Khashoggi on life under MBS: ‘Nobody dares to speak’

In his last interview with Al Jazeera UpFront, the late Saudi journalist spoke on the need for debate in Saudi Arabia.

Jamal Khashoggi UpFront


Al Jazeera’s UpFront looks back to a March interview with the man who dared to criticise the Saudi royal leadership.

In the debate [full transcript below], UpFront host Mehdi Hasan pressed Jamal Khashoggi and two others on whether Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known colloquially in the West as MBS, is truly an anti-corrution and pro-rights reformer and whether the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is really on a path to reform and moderation.

While bin Salman has been praised by some as a “revolutionary”, rights groups have voiced concern, pointing to the continued crackdown on dissent within the kingdom, and to alleged war crimes committed in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition.

“As we speak today, there are Saudi intellectuals and journalists jailed,” Kashoggi told Al Jazeera. “Now nobody will dare to speak and criticise the reform … It would be much better for him to allow a breathing space for critics, for Saudi intellectuals, Saudi writers, Saudi media to debate.”

Now nobody will dare to speak and criticise the reform ... It would be much better for him to allow a breathing space for critics, for Saudi intellectuals, Saudi writers, Saudi media to debate.

by Jamal Khashoggi, Dissident Saudi writer/commentator

During the debate, Ali Shihabi, who is a supporter of bin Salman and founder of the think-tank the Arabia Foundation, said he supports the reforms and that “Nobody has been able to carry out dramatic change in the developing world successfully under a pluralistic system. You need a benevolent autocracy.”

Khashoggi, who had previously said the crown prince was acting like Putin and becoming Saudi’s own Supreme Leader, countered:

“There’s no such thing as benevolent autocracy. Autocracy cannot be benevolent. And lessons of history proved that. One-man-rule…”

The killing of the 59-year-old Saudi journalist has shocked the world. 

Full transcript : UpFront: Is Saudi Arabia’s MBS really a reformer?

Mehdi Hasan: His fans call him a reformer, even a revolutionary. His critics say he’s guilty of war crimes in Yemen. The 32-year-old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, who claims be cracking down on corruption and championing women’s rights is currently touring the United States. But who’s the real MBS? And is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia really on a path to reform and moderation?

Joining me now to debate this are Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist and former royal family adviser, currently self-exiled in Washington, DC, who has said the crown prince is acting like Putin and becoming Saudi’s own Supreme Leader. And Ali Shihabi, a supporter of MBS, who is Executive Director at the Arabia Foundation and author of the book, The Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil. Thank you both for joining me on UpFront. Jamal, let me start with you. You’ve compared your Crown Prince to Putin, to Iran’s Supreme Leader. You’ve said he’s creating “an interesting form of dictatorship.” How so?

Jamal Khashoggi: I still see him as a reformer, but he is gathering all power within his hand. And it would be much better for him to allow a breathing space for critics, for Saudi intellectuals, Saudi writers, Saudi media to debate. The most important needed transformation going in the country. What he is doing I called for and I got fired for when I was an editor of a newspaper. Allowing a woman to drive, or for a woman to be empowered, or to limit the power of the religious establishment. I demanded that. And he is doing the right things. But it is an important transformation that requires all of us to contribute to it, to discuss it, and no one should be jailed for…for that.

Mehdi Hasan: Fair enough. But when you say under MBS’s rule, an interesting form of dictatorship is being created in Saudi Arabia… Ever since Saudi Arabia was founded, it has been a dictatorship.

Jamal Khashoggi: No.

Mehdi Hasan: Or did that not bother you when you were working with the Saudi Royal Family?

Jamal Khashoggi: No. No. Things were done by consensus, with a…not the whole…not in a parliamentarian system, but throughout the whole family. But as we speak today, there are Saudi intellectuals and journalists jailed. Now nobody will dare to speak and criticize the reform they like.

Mehdi Hasan: Ali Shihabi, he’s Putin, he’s Iran’s own Supreme Leader. What’s your response to Jamal?

