Panelists discuss the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the work of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the events leading to his death. From award-winning director Rick Rowley, the essential insight of Kingdom of Silence is that Khashoggi’s life was emblematic of the U.S.-Saudi relationship’s hidden history; an alliance that has, in many ways, defined contemporary American foreign policy.
YACOUBIAN: Thanks so much Teagan. Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting on the Showtime documentary Kingdom of Silence with Rick Rowley, Lawrence Wright, and Tamara Cofman Wittes. I'm Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and I'll be presiding over today's discussion.
Before we dive into a talk about this really fascinating documentary, let me very briefly introduce our esteemed panel. Rick Rowley directed Kingdom of Silence. He is an Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning director, whose films have been honored at festivals around the world. Lawrence Wright, served as the film's executive producer. He's a staff writer with the New Yorker as well as an author, screenwriter, and playwright. His book, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, won the Pulitzer Prize. And Tamara Cofman Wittes is a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. She previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, where she coordinated U.S. policy on democracy and human rights in the Middle East.
So let's dive right in, and Rick, I'd like to start with you. Tell us a little bit about what made you decide to make this film did you have a particular direct connection to Jamal Khashoggi. And you know, it's a film that covers lots of territory, quite literally and it would be interesting to hear about any sorts of challenges that you encountered in making the film.
ROWLEY: Yeah, thank you, Mona. I mean, two things really drew me to this story. The first is that Jamal was really one of our own. He was a journalist who was murdered by the regime that he criticized. And whenever one of our colleagues is killed, it falls on us to rescue what we can of their story from the forces that would erase them and impose silence, so that was a very strong motivation. The other thing is that I spent a decade as a war reporter in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, and in every one of the conflicts that I was covering Saudi Arabia was an active participant. Every combatant on the ground would tell you that and yet, you wouldn't know that if you were just listening to the public discourse about these conflicts—the United States...that this kind of toxic relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has sown violence and chaos in the region for years and it remains largely outside of the spotlight. So those were the two motivations I had going in.
And in the beginning we thought of this as a murder mystery and so we did the kind of things that you do when you investigate a murder. We spoke to former intelligence officials, we spoke to multiple national intelligence agencies, we gained access to classified intel, we uncovered new details about the killing, but very quickly it became clear that while that was all sensational and chilling, just below the surface were much more interesting and important questions. Not just if Mohammed bin Salman had ordered Jamal's killing—it now seems quite clear that he did—but why? Not just how this killing was undertaken, but who was this man that the kingdom would risk so much to silence? And so that question, launched us on a much longer journey that took us from Afghanistan to Cairo to Istanbul, from London to Washington, DC and finally to Saudi Arabia itself. And there were immense challenges telling a story like this.
One thing is that many of the people who are close to Jamal are terrified to speak. We weren't even granted journalist visas to go to Saudi Arabia so I got a tourist visa and I snuck in and filmed under the radar. Many of the Saudis we talked to were terrified that we just reached out to them and wouldn't say anything.
Others we spoke with needed their identities concealed and it took us a year to find and develop the trust of people who were close to him who were willing to come forward and speak and that was the biggest hurdle and it wasn't just fear of physical violence. Jamal was a well known, kind of celebrity, journalist in the media there. He was a frequent guest on new shows, a frequent columnist and opinion writer in the Arab world, and many of his friends were journalists and time and again, close friends would be heartbroken that they couldn't speak to us but they would say, you know, almost all of the satellite channels in the Arab world are owned by Saudi Arabia, the Saudi princes own outright or own major stakes in basically every print outlet in the Arab world so if I want to have a career at all going forward, I can't come forward and speak. Anyway, those were some of the hurdles that had to be overcome, but in the end it was kind of amazing. Jamal's story is really epic and he lived his life at the center of a whirlwind and was not just a journalistic observer on the outside, but was an active participant in events that continue to shape our time.
YACOUBIAN: Well, you've touched on so many themes and I want to make sure we circle back to them, but I want to bring Lawrence into the conversation. As part of my preparation for today I went back and read your 2004 New Yorker piece entitled Kingdom of Silence and clearly there's a connection in the title, and I'd like to talk a little bit about that. But also you introduce us to Jamal Khashoggi and I don't know if that was the first time you met him or not, but it would be very interesting to understand better your relationship with him, your connection to him over the decades. There was a passage in the piece that I found particularly sort of prophetic and that is the discussion you had with Jamal about the schizophrenic quality of a life for ordinary Saudis in the kingdom. And it seems as though in many ways Jamal himself got caught up in that split between, I think in the piece, you talk about the virtual and the real, but it would be useful just to have you reflect given the decades of time that you knew him, on him and put it in context for us.
