Rula Jebreal On Her Secret Interview With Jamal Khashoggi Before His Death

On the one month anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s death, here is our conversation with Rula Jebreal - one of the last people to interview him.
A video image of Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is played during an event to remember Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, in Washington, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A video image of Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is played during an event to remember Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, in Washington, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Updated November 20, 2018: President Trump has released a falsehood-filled statement standing by Saudi Arabia.

It has been a month since the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi government officials. His death still casts a dark shadow, not just in the Middle East, but the world over. Almost as appalling was the relative indifference of President Trump, who has seemingly cast aside an American tradition to defend freedom of speech internationally for the sake of arms deals.

Before revelations of Mr. Khashoggi’s murder came to light, there was hope that Saudi Arabia, under the de-facto rule of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), was slowly casting off its oppressive, theocratic style of rule and granting its citizens more of the freedoms we in the West take for granted. There seemed to genuine changes coming to the country, including granting women the right to drive, limiting the religious police, and the opening of cinemas and other cultural venues. MBS declared his country open to the world and was hosted graciously by all major foreign dignitaries.

Mr. Khashoggi, by his own admission, never wanted an end of the regime, but rather a reformation of it, one in which its focus would turn to improving the lives of ordinary Saudis. His murder for this belief has made it clear that hopes for a liberal Saudi Arabia were despairingly premature. The West’s attention has rightfully become drawn to the dark side of MBS’ rule that was always there: the jailing of hundreds of dissidents without due process, his extortion of parts of the royal family to consolidate power, a bloody proxy war in Yemen etc.

Last week, I spoke to Rula Jebreal, a foreign policy analyst, author, journalist, and contributor for various outlets. She is one of the last people to interview Mr. Khashoggi before his death. We talk about who Mr. Khashoggi was, why the Saudi government wanted him dead, and what the international community can do to ensure his death was not in vain.

Rula Jebreal

Rula Jebreal

(Note: The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context.)

Jossif Ezekilov: Ms. Jebreal, thank you so much for speaking with us. I’d like to start off by talking about your last conversation with Jamal Khashoggi. Can you give our readers a little bit of context about the nature of that interview?

Rula Jebreal: Newsweek asked me to write the exposé of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia for the September cover. And I interviewed 45 people and among them was Jamal Khashoggi who was a friend of mine and I decided then that he was risking his life too much and he was too much at risk so I kept this conversation private. I did not divulge our conversation; I kept it secret. The Newsweek cover came out in September and it was a revelation, it was an exposé of this Crown Prince who leads off his lofty words and I had quotes from activists, journalists, writers, academics. I excluded Jamal for a good reason.

Sadly when the news of his disappearance happened and I got the call from his friends in Istanbul that he entered the consulate and never came back, never came out, I knew he was dead. I immediately, instantly, instinctively knew he was killed but I kept it until the Saudis themselves confirmed the murder. So I released the interview because I think his words can tell us a lot about the Crown Prince, about this toxic relationship he has with the West – where he thought he can get away with murder – and above all Jamal is telling us what to do: how to impose checks and balances on Saudi Arabia.

“I believe that the arc of history is long but always bends towards justice, and we demand justice for Jamal.”

JE: Well, let me follow up with you on that last part. You spoke with him about that in your interview. Do you think that the international community is imposing those checks and balances so far in regards to his death?

RJ: Not yet. I think that waking up to realizing that they back a thug, a tyrant, a Gaddafi-like, a Saddam Hussein-like…the same kind of toxic leader who can say nice things to the West and have operations like this. So I think they are waking up to this. I think they’re not realizing completely the extent of his recklessness, his brutality, his barbarity, and I think we need to apply more pressure on them so they can do the right thing. However, I believe that the arc of history is long but always bends towards justice, and we demand justice for Jamal.

JE: What do you think his murder means for activists and victims of the Saudi regime?

RJ: It’s the same thing like the bombs that were sent to President Obama, to Hillary Clinton, to Robert De Niro, to all of these opponents, to all the opposition. It’s the same thing. It’s intimidation. It’s to send the signal and a message to everybody: if you speak against us you will be murdered. And it’s the same tactic. This is what authoritarian regimes…this is what thugs usually do. This is what Putin did when he sent goons to the UK and used chemical weapons on London soil, on foreign soil, to poison and murder his political opponents. This is exactly what these tyrants – what these despots – do.

It’s a message to all of us: that he will come after us, one way or another, with a bone saw and murder us if we continue criticizing him. This is why people, why authoritarian regimes, hate journalists because we’re the only ones exposing their propaganda, their hate rhetoric – we’re the only one exposing their corruption, their wrongdoing. They hate us, so we become their enemy. Exactly like President Trump calling us “the enemy of the American people.” And by doing so, he’s emboldening and enabling thousands of these tyrants around the world.