Ali Shihabi: Nothing is more difficult and dangerous politically than change, particularly dramatic change. Nobody has been able to carry out dramatic change in the developing world successfully under a pluralistic system. You need a benevolent autocracy. Now, you can open things up for debate, but the question is that history has taught us you never know how far you can open the window before it brings the house crashing down.

That’s something that all students of history have studied. So, he has a…he has done a huge amount of things. I mean, people, for example, underestimate what he has done for women and empowering women. It wasn’t just women’s driving – it’s integrating women into the workforce. When women drove in Saudi Arabia in 1990, when the women activists drove, we were both in Riyadh, Jamal and I. And I tell you, the reaction of the religious conservatives went viral, every mosque talked about them. This time, there wasn’t a peep from anybody. So, he had to control that.

Mehdi Hasan: Why?

Ali Shihabi: Because he has intimidated them and he threw a number of these religious conservatives and reactionaries in jail, for good reason.

Mehdi Hasan: Just on the women drivers thing, though, that has been the kind of flagship policy for what people in the West have talked about a lot. You mentioned it. You called him a bold leader who’s dragging his country into the 21st century. Many would say it’s not that bold to allow women to drive in the only country on Earth that doesn’t allow it. And it’s not a sign of being in the 21st century, it’s a sign of being in the early 20th century.

Ali Shihabi: Well, yes, if previous…

Mehdi Hasan: It’s a low bar, isn’t it? It’s a very low bar.

Ali Shihabi: Well, previous leaders for the last 50 years…

Mehdi Hasan: But you’re benchmarking previous leaders, rather than the rest of the world.

Ali Shihabi: No, you benchmark to your history. You benchmark to what was existing in your country.

Mehdi Hasan: So then Kim Jong-un is a moderniser because he’s less crazy than his dad. I mean, come on.

Ali Shihabi: No, you benchmark… You benchmark Prince Mohammed to his predecessors. You benchmark people to their environment. You benchmark them to their peers. You don’t benchmark him to the Queen of Sweden.

Mehdi Hasan: Jamal.

Jamal Khashoggi: I want to jump in on the benevolent autocracy. There’s no such thing as benevolent autocracy. Autocracy cannot be benevolent. And lessons of history proved that. One-man-rule…lessons of history…

Ali Shihabi: I think there’s an illusion, by the way, that people talk about, that Saudi Arabia used to be sort of consensus-driven before. King Fahad. And you know, when he took the decision to allow American troops to come in, and that is documented in Western books and in the memoirs of Schwarzkopf, he took it on the spot, by himself. He didn’t consult anybody. Prince Abdullah, the crown prince, was next to him and was against it. So, the monarchs have always been in Saudi Arabia the ultimate rulers. There’s this illusion that they were somehow this consensus but that’s not the case.

Jamal Khashoggi: But…but that should not make us accept. I mean, we are talking about a reform that you and I support. And we have opinions about it. For example…

Ali Shihabi: Everybody has opinions about it, Jamal. How do you reconcile them?

Jamal Khashoggi: For example…

Ali Shihabi: How do you reconcile the extremes between…

Jamal Khashoggi: Let’s talk about something other than women driving. Neom project. This futuristic city that he is planning to invest half a trillion dollars in it. What if it goes wrong? It could bankrupt the country.

Mehdi Hasan: But no one’s allowed to criticise it, is what you’re saying.

Jamal Khashoggi: But no one allowed to write an objective piece in any newspaper saying…

Mehdi Hasan: Ali, you’ve written pieces here in the US for Fox News and others praising his reforms. You couldn’t write pieces in Saudi Arabia saying whatever you like, could you?

Ali Shihabi: Look, no, you can’t. And there’s no doubt about that, but the…

Mehdi Hasan: And you’re OK with that?

Ali Shihabi: No. It’s not a question of OK with that. The question is… No, no.

Mehdi Hasan: It is. That is my question.