WRIGHT: Oh, thanks, Mona, you know, I think of Jamal's life as being in three acts. There was the jihad against the Soviets and then there was 9/11, and then there was the Arab Spring. And all of these things were tremendously influential in his life, as they were through the whole Middle East, but Jamal was a kind of litmus test of how that evolution was being affected. I, after 9/11, I was writing about what happened and I had to get into Saudi Arabia, and like Rick, they wouldn't let me in as a journalist so I took a job. I became a mentor to these young reporters in Jeddah, at the Saudi Gazette and I'd heard about Jamal. There aren't many journalists that have any standing at all in Saudi Arabia, and he was one of the few and he had a voice and that made him really a very unusual figure. And the other thing is, I've spent a lot of time in tyrannical countries, autocratic regimes, it turns people into cowards and Jamal was not a coward. He was willing to talk, he was candid, he was analytical. He was a lot of fun too, I think lost in much of this discussion about Jamal is he was just a wonderful guy, and I really loved him.
But anyway, he worked for the Arab news, which was a far superior newspaper to the one that I was working for at the time, and during that period of time he got appointed editor of Al-Watan, which is a big newspaper in the southern part of the country, and that didn't last very long. He was obviously trying to enlarge the space of freedom to talk. And in Saudi Arabia, I had learned that there are things you can't write about—can't write about the government, can't write about the royal family, you can't write about religion—which doesn't leave very much on your plate. So one of the first things he did was start talking about the straightjacket that the religion places on Saudis and I think one of the most provocative things he did as editor is he published a cartoon of a suicide bomber, but instead of dynamite in his in the vest, they were fatwas, it was an imam who was the suicide bomber. Well, he got canned, and actually he was appointed again the editor of Al-Wata during a brief period of reform and then fired again. It was during that period of time, that first editorship, that I was first told that he was going to be killed. My own editor pulled me out into the hallway because he was afraid that you would be overheard and said your friend, you know, he should watch out because the word is he's going to be killed. This was in 2003. So he was not unfamiliar with threats on his life.
After I came back to the U.S. I got a call from Jamal, this would have been in 2004 I think, and he really did fear for his life and he needed to get out of the Kingdom for a while. And I arranged for him to get an appointment at Columbia Journalism School, but before that happened Prince Turki decided to pick him up and put him under his wing and he made him a spokesperson for the Embassy in London and then later in Washington. And I saw him there, we continued our friendship. The last time he fled Saudi Arabia he called again, and once again I put out some feelers, but this time he found his own way here. And he did something that it's hard to understand how provocative this is, that column at the Washington Post was immense, not only had he not lost his voice, he was now speaking from a platform in the heart of America, in the middle of the most powerful political system in the world, where all the levers were and suddenly Jamal Khashoggi has a platform to speak from, and that made him a terrible threat. The last time I saw him was several months before he died. I invited him to come down to Austin, where I live, to talk with—we had a conversation at the University of Texas. And honestly, I was puzzled because I had seen Mohammed bin Salman as an agent of reform. And Jamal said, No, the repression has never been greater. It was a paradox in my mind and he helped me understand it, but it really wasn't until his death that I realized how serious this paradox was. The schizophrenia that we talked about Mona, it was so evident in his life, but profound in his death.
YACOUBIAN: Tamara, I want to bring you into the conversation as well. You've written pointedly about Jamal Khashoggi after his death, and you noted your own personal ties to him. Can you talk a bit about that, give us a sense of your personal views? And also, given the work, Tamara, that you've done with Arab reform advocates across the region, help us understand that. Was Jamal emblematic of these reformers? Or different, and how?
