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Defender Of Saudi Crown Prince Weighs In On Killing Of Journalist


Eleven Saudi men are on trial for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared after walking into a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A man close to the Saudi government is trying to explain the government's conduct. Ali Shihabi is founder of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank that aims to provide a better picture of the Saudi monarchy. And he spoke to Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: After Jamal Khashoggi was killed, Shihabi, on social media, was one of the few public defenders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The de facto Saudi leader is blamed by U.S. intelligence agencies for the killing but has not been accused by his own government. Shihabi answered a long-standing invitation to come by our studios. He has short hair and black-rimmed glasses and wears a blazer. He says he knew Khashoggi, both in Saudi Arabia and later when both lived in Washington. And he did not agree with the journalist's criticisms of the Saudi government.

ALI SHIHABI: It was a little bit playing to what he thought the American audience in Washington wanted to hear. I think he understood the nuances of what were happening in Saudi Arabia much more than he let on in his columns.

INSKEEP: You don't believe he was honest in his criticism of the government?

SHIHABI: Well, no, I think he was honest in his criticism of the government, but I think that he underplayed some of the complexities that he was part of. You remember, you have to remember that Jamal was an editor of a Saudi government paper, effectively, owned by the royal family. So he was, if you want, an apparatchik in the system. But I think he underplayed the challenges that the crown prince had to overcome.

INSKEEP: Are we learning here why he would have so irritated someone in Saudi Arabia because he would be seen as an insider, someone who had been part of the system then criticizing the system?

SHIHABI: He didn't really irritate people that much. He was not a threat. I think as this thing is being investigated, what happens sometimes is elements in the security service or people who are responsible for internal security tend to magnify issues. And there was an overreaction to it, and obviously, it was a criminal overreaction 'cause ultimately...

INSKEEP: If you'll forgive me - there are overreactions, and there overreactions.

SHIHABI: Well, it's a criminal overreaction.

INSKEEP: This case, according to a Turkish newspaper, 15 Saudi officials, 15 Saudi government functionaries, gathered to assassinate a man and cut him apart with a bone saw. I mean, this is not, like - it's hard to believe that he wasn't considered a severe problem by someone.

SHIHABI: No. He was considered a severe problem by someone. And I said it was a criminal overreaction. And I think what's happening in Saudi Arabia now is there is a serious investigation going on, and the Turks have not been helpful because the Saudi prosecutor has been asking, for example, for the recordings. The Turks have been releasing leaks right, left and center.

They've given the Saudi prosecutors the transcripts, but they have not given them the recordings. And the Saudi government is trying to make an effort to pursue a proper legal process. People don't seem to take that with a lot of credibility, if they're trying.

INSKEEP: Well, why should people consider that credible when it is a private process? It's not a transparent process in any way. We're told that some people are being put on trial. We don't even know the names of the people put on trial.

SHIHABI: Well, because under Saudi law, again - you know, you want people to respect the rule of law, but you don't bother to find out what that country's law is. Under Saudi law, unless you are convicted, your name does not get published. Now, having said that, foreign ambassadors were invited to the courtroom to watch the beginning of the trial. So...

INSKEEP: The beginning.

SHIHABI: ...The Saudi government is making an effort to pursue a credible legal process, to document it correctly, to get the correct evidence under Saudi law.

INSKEEP: You've said that the Saudi prosecutor's not been supplied with the tapes. But, of course, Americans have heard the tapes. The CIA has heard the tapes. The CIA has briefed the United States Senate. The Senate voted unanimously, if I'm not mistaken, to condemn Saudi Arabia. And senators have identified the Saudi crown prince as responsible. Can you give us any reasonable doubt that Mohammed bin Salman would have been involved in such a large and sophisticated operation?

SHIHABI: Yes, I can. Because first of all, the CIA gave a medium-to-high assessment that they thought the crown prince was involved. And as I've said before, with all due respect to the CIA, maybe their understanding of what happens in the inner, inner sanctums of the royal palace is isn't perfect.

Yes, I think they were authorized to go and interrogate him and maybe to bring him back or to try and bring him back. But it was an operation that was carried, in a way, off the grid. In other words, it was not carried out by the professional elements within Saudi intelligence. It was a team put together from different parts of the security services...

INSKEEP: Including some people close to the crown prince, if I'm not mistaken.

SHIHABI: People who have been pictured physically close to the crown prince because they're part of the security services. It's like taking a picture of a Secret Service officer next to President Trump and saying President Trump was involved because this gentleman happens to be close to the president.

INSKEEP: Even before Khashoggi was killed...


INSKEEP: ...He felt, in order to speak as he wished and be safe, he needed to be outside of Saudi Arabia.


INSKEEP: Is it right that it should be so?

SHIHABI: No. But the kingdom is going through a wrenching process of cultural, social and religious reform.

INSKEEP: Is it moving toward freedom of speech?

SHIHABI: Well, it has - freedom of speech has actually been contracting for the last two years because during this process, which is very contentious, and particularly when you are taking on a reactionary conservative class and religious establishment, a lot of the things that the crown prince has done - not just allowing women to drive, but integrating women into the labor force - so much has happened to quote-unquote "liberalize" society that has been fought extremely aggressively by the religious class. And we have seen what happened to other people who have tried to address the conservative class in the Middle East and have been overthrown.

INSKEEP: You're trying to explain to me why political activists have been arrested even in this period of supposed reform?

SHIHABI: Yes, because it's not political reform. It is social. It's cultural. It's economic. And it's an interpretation of religion. For example, everybody's complained about exporting Wahhabism. Right? That Saudi Arabia exports Wahhabism. He has taken a baseball bat to that process in the last two years.

INSKEEP: But there are also been more liberal activists within the country who've been arrested, right?

SHIHABI: Yes, there have. There have. And I think, you know, one of the big mistakes that I think the government did was arresting many of these women. And I anticipate that over the next number of months, a number of these - particularly, women - dissidents will be let out of jail.

INSKEEP: Ali Shihabi, thanks for coming by.

SHIHABI: Thank you, Steve, for inviting me.

INSKEEP: Ali Shihabi heads the Arabia Foundation, which is linked with the Saudi government and based in Washington.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we say the Arabia Foundation is linked with the Saudi government. A more accurate characterization is that the two are connected.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 9, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
In this story, we say the Arabia Foundation is linked with the Saudi government. A more accurate characterization is that the two are connected.
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