Ali Shihabi: Give me an example of a democracy in the developing the world that can affect change. For example, look at what happened in Afghanistan with Karzai, right? Karzai was supposedly elected. He was not even the Mayor of Kabul. He could do nothing in his term. So, when he left office, you know, Afghanistan was still run by warlords, it still was a drug-producing centre, the Taliban was…

Mehdi Hasan: OK. But Saudi Arabia isn’t Afghanistan.

Ali Shihabi: No. My point is. It doesn’t work, unfortunately. And by the way…

Mehdi Hasan: Many developing countries who are democratic would disagree with you. Jamal, you talk about criticism. I want to talk about you. You were a newspaper editor. You no longer live in Saudi Arabia. You’ve said that friends of yours have been arrested and detained. You’ve said that friends of yours in Saudi think twice about sharing whatever isn’t fully in line with official government group think, you’ve said. Why are you in “self-exile?” Explain that to our viewers.

Jamal Khashoggi: Simply because I don’t want to be arrested. I don’t want to be Essam al-Zamil or Salman al-Awdah.. the irony, is that he has no opposition. Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t have an opposition. He doesn’t have the Taliban as Karzai had in Afghanistan. Most of the people, most of the intellectuals…most of the people in jail today are supporters of reform. And if they were out of jail, they would be supporting him. There is no need to arrest anybody. And the reason the…the radicals…were strong in Saudi Arabia one day and they objected to reform because the government allowed them to.

Mehdi Hasan: OK.

Jamal Khashoggi: What happened in Saudi Arabia today about radicalism, the government unplugged…unplugged the power of the radicals. But we the people of Saudi Arabia.

Mehdi Hasan: So, let me put that point… Ali, let me put that point to you. If Jamal were to go back to Saudi tomorrow and write a piece saying, ‘oh, I think MBS is doing some good stuff, but there’s where I disagree with him,’ and he went to prison, would you be OK with that? In the interest of development?

Ali Shihabi: Look, it… In the interest of development, there may be mistakes made.

Mehdi Hasan: No, that’s not what I asked. Would you be OK with Jamal being in prison?

Ali Shihabi: No, I wouldn’t be OK with Jamal going to…going to jail for saying that. No, absolutely not. And I don’t think he would. You see… no…

Mehdi Hasan: But you just defended the system that would do that.

Ali Shihabi: Because the system cannot be perfect. And the system cannot…will make individual mistakes.

Mehdi Hasan: Well, now you’re talking about… It’s easy talking abstraction. What I’m giving you is a specific example.

Ali Shihabi: No. No, you’re the one talking abstraction, Mehdi.

Mehdi Hasan: No, I gave you a specific case study.

Ali Shihabi: Because at the end of the day…

Mehdi Hasan: Would you be OK with Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist…

Ali Shihabi: And by the way, let me just add something, that prison in Saudi Arabia is quite benign. If you visited the higher prison, or these prisons, they are nothing like the dungeons of the Middle East, by the way.

Jamal Khashoggi: No. No. No. No prison…

Mehdi Hasan: OK. We know that Saudi Arabia has a history of torture, well-documented by human rights groups…[inaudible/overlapping voices] OK…

Ali Shihabi: Now, the problem is…the problem is, Mehdi, you can pick individual examples and mistakes can happen at the individual level.

Mehdi Hasan: Wow. Mistakes. OK.

Ali Shihabi: But to affect change in our environment, you cannot do it with an open political spectrum.

Mehdi Hasan: But you can’t…but you can’t have debate and discussion. You think that one man should be able to make the decision without anyone saying, you know what, you might be wrong?

Ali Shihabi: No, I think he is having debate and discussion. Now…now, probably it would be better if we had the wider spectrum of debate and discussion. That’s a judgmental issue. And it’s very, very difficult for governments to choreograph that perfectly…

Mehdi Hasan: OK.

Ali Shihabi: …but governments, at the end of the day, what you run in this part of the world is the risk of state breakdown.

Mehdi Hasan: OK, we need to move on. There’s lots to discuss. I do want to also ask this question about Islam in Saudi Arabia. Because one of the things that the crown prince has won a lot of praise for, Jamal, in the West, is he said, Saudi Arabia would be returning to a moderate Islam that is open to all religions and people. Do you buy that? And do you agree with MBS’s claim that Islam in Saudi Arabia was moderate before 1979?