COFMAN WITTES: Thanks, Mona. First, let me say what a what an honor it is to share the dais with Rick and Lawrence, who have made a tremendous movie that tells not only the story of Jamal Khashoggi, a very complex story, but also a really complex story about the U.S.-Saudi relationship and kind of uses Jamal's life as a way of exploring that relationship. And I think that's fitting because for those of us who are scholars who work on the Middle East, anyone who wanted to work on Saudi Arabia or travel to the kingdom or write about the kingdom, Jamal was one of the first people that you wanted to talk to, because he did sit at that nexus of a degree of independence, but also he was wired. He was wired into the royal family. And so I think I first heard about Jamal, as Lawrence first heard about Jamal, actually around the same time, it was maybe 2000 or 2001, and Khalid al Faisal had started something called the Arab Thought Foundation and a friend of mine went to one of their inaugural meetings and came back talking about this fascinating guy, Jamal Khashoggi. And that was...that period of the early 2000s, Lawrence is right, it was the post 9/11 period when Americans were just feverishly trying to understand this place, Saudi Arabia, that had sent fifteen of nineteen of the hijackers here, and trying to understand the nature of the Islamist movement that had produced Al Qaeda. It was also a period of incredible ferment in the Arab world with a lot of talk about the necessity of political reform, societal reform, economic reform.
The Arab Thought Foundation was one of the more top down, officially sanctioned efforts in that direction, but a lot of this conversation was galvanized by an Arab Human Development Report, published by the UN in 2002, that was written by an incredible roster of Arab scholars, economists, political scientists, sociologists, saying that the region was suffering because of its deficit of freedom. And so Jamal was always pushing boundaries and maintaining that official connection. There were a lot of people pushing boundaries across the region during that period. And there was a lot of hope that maybe those boundaries could be shifted. Some of that hope came from reformers within autocratic regimes, and I think that's why Jamal was able to move back and forth between these worlds for such a long period of time. But then what happened with the rise of Mohammed bin Salman is that those red lines Lawrence was talking about—everybody thought they knew what the red lines were in the old style of Arab autocracy—but Mohammed bin Salman just moved all the lines, and it happened really quickly, a lot of people got caught up in it, and Saudi Arabia today is a place where there's almost no space left between those lines. And in fact, it's not enough just to be quiet, you have to stand up and salute. So I think one way or another, Jamal was not at the cutting edge of the Arab reform debate, but he was representative of a certain type of people who hoped that governments could be persuaded to open up in their own interest, and who got caught up when those governments decided nope, actually, the right thing to do is to crack down further.
YACOUBIAN: So there's so much to unpack here, and before we move, or I move, towards bringing members into the conversation, I would like to go back to you, Rick, and actually all three of you in one way or another, because as you all are alluding, this story, this very tragic tale of Jamal Khashoggi is, in some ways, also a parable about U.S.-Saudi relations, about U.S. engagement in the Middle East post 9/11. And Rick, you've sort of mentioned that, in the ways in which it started as a murder investigation, your film, but then evolved into something much deeper. Can you talk a little bit more about that theme of the parable of U.S.-Saudi relations as reflected in this very, very tragic story?
ROWLEY: Yeah, absolutely. Jamal was...Larry laid out those sort of chapters of his life in, I think, a wonderful way. He was the first journalist to ever publish a photograph of Osama bin Laden. He was right there, the point of contact between the outside world and the Arab Mujahideen in Afghanistan at this critical moment when everything was changing about the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Again, after September 11, when the U.S.-Saudi relationship was in an incredibly fragile moment he was one of the people who was there trying desperately to maintain it, even if that meant that Saudi Arabia became the lone major Arab power to support the invasion of Iraq.
During the Arab Spring, things sort of began to fracture for him, because he saw again, in this street, an echo of the kind of hope that he saw in the Mujahideen as a youth. So what I see is, it's a tragic story in all sorts of ways, but also I see it, his story, as a redemption story. Jamal is a man who time and again saw his heroes, heroes who he'd helped create, who he defended in the press forever, he saw them turn into villains before his eyes and felt himself to be implicated in these terrible crimes. And to his great credit, he allowed himself to be wounded by what he saw and changed by it, and he changed, he constantly changed up until the end of his life, 60 years old and still changing and moving to the front, to the leading edge of what was happening in the Arab world at the time. You know, Jamal was so...he pushed as long as he could on the inside until the tortured compromises that he'd been forced to make his whole life became too much to bear. As Larry says, in the end of the film, the contradictions became too stark and you just had to choose, you had to pick a side and choose, there was no space outside of that. And when he dared to criticize the princes who he'd spent his life serving, they murdered him for it.
