A prominent Saudi journalist and former royal family adviser has criticised the government’s crackdown on Saudi intellectuals and journalists, lamenting that the kingdom will never become democratic under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in the programme UpFront, Jamal Khashoggi – currently self-exiled in the US – said that there was no space for debate in Saudi Arabia with intellectuals and journalists jailed for questioning policies.
“As we speak today, there [are] Saudi intellectuals and journalists jailed. Now, nobody will dare to speak and criticise the reforms [initiated by the crown prince],” he said, adding that “it would be much better for him to allow a breathing space for critics, for Saudi intellectuals, Saudi writers, Saudi media to debate.”
Asked whether Saudi Arabia could ever become democratic under bin Salman, popularly known in the West as MBS, Khashoggi said: “Not on his watch. I haven’t heard him make even the slightest inference that he would open the country for power-sharing, for democracy.”
Ali Shihabi, executive director at the Arabia Foundation, however, said that bin Salman was a “reformer” and he should be “judged by the context of his country’s history” and not compared with the rest of the world.
“… [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,” Shihabi said.
He defended the autocratic manner in which bin Salman has brought about the “dramatic changes” in the kingdom.
“Nobody has been able to carry out dramatic change in the developing world successfully under a pluralistic system. You need a benevolent autocracy,” he said.
Shihabi praised bin Salman for “throwing a number of religious conservatives and reactionaries in jail” preventing them from objecting to the reforms he has implemented, including allowing women to drive and attend football games in stadiums.
Some of the major policies pushed by bin Salman came in for criticism from Khashoggi.
“Let’s talk about something other than women driving,” he said. “Neom project. This futuristic city [in Tabuk] that [bin Salman] is planning to invest half a trillion dollars in it. What if it goes wrong? It could bankrupt the country. But no one [is] allowed to write an objective piece in any newspaper [about it].”
Khashoggi said he himself had to leave his homeland to avoid being arrested after his criticism of the government.
Asked whether Khashoggi would be jailed now if he was in Riyadh writing an article criticising bin Salman’s reforms, Shihabi said that prisons in Saudi Arabia were “quite benign”, “nothing like the dungeons of the Middle East”.
‘Overwhelming suffering’ in Yemen
Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch in MENA region, held Saudi Arabia responsible for “the overwhelming amount of human suffering” in Yemen.
As the defence minister, bin Salman was instrumental in launching a military offensive in Yemen in March 2015 that has left more than 6,000 civilians dead and pushed millions of people to the brink of starvation.
“The Saudi coalition has imposed an air, sea, and land blockade on Yemen, a country that depends on imports for over 90 percent of its food, for almost all of its medicines, resulting in the humanitarian disaster that we are seeing now in the country,” she told Al Jazeera.
Shihabi defended the Saudi intervention in Yemen, saying Saudi “security was acutely threatened”.
But Whitson said the kingdom’s reasons for going to war are irrelevant, considering the “unlawful” means they have used to conduct the 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.”
Al Jazeera’s current affairs show, UpFront, will air at 1930G on Friday.