Jamal Khashoggi: No. Saudi Arabia before 1979 wasn’t moderate. Actually, there was a drive for modernization led by King Faisal at that time. And King Faisal brought the Muslim Brotherhood to open up the [unintelligible] hardline school of thoughts, and now we are totally going against that. But that will take Mohammed bin Salman and take us in Saudi Arabia into debating – what Islam? What moderate Islam? Saudi Arabia has to be aligned with Islam. The basic law of Saudi Arabia which, the constitution, but we don’t call it the constitution because of Wahhabis, they have issues about the term constitution. We call Saudi Arabia an Islamic state. So, what Islam are we going to do? Rather than challenging the Brotherhood, I think Saudi Arabia should work on introducing an Islam that is accommodating modernity. So, what is that Islam? That require an open space for discussion, an open discourse for discussion to have that Islam. But…

Ali Shihabi: Give me one example of an Arab country that has opened up the space successfully. It hasn’t. But let me go back to the question of Islam. What the Prince meant was…what the Prince meant was…

Jamal Khashoggi: Why do we give in on that?

Ali Shihabi: …that the trajectory from the founding of Saudi Arabia until 1979 was a trajectory of continuous liberalization and reducing the role of the clerical class. So, it had been extremely…extreme when Saudi Arabia was founded, and then by the late 1970s it had gotten much, much more liberal. Then, with the Iranian revolution, it scared the government and that…

Mehdi Hasan: Yeah. It’s convenient to pick ’79 because you can blame it all on Iran.

Ali Shihabi: But it’s correct. You allow me to finish my point. The trajectory turns up after that because the Iranian revolution scared the whole region. And…

Mehdi Hasan: And because you decided to arm the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, et cetera.

Ali Shihabi: With the Americans, by the way. But the Iranian revolution…

Mehdi Hasan: I’m not defending the Americans.

Ali Shihabi: The Iranian revolution sent an example.

Jamal Khashoggi: I am defending arming the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

Ali Shihabi: …sent an example to every cleric in this region that you could take power.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. Good. You need to answer a question, though. It’s a nice long answer.

Ali Shihabi: So, it was that trajectory of going up.

Mehdi Hasan: You need to answer a question. In the ’60s and ’70s, Saudi was exporting, whatever you want to call it, Wahhabism, jihad, Salafism, et cetera. To the rest of the world, this didn’t start in ’79. This was going on in the ’60s, in the ’70s, during the Nasser period. Saudi didn’t wake up in 1979 and start sending extremist textbooks around the world. You know that.

Ali Shihabi: No, it’s not a question of extremist textbooks. No… 

Mehdi Hasan: It is for a lot of the people in West. It’s to do with extremist textbooks for British Muslims, French Muslims…

Ali Shihabi: This…Saudi Arabia, the Saudi religious system was ultra-conservative. And yes, in the ’50s and ’60s it was…

Mehdi Hasan: So, it wasn’t moderate before 1979.

Ali Shihabi: It was… It was more modern than it was 20, 30 years before.

Mehdi Hasan: OK…again, a low bar. You keep bringing a low bar.

Ali Shihabi: Well, of course. You compare yourself to your history.

Mehdi Hasan: Jamal, isn’t the problem here that you’ll say, OK, after ’79 it got more extreme, you’re agreeing with Ali. And yet, you’re here now in Washington saying I want this pluralism, I want more dialogue and debate, but where was the dialogue and debate in the ’80s and ’90s when you were perfectly happy, living and working in Saudi Arabia?

Jamal Khashoggi: Well…look, I got fired from my job twice because I was pushing for reform in Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t that easy. But people were not being put in jails. There was a breathing space.