YACOUBIAN: I'm mindful of the time, I'm wondering, Lawrence, if briefly you can...the other player in all of this, of course, is the United States. U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia, U.S. response post 9/11, which you've written about quite eloquently, Lawrence, could you talk a bit about the inherent contradictions in U.S. post 9/11 policy in the Middle East, again, as we can understand them in the story of Jamal Khashoggi.
WRIGHT: Yeah, Jamal was…he functioned as a pivot between Saudi Arabia and the United States. He understood the Western world in a way, for instance, that MBS does not, he has no experience with it. And Jamal, I feel that he was trying to bridge, he was trying to bridge both worlds. And that was, in many ways, the purpose that his columns served in the Washington Post.
If you look at his relationship with the United States, I think that we used to have a need for Saudi Arabia and we lost that need when oil prices shifted and the United States became energy independent, and oil prices started to go down then Saudi Arabia's place in the world became threatened. And I think that was part of what was going on in the background of all this, is that Saudi Arabia is terribly, terribly anxious about its future, and it should be. It does not have a future without oil at $100.00 a barrel. Saudi Arabia is on the edge of its seat and here is Jamal Khashoggi trying to elicit some kind of freedom of expression inside the kingdom. There's also a thing that I think applies to MBS, which is his sociological concept called the king's paradox, which is, should the king decide to grant some freedom to his subjects, they will ask for more. And so how do you regulate that demand, because that demand is very pent up in Saudi Arabia. And so this granting of the right of women to drive and movie theaters open was a crack in the door, and the pressure to open that door is very great, and Jamal was pushing that door. And I think that was one of the several reasons that he was singled out for being killed, not just brought back to the kingdom.
YACOUBIAN: So Tamara, I would be remiss if we didn't draw a bit on your experience of serving in the State Department in the area of democracy and human rights promotion in the Middle East. There is a State Department official who figures prominently in the film. I didn't know if I should call him the Greek chorus or what he is, but he keeps coming into the film at various opportune moments to give sort of the perspective of classic State Department, national security interests, hard interest perspective on the value and the importance of the relationship with Saudi Arabia. Can you talk a bit, Tamara, about your experience in that world and some of the tensions that come into play and how you navigated them, how you understood them, and maybe comment on how it's portrayed in film?
COFMAN WITTES: Yeah, and it's a world that I entered long before my State Department appointment actually, because my father was a U.S. foreign service officer who spent time in the region, including in Saudi so my first trip to the kingdom was actually in the summer of 1982—and when I could still wear a T shirt and jeans on the street. So this was in the immediate aftermath of the ’79 Mosque takeover and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia was just at the beginning of imposing all of these more intensive strictures that relate to gender segregation and dress codes and so on.
I think that David Rundell in the film…he's clearly somebody who has deep expertise in the relationship and the logic of the relationship, but he also, I think, represents a certain generation of that U.S.-Saudi relationship, and as Lawrence said, Saudi is a different country. We are a different country with respect to Saudi Arabia and with respect to the Middle East as a whole. And so that relationship that David Rundell is describing, celebrating, committed to, that relationship is gone. And I think that younger generations of foreign service officers have a professional experience of a very different Middle East—a Middle East in which human rights activists and journalists and lawyers are pushing boundaries, in which governments are pressured to change or even overthrown, not the Middle East of stable Arab authoritarianism that David Rundell is talking about in the film. So I think that it's all useful for historical background, but whatever the U.S.-Saudi relationship may be going forward, it's going to be very, very different from that, and whatever Saudi authoritarianism has been for the last 70 years—and Lawrence has a wonderful clip in the film where he talks about the consensus based model of the royal family—Mohammed bin Salman has already overturned that. This is personalized rule and I think it's more likely that the future of the Saudi autocracy will look a lot more like Saddam Hussein's Iraq than like the Saudi that we used to know.
YACOUBIAN: At some point, I hope, in our discussion, we can get to this question of MBS and Saudi Arabia and the future and what the correctives are to some of the issues that we encounter in the film, but at this time I'd like to invite our members to join the conversation with their questions. As a reminder, this meeting is on the record. Teagan will provide instructions on how to join the question queue.
STAFF: (Gives queueing instructions) We will take our first question from Ron Shelp. Mr. Shelp, please accept the unmute now prompt.
