A conversation with international journalist and screenwriter Rula Jebreal about her final interview with Jamal Khashoggi.
This week feels like the culmination of two years of attacks on journalism — including President Donald Trump’s ongoing denunciations of the press as “the enemy of the people,” the bombs sent to CNN along with other targets of Trump’s verbal venom, and more revelations about the horrifying murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi, who feared for his life in the months leading up to his killing, spoke about much of this with international journalist Rula Jebreal in one of his last interviews. She is Jeff Schechtman’s guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Jebreal talks about Khashoggi’s views on the Saudi regime of Mohammed bin Salman — views that were, by any objective standard, nuanced and measured. He told Jebreal, in that last interview, that he was not seeking the overthrow of the bin Salman regime, but its reform. Jebreal explains how mournful Khashoggi was that he had tried, in vain, to foster the reformist impulses of the young crown prince.
Khashoggi saw the crown prince as a deeply divided figure: While bin Salman sought to win accolades as a reformer, he also wanted to rule as his grandfather and great-grandfather had — as a tribal leader of unquestioned authority.
It was Khashoggi’s exposure of bin Salman as a ruler trying to have it both ways that Jebreal thinks most angered him. She says that Khashoggi was murdered “for the crime of having an opinion.”
Jebreal shares with Schechtman what else she learned from Khashoggi, who was her friend. She talks passionately of Khashoggi’s views on the Saudi-led, US-supported war in Yemen; the role of journalism in how Americans view the Saudis; and how shocking it is that defense of the Saudi regime is still permissible in polite society.
She tells Schechtman that Khashoggi thought it would probably take a major crisis to change US policy toward Saudi Arabia. What he didn’t know was that his murder might be the trigger for that crisis.
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. The world of journalism faces an existential crisis today. Attacks on the press as the enemy of the people by the president of the United States and other authoritarian leaders is just the beginning. Bombs sent to CNN, reporters spat on at political rallies, and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi make the prima facie case.|
|My guest today, award-winning international journalist and foreign policy analyst Rula Jebreal, comes to this discussion with a unique perspective. Having covered stories and worked in Italy, the US, and the Middle East, she sees the global dimensions of the issues. Perhaps most significantly, she secretly conducted one of the last interviews with Jamal Khashoggi. In that interview Khashoggi talks about what it might take for the US to actually look objectively at Saudi Arabia. But this would only happen, he believed, in the face of a serious crisis. Little did he know that his brutal murder would be that crisis. It is my pleasure to welcome Rula Jebreal to the program. Rula, thanks for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.|
|Rula Jebreal:||Thank you for having me.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk a little bit first of all about your attitude, your perceptions of the reality of journalism today in light of the events of the past several weeks.|
|Rula Jebreal:||I would say the past several years, if I may, there’s an assault on the truth. And since the rise of these populist, nationalistic, xenophobic movements across the globe who aspire to bring authoritarian reality and a liberal democracy to the Western world, they’ve been seen as enemy. And the only people stopping them from reaching their goals are journalists who are exposing their corruption, their wrongdoing, are exposing their lies, deflections, manipulation of the media, so for them this is the enemy.|
|I will never forget Steve Bannon words when he said, “The real opposition are not the Democrats. The real opposition is the press.” And from that moment on we start seeing an escalation on violent, verbal attacks and I had no doubt then that it would lead to murder. It would lead to bombs, as we’ve seen yesterday in New York and across the country. But also, it will embolden authoritarian leaders to start liquidating and murdering critics, activists, and journalists. I think Jamal Khashoggi, who was a very mild critic of the Saudi regime, never thought in his wildest nightmares that he would be murdered in an embassy, in a consulate, on a foreign soil, and he would be chopped in pieces simply because he dared to do his job. We are in dark, dark moments. This is an assault on democracy.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the aspects that’s most shocking in reading your interview with Jamal Khashoggi, is what a mild critic he was. How understanding he was of the realities that particularly the Saudi regime faced.|