Ali Shihabi: No.. you are going through now in Saudi Arabia an intense period of change. The amount of change that has been put in the last two years, including subsidies, you see, which affect the man on the street are… you can rock the whole… you could bring the whole system down with that …

Mehdi Hasan: OK. We have to move on, but I do want to ask you one question about the… 


Ali Shihabi: Jamal Khashoggi…we do not need…

Mehdi Hasan: OK. Hold on. Let him finish his point, then you can come back in.

Ali Shihabi: It is easy to sit and say we need, particularly in front of an American audience… more freedom…these are golden things. Everybody loves them. But the question is, you have to be practical…

Mehdi Hasan: OK…Ali, let Jamal respond. Otherwise we’re going to run out of time. 

Jamal Khashoggi: Ali! Ali! I’m not asking for democracy. I’m asking for people to be allowed to speak. This is… I’m asking for the minimum. 

Mehdi Hasan: You both seem to be arguing over who has a lower bar. We need to move on and I need to ask you a question about 1979. One last point is that if Mohammed bin Salman says, Saudi Arabia was moderate before ’79, I’m going to bring it back to what it was before 1979, as he said in his 60 Minutes interview, isn’t that a concession that Saudi Arabia has been extremist for the past 40 years, despite all the denials? Just a logical implication.

Ali Shihabi: Well, it’s an expression that Saudi Arabia turned after 1979 into a much more conservative state. It accommodated the extreme, reactionary, right-wing, if you want, religious establishment because of that, and he is correcting that.

Jamal Khashoggi: OK. Very brief about ’79. After ’79, the government joined hand with the radicals into imposing a restrictive society. In… Last year, Mohammed bin Salman, thanks to him, unplugged that. If someone to blame for what happened in the last 40 years, it is the government who empowered the conservative clergies to impose their narrow-mindedness on all of…

Mehdi Hasan: OK.

Ali Shihabi: But that’s a mistake that Prince Mohammed has admitted.

Mehdi Hasan: We can’t…we can’t… OK. So, I need to move on. We can’t talk about MBS without talking about the disastrous war in Yemen, which he has presided over both as Crown Prince and as Defense Minister. Thousands dead. Millions at risk of famine and cholera. The world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN. For this part of the discussion, I want to bring in from New York, Sarah Leah Whitson, Director of the Middle East Division at Human Rights Watch. Sarah, thanks for joining us.

Sarah Leah Whitson: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Mehdi Hasan: How much responsibility does Saudi Arabia and MBS bear, in your view, for what’s going on in Yemen right now, the violence and suffering there?

Sarah Leah Whitson: Well, I would say that they are responsible for the overwhelming amount of human suffering that we are seeing in Yemen right now. The United Nations has just released updated figures on the casualties there, with over 6,000 civilians dead, and attributing over 60% of the civilian casualties to air strikes, which only the Saudi coalition, and that’s primarily really Saudi Arabia, has carried out. The Saudi coalition has imposed an air, sea, and land blockade on Yemen, a country that depends on imports for over 90% of its food, for almost all of its medicines, resulting in the humanitarian disaster that we are seeing now in the country. And I would point massive physical destruction of the country, massive cultural destruction of the country as well.

Mehdi Hasan:  So, Ali, how do you respond to that? How do you square MBS being a reformer at home, while committing what look like war crimes abroad?

Ali Shihabi: Well, there are two sides to a coin. A country does not go to war for fun, or for impetuousness as members of the…of the journalist community, like yourself, accuse…accuse Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia went to war because it felt its security was acutely threatened, which is why countries go to war. It felt that if it allowed what was happening on that southern border to develop, where the Houthis would become a powerful militia, like Hezbollah, its security could be existentially threatened. When the Houthis took over the whole of Yemen, they had the vision of Saudi Arabia being…of Yemen being turned into another Lebanon, so they went to war. Now, this is a war that has been going on for three years. Now, it’s a tragedy. Every human casualty is a tragedy. But you said, Sarah, you know, 6000 civilians, of which 60% have been attributed to Saudi. That’s 3600 civilians killed over three years. That has been done in Syria in a week.