Q: First, I have to comment, make a commentary to Mr. Wright. I not only read that book, I read the one on Texas. (Inaudible) This is a question for whoever thinks it's appropriate. First, under the current administration, I was somewhat struck by two things, one that a big conference in the last year or two business leaders were there and one of the more enlightened business leaders like (indistinct), the head of a great company, said you know “businesses is business,” in so many words. I wonder what you think of that and what you would predict on—god help us if Joe Biden doesn't win, let's assume he does win—his policy will be toward Saudi Arabia. And I will direct any of that to whoever is appropriate.
YACOUBIAN: So actually this is exactly the question I wanted to ask. In terms of justice and accountability for Jamal's murder, or the lack thereof, and what is the corrective, how do we see U.S.-Saudi relations going forward? Tamara, let's start with you and then we'll work our way back through.
COFMAN WITTES: A few points. I think one thing that film illustrates well, is that the old business arrangement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia—that is oil price stability or oil supplies stability for security guarantees—as the Saudi role in the global oil market diminishes that bargain becomes less relevant, as the American public pushes for the United States to be less committed to the Middle East, and geopolitical competition forces our attention elsewhere, our side of that bargain shifts. So the old business deal is already invalid and we'll see if we can negotiate a new one, if there's one that's in our interest. Second point I'd make is that even if we're talking about business, Bechtel and the other companies that do lots of business in Saudi Arabia, we have to think about the long term future of our economy and what is it rooted in. It's rooted in innovation and it's rooted in human capital, and really repressive autocracies with state dominated economies do not have a great track record on generating innovation and cultivating human capital. The Saudis have, more than once over the years, put forward plans for how they plan, how they intend to shift away from an oil dominated economy, away from a state generated economy, but the bottom line is that doing those things undermines the power of the regime and that's why those reforms have never moved forward. I think that is the question that really creates a dilemma for those who want to generate a new U.S.-Saudi bargain.
YACOUBIAN: Lawrence, can I ask you to...please?
WRIGHT: Yeah, I agree with Tamara, totally, but I see a future need for a relationship with Saudi Arabia because of, what I think will be, the turmoil that is headed that way. If the Saudis cannot afford to continue the welfare state that they have there are going to be a lot of Saudis asking, why do we need these people? The royal family is there simply because they've been able to keep their population quiet. It isn't through the use of free health care, free education...even with the terrorists, they oftentimes give them a house and a wife and try to hope that they'll just be quiet from now on. That's been the Saudi way, but it's expensive, and the discretionary income that was available to Saudi Arabia, has diminished and will continue to diminish and what's going to happen in the wake of that, I think, is tremendous turmoil. And I think at this point the United States can serve a very fine, purposeful function in calling on the years that we worked with Saudi Arabia on many relationships, all of our business contacts, they're going to need help and guidance. It's not just for their sake, the Middle East is a turbulent area anyway. But with Saudi Arabia in the midst of something approaching a revolution it could just throw the whole region into enormous chaos and we don't want to see that, the world doesn't want to see that. But a steadying hand is going to be needed and I think that maybe the United States could provide that.
YACOUBIAN: Rick, do you do have some thoughts you'd like to share on this question?
ROWLEY: I mean, what Tamara and Lawrence have said...I agree with their broader strategic vision. The one thing, the one moral imperative, that I feel is the continuing shame is our involvement in the war on Yemen, that the UN calls the greatest humanitarian catastrophe on the planet today, that we continue to support and so that, changing...disentangling ourselves from that criminal enterprise is a top priority no matter who wins the next election.
COFMAN WITTES: Yes, true. And worth noting that that U.S. involvement began in the Obama administration, and continued through the Trump administration. So bipartisan effort
YACOUBIAN: Teagan can could we have the next question, please?
STAFF: Certainly, we will take our next question from Judith Miller.
Q: Hi, everyone. I just thought the movie was spectacular and covered a lot of ground in one hour. And I guess I have so many questions, but one of the most important to me at the moment is, as Saudi Arabia is the kingdom—and the third Saudi kingdom, we should remember, as Saudi Arabia is older than the United States—as it descends into this enormous turmoil, what happens to Wahhabi-ism? What happens to its support of the most intolerant articulation of Islam and it's a historic support for that? If it has less money, does it not support it over overseas? And does it not play that role that it's traditionally played in promoting that interpretation? And two, does anybody think that MBS can now be removed by another unhappy faction within the royal family? Or have they totally silenced and jailed everybody who might put together an alternative to MBS? Thank you.