JE: So would you say then that the response by people like President Trump will embolden…

RJ: Weak, weak. Where he values money over human rights, over human lives, and it’s a response of a mercenary who doesn’t care basically about whatever the regime…the regime can get away with atrocity. They can buy impunity to murder whoever they want, but they have to pay. When President Trump said two years ago that the Saudis paid for one apartment in his building 50 million, 40 million, and he said he doesn’t hate them? It’s not about you. You’re the President of the United States. It’s not about the Trump organization. It’s about America’s standing in the world. It’s about who we are as people. Do we stand with these dictators or we stand for what’s right and uphold our values.

“They hate us, so we become their enemy. Exactly like President Trump calling us ‘the enemy of the American people.’ And by doing so, he’s emboldening and enabling thousands of these tyrants around the world.”

JE: So what more do you think the international community could do?

RJ: Impose sanctions. Hardcore sanctions all to the top and reaching from Mohammed Bin Salman himself, the Crown Prince. You know, apply a mechanism that we already have. It’s called the Magnitsky Act that was applied against Russian violators of human rights. Use that formula and apply it. Punish, with hardcore economic sanctions, everybody that was involved in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Perpetrators, the killers, but also the people that sent them to kill. That means Mohammed Bin Salman himself.

JE: I want to switch gears a little bit and kind of get a sense of what Jamal Khashoggi’s thinking was in regards to Saudi Arabia. Just in a general sense, can you give me a sense of the type of person that Mr. Khashoggi was?

RJ: Jamal was a kind, humble human being. He was a journalist like you and me.
His only goal was to inform the public opinion – to perform a service where he can tell people what was really going on in Saudi Arabia. The Crown Prince was buying propaganda and PR and showering billions of dollars on the news organization to show his good side, while at home he was repressing and oppressing, dissidents, journalists, activists, and even critics. Jamal was the man that wanted to hold up a mirror to this Crown Prince and show him that if he wants to be considered a reformer, he needs to act as a reformer. Jamal himself was the real reformer and he cared about his country, he loved his country, and he really cared and wanted his country to become a more liberal, more democratic Saudi Arabia.

JE: Yeah in your interview with him he mentioned that he wanted Mohammed Bin Salman to embrace the spirit of the Arab Spring…

RJ: He didn’t say that.

JE: I’m sorry?

RJ: I don’t think he said that in my interview.

[Editor’s Note: In Ms. Jebreal’s interview with Mr. Khashoggi, he is quoted as saying that he would advise to MBS “Stop fighting historical ways of changing the Middle East. The Arab Spring is a true phenomenon. Embrace Arab Spring, embrace the aspiration for freedom of the people of Egypt, Syria, and Yemen.”]

He said that he wants gradual reform, but he wants the Crown Prince to think about the poor humble people in Saudi Arabia that reform should include and take into consideration the needs of humble people. He didn’t go as far as saying I want the Crown Prince to embrace Arab Spring. His exact words regarding the Arab Spring: Jamal himself believed in the Arab Spring but then he realized he wanted more pluralism and he wanted more openness. He didn’t want this Crown Prince to criminalize everybody and target them as radicals. Even people who simply are secular bloggers like Raif Badawi and others. I think he realized that Saudi Arabia was a conservative society and gradually will move towards openness and democracy, and I think he was clear about that.

JE: How would you say that Mr. Khashoggi, and you can you add your personal take on it, how would you say that he reconciled the two? You know, having these changes happen in Saudi Arabia under the existence of this very conservative regime?

RJ: He had to go to Washington. He had to leave the country. He was banned from writing. He was banned from tweeting. He knew that people could get arrested, and tortured, and murdered simply for a tweet and be sentenced to years in jail for simply hinting – a hint of criticism toward this Crown Prince. Then he left. His story, his life story can tell you tons about who he is. He left because he wanted to perform his duty, and his duty was to be a journalist – inform the public opinion. And he saw that he could inform the American public opinion about who are their allies. And who their allies are – what they stand for.

And I think in the quest and performing his duty, he’s a martyr. He was killed in that mission. On that mission.

Do you view MBS as another Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi?

Worse. Worse. Worse.

JE: Didn’t just the brutal act of his murder for his views, and his views were clearly not for the overthrow of the regime, do you think that his outlook on Saudi Arabia and the reforms that are possible there are correct? Are possible?

RJ: I mean, I think the government of Saudi Arabia should be called bone saw government. I don’t see a government can reform while they are butchering people in consulates. Do you see that? Because I don’t see that. That if you think that there’s a possibility that somebody that sends 15 people to murder a journalist and cuts his body in pieces, is it possible? The same guy that can guide a reform process? I don’t see that because, look, I don’t think Gaddafi was a reformer. I don’t think Saddam Hussein, I don’t think Mussolini was a reformer. Yeah, they did some small nice things. However, the price and the cost that we paid for their so-called PR reform myths are by far worse. So on a personal level, I have no faith in this guy to reform.