|Rula Jebreal:||He really rooted for his country to thrive and succeed. His attitude was it’s better to have pluralism, and difference of opinion, and pushed the crown prince to reform in a way that is inclusive modernity, inclusive of women. At the center of his every piece was a call for freedom, freedom of the press, freedom of opinion. He really worked for actually the regime. He was an advisor for the royal family for so many years.|
|The attitude of this crown prince is a typical attitude of the mafia organization. For them, if the mafia feels that a member of their organization betrayed them usually they would kill them, and chop their heads. This is worse than ISIS. What the crown prince did is by far worse than ISIS because what he did is he sent 15 killers, he sent a forensic doctor with an order to chop this person in pieces, and send a signal to everybody else that if you ever dare to even, not even criticize the crown prince, even advise the crown prince … Because Jamal wanted to be one of the advisors. He didn’t want to be on the opposition. He wanted to be part of the conversation that would get this crown prince to succeed and to thrive.|
|But I believe the worse part of the story is the cover up. The cover up that they immediately, the lies, the deflections, and the fact that the president of the United States himself starts talking about weapons, and the billions of dollars that they are getting from Saudi Arabia. We’re sending a signal that we value money above human lives, and above principles, and values. It’s a dangerous precedent.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the things that Khashoggi says in his interview with you is that he specifically says he doesn’t see himself as the opposition…|
|Jeff Schechtman:||…that he was really looking for a better Saudi Arabia and that he was certainly not calling for the overthrow of the regime.|
|Rula Jebreal:||Absolutely not. He’s a monarchic. He believes in his country, but he wanted a different Saudi Arabia. He wanted a better Saudi Arabia. He even wrote in the Washington Post, “We deserve better.” He also saw that the problem with the Saudi crown prince, the fact that the rest of the world was blind to what he was doing, to the fact that they didn’t care about the crown prince bombing into oblivion another neighboring country, Yemen, to the fact that he was arresting and torturing and murdering critics, activists, journalists, and shaking down his own family for money. He felt that there was a very dangerous relationship and an addiction to Saudi oil, and an addiction to the fact that the Saudis are buying weapons, and buying apartments from Trump, the Trump Organization.|
|He felt that the problem with Saudi Arabia that the Saudi Royal Family thought that they can get away with anything because they are paying the rest of the world. I think the Saudi are waking up to realize that some regimes and some leaders might accept their barbaric behaviors, but the rest of the world doesn’t. This is where Jamal’s words are relevant because when I asked him, “What is the hope for the Saudi people to be protected?” And he said, “Our only hope is the international community.” Because the checks and balance must be imposed on this royal family otherwise, Jamal’s murder will be only the beginning of a series of murders.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Was he fearful for his life?|
|Rula Jebreal:||Yes. He always feared for his life. He understood that they wanted to shut down and silence and intimidate the opposition. Many of Jamal Khashoggi friends are rotting in jails and dungeons in Saudi Arabia for a tweet, simply for a tweet. You can be arrested and end up in jail for ten years because you are tweeting the wrong thing. This is the kind of authoritarian police state that Mohammad bin Salman is running. It’s a mafia state. It’s an Islamic ISIS type state. That’s the kind of state he’s running. When our foreign leaders go and endorse, and shake hands with this man, they have to know that they are shaking a hand with a murderer, with somebody that carries these kind of barbaric attacks against his civil society.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||How did Khashoggi see the role of the US today in relation to Saudi Arabia?|
|Rula Jebreal:||Jamal was very worried about President Trump’s attack on the media. When President Trump was calling us an enemy of the people, it was clear that he loved dictators and he hated journalists. He felt this will inspire all these autocrats, all of these tyrants, and dictators to think that their enemy is journalists and they can murder us, and they can arrest them, and they can torture them. He was concerned because he understood the role that America has in inspiring in one way or another, negatively or positively, the rest of the world. Look. When Mohammad bin Salman the Crown Prince said that Jared Kushner was in his pocket, when he said that what matters is his direct relationship with Trump family, he was talking as the crown prince. In his mind that is America’s ruling family.|