YACOUBIAN: Thanks, Judith. Tamara, would you like to take the first question on Wahabism?
COFMAN WITTES: Well, I'm curious to see what Lawrence has to say on that one, as well. He knows those issues so deeply in terms of the Saudi influence abroad. I'll just say this— I think that one of the things, one of the trends that's emerging not only in Saudi Arabia, but elsewhere in the region, since the Arab uprisings, is that some governments are really trying to move away from having independent Islamic movements or Islamist movements, and to really ensure that Islam is an instrument of state. I think you see that both in the UAE and in the kingdom and the way that MBS has ensured that the clerics on the state payroll are not out there objecting to his reforms on dress codes, on movie theaters, on concerts, and things like that, or the way he's put the religious police back in barracks in, at least in the major cities. I think that's probably the way forward. What that means for Saudi foreign policy is not a question I feel I have good enough data to address. On Judith's second question, I will just say, and I think this is where I have some misgivings, although I agree with Lawrence—it would be wonderful if the United States could be that steady hand while Saudi goes through turmoil—I think the U.S. doesn't get to choose what's going to happen. The U.S. doesn't get to choose who the next King of Saudi Arabia is. I think MBS is the next King of Saudi Arabia and we're all going to have to live with the consequences. The question I have is whether he is persuadable, whether he learns, whether he is interested in a partnership with the United States that might require some compromise on his part. And I just don't see a lot of evidence on that yet.
YACOUBIAN: Lawrence, what's your thinking on this? Has MBS locked down his hold? And is it a foregone conclusion that he will ascend the throne? Or are there opposition elements out there that maybe we don't know about that could unseat him?
WRIGHT: Well, we certainly don't know about them, you're right about that. But you know, the United States is not going to remove MBS from power, his cousins would have to do that and if they feel that the reputational stain is so great that he can't be abided any longer then I think that'll probably happen. But right now I think they're...the kingdom is in a state of paralysis. And now the turmoil that I forecast, Judy's acutely right about the possibility of religious authority and something like an Iranian situation, an autocratic theocracy, that can easily replace the royal family. It's the most logical step in many respects, because there is that vast constituency, the liberal reformers are not organized, they can't organize. And so the alternative—it's a little like the Egyptian dynamic, I think, that there was the Muslim brothers and the army and then there were the Egyptian population as a whole, which really wanted neither one of them. I think that capitalizes Saudi Arabia in many respects. So it's kind of a dire situation. But I think that what I would not like to see in this period, that I fear will be coming in the direction of Saudi Arabia for it to change into some kind of theocratic entity.
YACOUBIAN: Rick, where are you on this? And I guess in a way, for me the question really hinges on how different is MBS's Saudi Arabia? What does the brazenness and the brutality of his attack on Jamal Khashoggi,—which really is unprecedented, I think—What does that say about MBS's Saudi Arabia? And the potential though for ferment maybe coming from religious quarters, who are unpleased with his liberalizing. How should we understand MBS's Saudi Arabia? And how stable is it?
ROWLEY: I don't know how much I have to add to what Lawrence and Tamara's insights into Saudi Arabia. They certainly have spent much more time studying, as students of the country than I have. I agree that, as Lawrence said, there's much we don't know about. If there is a force capable of ousting MBS we don't know about it yet. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist necessarily and that we don't, in the end, as the United States get to choose. But what we do get to choose is what our role is in Saudi Arabia's endeavors in the region. We get to choose if we are still their security guarantor, the people who are supplying them with weapons, whose companies, security contractors are supplying them with the spyware that they use to monitor and crack down on defense locally, that are training their security forces, that are refueling their bombers and supplying them planes, and training their pilots, and giving them spare parts. It is not, in the end, up to us to choose what Saudis political future is, but it is up to us to decide what we are going to participate in, morally as a country, what our role in the region will be.
YACOUBIAN: Well, and so that actually, to me, circles back to the question that I'd like to have each of you pronounce on, and that is the question of justice and accountability for Mohammed bin Salman, in particular, as well as Saud al-Qahtani, who's sort of his henchmen. Not only have we not really seen any real accountabilities, as far as I can tell, for what happened to Jamal. But in fact, we've seen continued efforts by the Saudis to go after exile...I think that there is the case of the exiled former intelligence official living in Canada in which it was revealed that yet another attempt, aborted, but an attempt by a Saudi hit team to go after him, was taking place. And in fact, some of his family members in Saudi Arabia have been arrested and essentially are being held hostage. So very, it seems to me, very little justice or accountability for Jamal. What does the international community need to do? What should happen going forward? Lawrence, why don't we start with you on that?
