think that there was some discomfort about that in the business community in the West. But mostly, it was, like, an odd, Saudi thing to jail people in a five-star hotel. He also jailed Saudi women. These are activists who had been pushing for the end to a driving ban. Many of them are still in detention - no charges. We know nothing about what is happening with them. So you know, at the same time he was feted in the West, he was building this, you know, structure for stamping out dissent.

MARTIN: But what does the West see in him? And in particular, what does President Trump see in him?

AMOS: He is - you know, there's this myth of the young reformer. We saw it earlier in Syria; you know, we saw it with the son of Moammar Gadhafi - you know, young men who are about to take over from their fathers. They have modern educations. And sometimes it turns out they are as brutal as their fathers. In this case, I think Mohammed bin Salman sold himself in the West as a man who was going to change Saudi Arabia, who was going to move the economy and, in particular, open up the social space for Saudis. What he never said was he was going to politically liberalize the kingdom. And that, for certain, he has not. And I think that that is now dawning on the West as this story unfolds.

MARTIN: What is in his future, as far as you can discern? I mean, some in Congress now want President Trump to re-evaluate weapons deals with the Saudis. Same thing is happening in Europe. Is there a chance King Salman decides that Mohammed bin Salman is too volatile and replaces him?

AMOS: You know, I still think it's too early to even answer that question. You know, on the one hand, I'm talking to a lot of Middle East analysts who, when this all started, said no, there's no chance. Now they're beginning to say, the crown prince is toxic; the king is going to have to consider some replacement. But it's also possible that the king - and certainly the White House - sees that this relationship is too important to U.S. national security to allow the death of one journalist to alter where Saudi Arabia is now. I think we have to wait and see how the investigation goes - is that tape released? What happens in the White House? - to really see where the king will go on this.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Deborah Amos. She has been reporting on Saudi Arabia for years.

Thank you so much, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUNO BAVOTA'S "LA LUCE NEL CUORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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