|He does not understand that America has very strong institutions, very strong. It has been enshrined in the First Amendment the free speech, and the protection of journalists. Clearly he thought at the conference he could get away with murder. And even President Trump who came out thinking, oh my God, he can deflect and cover up for them, realized the limits of his power in that. Jamal had faith in President Macron and Angela Merkel who he called them the leader of the free world. He said, and these are his own words, “After the crown prince kidnapped the Prime Minister of Lebanon Hariri in March, and then he was forced to release him because he was pressured by President Macron of France. So, I asked Jamal, I said, “Well, after the pressure from the international community he came back off.” And he said, “Yes, that’s our only hope. That’s the only hope for us to be protected and safe, and to apply some kinds of checks and balance on this authoritarian tyrant.”|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Given how relatively mild and measured and nuanced his criticism was of the Saudi regime, including what was going on in Yemen, I was shocked to see in his interview with you that he was even somewhat understanding about the reality of what was going on in Yemen, that he would be targeted? Talk about that.|
|Rula Jebreal:||It gives you an idea of who this crown prince is. How his mindset. He cannot tolerate anything except “I love you crown prince”, and “yes, crown prince”. He surrounded himself with yes men. So, somebody like Jamal that can, I’m not saying endorse, but can understand his policies, the crown prince policies in Yemen, but doesn’t understand them elsewhere, he will never forgive somebody for not subscribing, totally capitulating totally to his views and to his rule. He would view anybody with suspicion, anybody that would challenge his views, would criticize his policies. He wants to live like his grandfather as a tribal leader of the 14th century, but he wants to be celebrated in Silicon Valley and in Hollywood as a reformer. You cannot have it both ways. Either you are a real reformer, or you are a murderer. In this moment he chose to be a murderer.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||The fact of him wanting to have it both ways, and the fact that Jamal called him out on that, and was really one of the strongest points that he makes repeatedly in his interview with you, to what extent do you think that really goes to the heart of attacking MbS (Mohammed bin Salman)?|
|Rula Jebreal:||I think that’s central. That’s a great question because he really thought after his tour in the West in March where people were praising him constantly in the New York Times, in the Atlantic, a 60 Minutes interview, he really thought he had the West, not only Jared Kushner, in his pocket. That he managed to shape the public opinion regarding who he is. And really that emboldened him because if you notice between March and September, he escalated his attacks on critics, dissidents, journalists, lawyers. Then he did that huge, huge bombing of Yemen where he murdered 40 children in a school bus. That was in August.|
|He really thought the West doesn’t care about human rights. The West doesn’t care, especially America doesn’t care about legality, morality, and pragmatism. The West doesn’t care about international law. They care about money. He really thought he could get away with murder. He planned the whole thing with Jamal. He was testing the water with Yemen. He was testing the water with Saad Hariri, the prime minister he kidnapped. He was testing the water with his cousin who he tortured and kidnapped and kept hostage in the Ritz Carlton, and stole their money. Then when the world was silent he thought he could escalate and do even more, which he did. Jamal was simply another action, another murder that he thought he could get away with. I’m sure he’s shocked now to see this reaction. He doesn’t understand that the world that was silent on Yemen because they might thought that in Yemen somehow it’s far away from us. We cannot see what’s going on.|
|But Jamal we all knew. He’s a journalist of the Washington Post. He’s somebody that is a permanent resident of the United States. But not only that, Jamal is the most respected, honored, and celebrated journalist that lived between East and West. Everybody knew Jamal. Jamal was the kindest, the most humble human being who really truly loved his country. He was not a rebel, an Iranian rebel in Yemen in Sanaa. He was not the prime minister of Lebanon. That you shouldn’t kidnap prime minister, but people were suspicious about what the truth was because it was never confirmed totally. But, when it came to Jamal and the way it was done, not only the murder, the murder in that manner…|