I think the Saudi regime’s despotic, oppressive, backward, authoritarian regime needs to be reformed. The reform should start with the Saudi regime, not with anything else. Otherwise, we’re all in jeopardy, by the way. This is the regime that gave us Al Qaeda, 15 of the 19 hijackers. They got us the tragedy in Yemen. What else would do we need? More? They gave us Wahhabis. What more do we need to understand that this is a toxic regime?

JE: So do you view MBS as another Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi?

RJ: Worse. Worse. Worse. Because he has billions of dollars to buy pull in the Washington DC PR machine and influence the public opinion. So Gaddafi didn’t have that PR arm backing him. He didn’t spend billions of dollars to whitewash his image. MBS, yes, he does and he wants to. And he didn’t have an entire administration…an entire administration, that he says is in his pocket, so it’s much more dangerous.

JE: In your Newsweek article you say: “It’s time for MBS to go, but not only MBS, it’s time to end the whole system of the monarchic despotism of which he has been the most extreme symptom.” Obviously, President Trump probably will not be calling for that anytime soon, but even experts on both sides of the aisle in the US would probably refute your statement. You know, they’d cite grounds like Saudi Arabia being a key ally of the U.S., not just economically, but also but also on national security grounds and diplomatic fronts as well or they may say that an overthrow of the regime like the one you seem to be suggesting there, would cause a lot of chaos in the region. How would you respond to arguments like that?

RJ: They’re already causing a lot of… We’re not asking for the overthrow of the regime, we’re asking for something different. There are members of this royal family that are people who we can work with. We cannot think that this regime that gave us 9/11, that gave us Al Qaeda, the Mujahideen, bin Laden, is the regime that will bring solutions. So is he the only man in my family? I don’t believe that. I think the regime should be pressured exactly with the same way we pressured the Apartheid regime in South Africa to end Apartheid. This region should be pressured heavily in order to reform itself and become something else.

JE: Are there fears though that we could see something, you know kind of like the fallout that we saw in some countries that underwent revolutions such as the Arab Spring, if there’s pressure on the regime like that and there’s a potential collapse?

RJ: I don’t understand the question? This regime should get away with murder because we are scared of what comes next? Seriously? I mean, I’m not saying that this regime should collapse, I’m saying we should reform and pressure this regime to eliminate, to put aside, this thuggish element, this murderous element, that goes around and murders and butchers people. I mean, I am honestly insulted by the fact that somebody should suggest that a thug like this should stay in place because otherwise, it might, the whole thing might collapse. I don’t think it will collapse. I think South Africa reformed itself in a peaceful way and if Saudi Arabia is pressured economically, they will be forced to reform. Otherwise, just expect more murders to occur exactly the same way that Jamal was murdered and you might be next, by the way. I might be next.

JE: Well yeah, I understand that. I think the comparison with South Africa I think is interesting. There’s definitely a lot of similarities there but you have a very theocratic monarchy there that kind of controls all aspects of life…

RJ: South Africa controlled all aspects of life exactly the same way this regime, exactly like Mussolini controlled all aspects of life. Exactly like Saddam Hussein, I mean, look with that premise we should have kept apartheid in South Africa. We should have kept all of Mussolini. Why did we fight them? Why did we pressure them to reform? I’m not willing to accept that we need to live as slaves and the Saudis need to live as a slave where a man who’s 30 years old can order your death simply because you spoke, you know, you just criticized his reform. This is outrageous. We are in the 21st century where human lives still matter.

JE: One last question for you Ms. Jebreal. In your interview with Mr. Khashoggi, you asked him what he would do if MBS asked him to be his advisor. What would you do if President Trump asked you to be his advisor on this matter, and on Saudi Arabia in general?

RJ: I would happily, gladly advise any American president about what to do. And the first thing to do is, the first, and foremost: demand the whole truth, nothing but the truth. And once the truth is in front of us, then confront them with the truth, with the facts and demand from them accountability and uphold the rule of law. To uphold American values and not put aside American values in the name of the dollar, in the name of weaponry that they might pay or apartments. I would ask President Trump to really invest in the future – to be the real reformist and demand a different relationship with Saudi Arabia based not only on a mercenary transaction. We will give you protection and impunity and you give us money and cheap oil because that relationship has been toxic for the U.S.

I would ask the President of the United States to take a moral stance, but above all to think about the next generation of Americans and Saudis. And do something bold, and brave, and courageous in this moment and demand from the Saudi regime to reform itself. So we can create a more stable democracy, a more stable Democracy in America, and a more stable Middle East. Not only for the Saudis, for everybody else.

Interview // Journalism / Saudi Arabia