Sarah Leah Whitson: First of all, I think Ali is confusing two basic concepts in law. One is the decision to go to war. And whatever reasons the Saudi Arabia government has offered for bombarding Yemen are really irrelevant to the question of the means they’ve used to fight this war. Means that are unlawful. Means that amount to war crimes. Means that include using unlawful weapons like cluster bombs, that we have documented dozens of times, that will continue to impact generations of Yemenis to come. Means of warfare that have included bombarding schools, universities, hospitals, places of residence, really a wildly indiscriminate, completely unprofessional, despicable methods…

Ali Shihabi: Well, you summed it up in one word.

Sarah Leah Whitson: And let me please…don’t interrupt me, please, Ali. I know that’s a custom maybe in Saudi Arabia… but please don’t do it.

Ali Shihabi: But I would ask you not to insult in that way, by the way, Sarah.

Sarah Leah Whitson: And after I’m done…Second of all, you must be borrowing your talking points from NGO Monitor in Israel, where it also chooses to distract and obfuscate from Israeli war crimes in a place like Gaza by saying, well, somewhere else is worse. Syria is worse, Sudan is worse, and so forth. As you were saying, we’re going to compare Saudi Arabia to its own record, to its own standards. And the record and standards of the conduct of its war in Yemen are shameful and despicable. And for a country whose population has long been so outraged by Israeli crimes in Gaza, for you to sit here and try to brush under the carpet the grotesque abuses of Saudi Arabia against the people of Yemen, against the children of Yemen, which has landed Saudi Arabia twice on the Secretary General’s list of shame for abuses against children is really just embarrassing.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. OK. Ali, do you want to respond?

Ali Shihabi: I mean, is she…is this a monologue? 

Mehdi Hasan: You’ve had some long answers, but you can respond.

Ali Shihabi: Yeah, I will. No. First of all, I mean, she exposed herself by saying Saudi reasons are irrelevant. 

Mehdi Hasan: No, she said the reasons for going to war are irrelevant, which is true. We’re talking about the conduct of the war. This is a debate about MBS. I asked a question about MBS’s conduct.

Ali Shihabi: Is irrelevant. It’s not irrelevant. But…There are two things.There are two things. The conduct of war. When you talk about war crimes, you have to assume that there’s an intent to harm civilians. There’s not an intent to harm civilians.

Sarah Leah Whitson: That’s wrong. That’s not true. That’s actually not true. You actually don’t know the law.

Ali Shihabi: Well, no, let me finish! Don’t interrupt. You’re the one lecturing people on interrupting. Don’t interrupt. There is no intent. There’s been no evidence to prove that there was any intent. Unfortunately, you are fighting an irregular army, an irregular army that is fighting a public relations war, that situates its material next to civilian houses, that uses schools, that uses hospitals. So, you get [inaudible]… Has the Saudi military made mistakes? Of course it’s made mistakes.

Mehdi Hasan: No. According to Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, they’ve deliberately targeted civilians, hospitals, schools.

Ali Shihabi: Yeah, but how do they know they’re deliberately attacking? How do they reach that conclusion?

Mehdi Hasan: So, how do you know Bashar al-Assad? I mean, if you take that argument, then everyone in the world is scot-free.

Ali Shihabi: No. Because I know Bashar al-Assad has killed half a million people and…

Mehdi Hasan: OK. What if you did it accidentally, according to your bizarre logic… Come on.

Ali Shihabi: No, no, no. Excuse me. Not half a million people. Not half a million people

Mehdi Hasan: So he’s your benchmark now?

Ali Shihabi: No, he’s not my benchmark.

Mehdi Hasan: You always use these really weird benchmarks. We’re having a discussion about MBS and your response…

Ali Shihabi: No. Because I’m saying that in the case of Saudi Arabia, you’re talking about…

Mehdi Hasan: Hold on! Hold on. He’s a reformer. When I point to alleged war crimes in Yemen, your response is, but it’s not as bad as Bashar al-Assad.

Ali Shihabi: Yes.

Mehdi Hasan: But, MBS is not claiming to be Bashar al-Assad. He’s claiming to be the moderate Muslim reformer in the Middle East.