|I mean talking to the Turkish authority, Jamal was killed and they start chopping him when he was still alive. He was alive when they start cutting his body in pieces. The barbarity of that, and where is that? Inside a consulate, inside, and then they found pieces probably of his body, inside the counsel general’s house. Who does that? Only somebody that has a mafia mindset.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Given how planned this was, 15 guys that flew there and that were part of this, why was, in your view, the cover up so bungled?|
|Rula Jebreal:||Because they are stupid. I think it was premeditated murder. I have no doubt about that. You don’t send 15 guys, a forensic doctor with a bone saw. You don’t send these people and two private jets and all of that. But again, the Saudis they need to catch up with the 21st Century technology. They have no clue how to deal with that. I will go back to Jamal’s words. He said, “The crown prince wants to govern like his grandfather.” He is governing like his grandfather except now there’s video cameras. Now every consulate is bugged. We know what happened. Now they are catching up with modernity.|
|They did not expect the Turks to be adamant about wanting the truth. They did not expect the international community to be horrified this way. They did not also expect something else. They did not expect that we, his colleagues, journalists, they thought we would be all scared, we will back down. We will not be afraid of these thugs. I am so proud of all of you in America and across the world who despite these terrorist attacks with the bombs being sent to CNN and elsewhere, we are still reporting. We are still talking, and we will not be intimidated. He really underestimated our reactions. This is where he was wrong.|
|So they start the cover up story with lies after lies saying he left the embassy. There’s no proof of that. Then the second lie that there was a moment where they said that it was some kind of rogue operation. You don’t send your bodyguard, your personal bodyguards, who are in charge of your personal security details, those guys who are very close to you, to do that. Plus, there was a Skype. His advisor, Saud al-Qahtani, his personal advisor to the crown prince, apparently was Skyped in live while they were cutting Jamal’s head. He supposedly said, “Bring me this dog head.” We have evidence because the Turks are very clear about this.|
|Now we know that Gina Haspel, the head of CIA, is there. She’s seen those evidence. I cannot wait for a Congress hearing, so she could reveal what she saw and what she heard because we need to know the truth. We demand justice for Jamal. Again, if there will be no justice and accountability, Jamal will be somebody else. He will carry on killing journalists because he thinks he can.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk about that last interview that you had with Jamal.|
|Rula Jebreal:||Look, I know Jamal for a while. He’s a friend. I was doing this cover story for Newsweek trying to expose the crown prince. Nancy Cooper, my editor in chief, called me and she wanted to write story that the true story of Mohammed bin Salman. Not a puffed piece about how great he is, but the reality. I accepted and I start interviewing many people. I interviewed at least 60 people for this cover story. Yemenis, Iraqis, I interviewed a lot of Saudis, inside Saudi Arabia and outside Saudi Arabia. And then it was time to interview Jamal who was the most prominent journalist, Saudi journalist ever wrote.|
|We start the recording and he was concerned. He saw the fact that this crown prince was not listening to anybody. He believed only in himself. But also, he showed how America was enabling him and emboldening him, especially this administration. But then he saw something else. He saw that they were trying to lure him in. He never trusted the Saudi. They were trying to lure him in by sending people very close to him to tell him that he can go back to the country, that nothing will ever happen to him. He never trusted that. But I think he went in a consulate because he thought that there’s some kind of limit to what this crown prince can do.|
|I never published any piece of that because I really feared for his life. He feared for his life, but I did too. I decided not to put any of those words in the first cover story that we did for Newsweek in September. I never thought that I will have to use these words after his death. It kills me. It kills me that, but I have no other choice because I thought if we want justice for Jamal, we want to hold accountable his murderers, his voice from the grave should speak. They will never intimidate us to stop speaking. I reached out to Newsweek. I told them I have this hour and a half interview, some of it in Arabic, other in English. They were very kind and they immediately did another cover story. It’s his last words about the crown prince, about America, and about Islam.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Rula Jebreal, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.|
|Rula Jebreal:||Thank you for having me and thank you for the work you are doing.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio
WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Rula Jebreal (Twitter).