WRIGHT: Well, of course when you think about tyrants who murder their opponents, Putin immediately comes to mind. And it's an interesting comparison. He's certainly got a lot of blood on his hands, but we've sanctioned him. I mean, it's not as if we've done nothing. We haven't sent an assassin team or something like that, but we haven't made our displeasure known, and so has the international community. That hasn't happened with MBS. And I think that that is the step that...if you really want to bring accountability, that's one thing, but to prevent future actions, that's the purpose of sanctions is to keep it from happening again. And it's not just Saudi dissidents, there's a campaign right now against Ali Soufan that's coming out of Saudi Arabia. Well, that can't happen. But the same prelude of verbal attacks and tweets and stuff like that, sometimes word for word that were launched at Jamal before his murder have been launched at an American citizen. So where are the red lines? We haven't drawn them yet and because we haven't done that this campaign of assassination, or attempted assassination continues.
YACOUBIAN: Tamara, can you give us your thoughts on that? What more can, or should the U.S. be doing to establish red lines on that kind of behavior?
COFMAN WITTES: Absolutely, and I mean, Lawrence is right, what you want to do is deter any repeat, right? And, there's a line that was crossed—there were so many lines that were crossed in the case of Jamal's murder. Going after your dissidents abroad, going after them in a friendly country, using diplomatic facilities, using diplomatic cover. You know, all of those...
YACOUBIAN: Not to mention the brutality of the act itself...
COFMAN WITTES: Not to mention the brutality of the act itself. So all of those are red lines that we have to reinforce internationally. This isn't just about the United States, because are we going to have countries all over the world going after their dissidents in American streets? Is that okay? Now the fact that the not only the United States, but a bunch of European countries expelled Russian diplomats after the Skripal poisoning, which was egregious, but not nearly as egregious as Jamal's murder, and we didn't expel a single Saudi diplomat from this country. So that's on the point of deterring future action.
In terms of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, there is so much more basic rules of the road, basic respect of sovereignty, basic expectation of countries that we say are friends and partners. beyond Jamal's murder, we know that Saudi Arabia planted spies in a major American social media company, Twitter, the Justice Department is prosecuting that. We know that they sent agents here in an attempt to kidnap Saudi dissidents living in the United States, we know that Saudi diplomats in the U.S. have helped Saudis accused of common crimes in this country escape the justice of American courts. This is all well outside the bounds of a supposedly friendly bilateral relationship. So I would like to see the American government make the rules of the road clear. And that, to me, will be a way of testing whether Mohammed bin Salman is in fact interested in preserving a relationship with the United States and in demonstrating that he can hear advice when it is given by friends.
YACOUBIAN: So Rick, the film itself, I think, is about as powerful a call for justice and accountability. But can you offer some of your thoughts as well, on this question? And related, it'd be interesting to know, is the film being viewed in Saudi or in the Arab world? And if so, what are you hearing?
ROWLEY: Yeah, the question of justice is a very difficult one. What we think of is traditional justice in a courtroom, it's difficult to imagine that ever happening—MBS standing before a judge, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which that that actually takes place. But there are other...as one of Jamal's close friends at the end of the film says, pursuing these criminal cases, that's important people have to do that, but for her justice is denying his killers their victory, which was his silence and erasure by turning this act into a tear in the fabric of the political reality that existed before this point, through which it's possible to imagine a different future. And, and so that is the that is the hope that I have, that this film can participate in that, in keeping him and his story and his struggle alive in spite of everything that's been put up in its way.
YACOUBIAN: Terrific, thank you. Teagan, I think we have time for one more question, please.
STAFF: Certainly, we will take our last question from Jeffrey Laurenti.
Q: Thank you very much Teagan and Mona. This discussion in response to Judy Miller's question, raises the question about whether Mohammed bin Salman's much touted socially liberalizing reforms really involve bringing that supposedly powerful Ulema religious establishment to heal whether it was real at all. For decades the line had always been that the monarchical regime was kept in a straitjacket by this powerful religious establishment and yet bin Salman seems to have carried this off with scarcely a whimper. Was this so called power always just a creation of royal propaganda? And where did Khashoggi figure in on the Islamist spectrum inside Saudi Arabia over the course of these decades, because that and the relation with the Ulema didn't come up in the film.