Ali Shihabi: No, but…but, I’m saying that they’re not war crimes, because war crimes, there has to be an intent.

Mehdi Hasan: OK. Sarah…

Ali Shihabi: There has to be… No, let me finish one point.

Mehdi Hasan: Fine. Finish this point and then Sarah…

Ali Shihabi: There has to be an intent to carry out war crimes. That means that purposefully you wanted to hit a school or you wanted…

Mehdi Hasan: OK. You made that point. You’ve made that point. Now, let Sarah respond.

Ali Shihabi: Let me finish one other point. Has the Saudi military made mistakes? Of course it’s going to make mistakes. Yes, but…

Mehdi Hasan: You’ve said that as well, Ali. You said mistakes, you said deliberate. Let Sarah come back in now. Hold on. One at a time.

Sarah Leah Whitson: Right. So, under international law, when you find a widespread and systematic pattern of abuses, you can deduce intent. Not all war crimes require showing of, say, someone saying something. And again, I should note that the Israeli defence for its war crimes…

Ali Shihabi: Sarah, have you been to Sanaa?

Sarah Leah Whitson: Widespread and systematic pattern of indiscriminate targeting is what we deduce intent from, and we’ve seen repeatedly. When you bombard schools, hospitals, medical clinics, places of residence.

Sarah Leah Whitson: Repeated widespread systematic attacks on civilian targets. We have investigated dozens and dozens of those strikes, as have other human rights organizations, as has the UN human rights body and found no military target in the vicinity. Do not tell me that all of the bombardment of civilian targets in Yemen is due to Houthis hiding in the midst. That is the excuse that the Israelis use…

Mehdi Hasan: We’ve run out of time unfortunately. Jamal, I’m going to ask you the final question. What is the way out of Yemen? You were a supporter of this war, but is there a way that MBS is going to bring it to an end? It doesn’t seem like it.

Jamal Khashoggi: The way out of Yemen is to reach for a peaceful solution that is inclusive. And Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, must agree to accept the Islamists in Yemen, and the Houthis in Yemen, and everybody else. 

Ali Shihabi: And he has, by the way. I mean…

Jamal Khashoggi: What will save Saudi Arabia from a dominant Iranian presence in Yemen is an inclusive, power-shared government that includes everybody. We need a democracy…

Ali Shihabi: In Yemen.

Jamal Khashoggi: But you…

Ali Shihabi: You need a democracy in Yemen, Jamal. You think you can create it in Yemen?

Jamal Khashoggi: [inaudible/overlapping voices] in Yemen. 

Ali Shihabi: You think you can create a democracy in Yemen?

Jamal Khashoggi: He’s still reluctant to accept the islamists. He wants to defeat the Houthis and not allow the Islamists to benefit from that.

Mehdi Hasan: OK, we’re out of time…

Mehdi Hasan: No. No. No. You’ve made a lot of points. I’m going to ask you a yes or no question, since you mentioned democracy in Yemen. MBS is the great reformer in the eyes of some people. On his watch, is Saudi ever going to become democratic? Yes or no?

Jamal Khashoggi: Not on his watch. I haven’t heard him make even the slightest reference that he would open the country for power-sharing for democracy.

Ali Shihabi: And…

Mehdi Hasan: Hold on. I’m going to give you the last word. But Sarah, do you think Saudi…is Saudi on any kind of reform towards democracy, do you think?

Jamal Khashoggi: Political reform.

Sarah Leah Whitson: No, absolutely not. Tragically not. And it’s really quite an insult to the Saudi people who are increasingly educated, increasingly articulate, and deserve the right to be able to engage in the political affairs of the country that affect them.

Mehdi Hasan: Ali? Democratic or not?

Ali Shihabi: That is theoretic talk. It’s not going towards democracy. Saudi Arabia should go towards better governance. And the whole point about democracy in this…it has not worked.

Mehdi Hasan: We’ll have to leave it there. Jamal Khashoggi, Ali Shihabi, Sarah Leah Whitson, thanks for joining me on UpFront. 

Source: Al Jazeera