YACOUBIAN: So Lawrence, let's have you start with that and maybe you can draw on your many years reporting from Saudi and then these questions about ideal versus real and so the Ulema, are they a figment of our imagination? What's your thoughts on that?
WRIGHT: It is a fascinating question. How powerful were they in the minds of the royal family when the bargains were made, going back to King Abdulaziz? And then after that, in the 1979 Mosque Attack are the two moments, I think, in Saudi Arabia, where you can say that there was a deal struck between the royal family and the religious establishment. And obviously, the royal family felt the need to do that. Could they have avoided the trap? Could they have become a more liberal religious establishment? Could they allow the preaching of all strands of Islam to be taught in Mecca, as they used to be? Could that have happened? I don't know, I'm dazzled by the question, I love it, because, it's an alternate future, or let's say, it's an alternate past, an alternate history of Saudi Arabia, that could have been written had the royal family had the spine to stand up to the religious establishment and say, No, tolerance is going to be a part of our culture. And instead, they surrendered and they gave into the hardliners and this narrow minded form of Islam that's so exclusive and so punitive. And so, yes, and I give credit to MBS for roping them in and those religious policemen were, they were kind of comic characters. I mean if you saw them on the street, you couldn't believe what you were... you know, the rough guy, that they just go around and prod people with their canes and get to the mosque and stuff like that. They were silly, in a way, but they were a reminder that you had to believe one single way, and you had to believe like these kind of religious ruffians. And that was very oppressive and demeaning to the spirit of the Saudi people. So, yeah, it could have been all along an illusion, but at least it was an illusion that the royal family believed in.
COFMAN WITTES: Can I add one note on that Mona, if we have time?
YACOUBIAN: We do, please.
COFMAN WITTES: I think there are different perspectives on this question for different visitors to Saudi Arabia, and for different parts of Saudi Arabia. So as a woman, Larry, I never found the religious police comic, I always had to worry. And my female friends in Saudi had to worry because they could get locked up, and then their uncle would get called, and who knows what would become of them when they got home? So I think it's a different dimension. I think too that there are parts of it that we tend to focus on, the religious imposition, the gender segregation, the women driving—we've been, we Americans have been obsessed with Saudi women driving. I was in the kingdom in the spring of 2018, just after the religious police had been returned to the barracks, and there was a lot of discussion about the driving issue. I was talking to a young man who had grown up on a farm in a poor rural area in the north. And he said, “look, I understand here in Riyadh, it means a lot to educated upper class women to be able to drive and get around on their own, but when I grew up, my mom drove, of course she drove, she had to drive, we had a farm.” I think that for Saudis outside the glitzy parts of Riyadh and Jeddah and Dhahran, the question is, can our government deliver? This is all real nice world pious, and we're all traditional, and we value that in our royal family, but when are they going to finish paving the road? And to me, when we think about the future of the kingdom, it's the government's ability to be responsive to people, which you see in the cities, we can see it in the cities in terms of all this social freedom, but there is a lot more demand that we don't see.
YACOUBIAN: Which I would note, I think we're seeing across the Arab world and will continue to. Rick, I want to be able to give you the last word as we're coming toward the very end of our time. This has been terrific conversation, but do you have any thoughts on this or any parting thoughts you'd like us to contemplate as we go on to our afternoon?
ROWLEY: This has been a been a great a conversation and it's wonderful that there has been so much interest in and so many people participating and keeping Jamal's memory alive. I think the story is, in many ways to me, it's tragic and depressing and seems on its surface to be a story of the infinite power that despots have to silence and kill anyone who speaks out against them. But for me, in the end, it was an empowering story, it was a hopeful story, because you saw someone so close to the inside, who is still capable of being free, who in the very end of his life, in spite of everything he'd been through and all the trials was capable of acts of freedom that were threatening to the system that he worked for for so long. And that I hope will be an inspiration to all of us, no matter where we're at in our arcs or how embedded we feel in the systems that we've become a part of to still be free.
YACOUBIAN: Thank you. Thank you so much, Rick, for the terrific film. Lawrence, Tamara, thank you both for your excellent commentary. And I want to thank members for joining us. The audio and transcript of today's meeting will be available on the Council on Foreign Relations website. Thank you all so much for joining us.