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A new Saudi 'project' for the Middle East: Exclusive interview with Jamal Khashoggi

July 31, 2015 at 4:36 pm

“The Saudis [want to] bring stability back to the region, and [they want to] stop Iranian intervention. That is the larger picture; that is the larger aim.”

Never one to shy away from controversy, Saudi journalist and commentator Jamal Khashoggi has long been known within Saudi Arabia for his somewhat liberal views and his attempts to push at the boundaries of Saudi political and social discourse from within the confines of the mainstream press. Hailing from one of the Kingdom’s wealthiest and most influential families, Khashoggi recently suffered a set-back when the Al-Arab news channel, of which he was director, was shut down just hours after its launch after broadcasting an interview with a Bahraini opposition activist. But despite such crackdowns, the Saudi reporter is optimistic about his country’s prospects and about its increasingly influential role in the Middle East.

“Saudi should be part of this renaissance to freedom,” he tells me, speaking about the ongoing struggles of people across the Arab world, “I want my country to be on the side of history.”

Khashoggi outlines what he calls the new “Saudi project” for the Middle East, the key to which is promoting “stability” across the region. This is all the more crucial, he stresses, in the aftermath of the recent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the P5+1 countries in Vienna. Speaking at an event held by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) on Monday, Khashoggi criticised the agreement, saying that: “This deal was supposed to be the deal that brings peace to the region, but in reality it is not… This is just the deal that brings Iran to the West and the West to Iran.”

Later, in private, he tells me that problem with the agreement is that it focuses on “non-proliferation” and “the rapprochement between Iran and the West”, but that it “doesn’t deal with the region” itself.

“What is killing the people in the region today, it is not a nuclear bomb, but it is the stupid cylinder bombs… that Iran is manufacturing and sending to Syria and Iraq,” he says. “Those bombs are stupid, they are unguided; they are bombs of hate. But no one in Vienna or Lausanne before brought up the issue of cylinder bombs.”

He goes on: “Iran is not only exporting weapons, it is exporting militias… That should be a violation of international law, if not at least the principle of brotherly relations between countries. But nobody is talking about that except us, the Saudis.”

From Khashoggi’s tone, it is evident that he toes the Saudi government line in singling out Iran as the cause of current unrest and instability in the region, whether that be in Syria, Yemen or Iraq – hence the “Saudi project… to bring stability back to the region, and to stop Iranian intervention.” An integral part of this project, some commentators have suggested, is to create a strong Sunni alliance to counter the perceived Shia influence of Iran by cementing ties with Sunni states and political groups that could ultimately further Saudi interests in the region.

It is within this context that rumours have been surfacing in recent weeks about an alleged Saudi rapprochement with both Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood – groups it previously denounced as “terrorist organisations” and banned from operating within the Kingdom. A few weeks ago, the head of Hamas’s political bureau Khaled Mesha’al visited Saudi Arabia for the first time since 2012 and met with Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, as well as praying alongside King Salman in Makkah. Media commentators were quick to suggest that the visit marked a new Saudi approach to the organisation, and in particular an attempt by the Kingdom to distance the group from Iran.

When questioned on this point, Khashoggi remains cautious, diplomatically affirming that “Hamas is too small to be asked to play a military role [by Saudi Arabia]” and that “Hamas is concerned with Palestine”. He does, however, allude to the possibility of Saudi re-establishing relations with the Islamist group, stating that “I think Saudi Arabia should have a relationship with all sides in the region, particularly powers, groups, that share the same values with us. What are the values today of Saudi Arabia? It’s to support people being subjected to tyranny… if Hamas sits there, then it is useful.”

The “usefulness” of Hamas, according to Khashoggi, is not simply limited to its resistance of the Israeli occupation and its espousal of Islamist values, but specifically in the potential for Saudi Arabia to turn the group against its former ally and patron Iran.

“When the Iranians want to prove they are not sectarian they would say: ‘Look, we are supporting even Hamas, which is a Sunni organisation.’ So it could be wise to take that away from them, to show that incredibility, that they are really sectarian, and their support to Hamas is ingenuine [sic].”

Such a strategy of Iranian containment might also explain the recent Saudi rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood, as marked by the visits of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated leaders such as Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda party in Tunisia and Abdul Majeed Zindani, the leader of Al-Islah party in Yemen. Khashoggi, however, seems reluctant to commit to the matter, instead commenting obliquely that he does not “see Saudi Arabia shifting to[wards] the Muslim Brotherhood. It is not. But it is rather only normalising the relationship with them.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood are an effective group in various parts of the world,” he affirms, ” We cannot do business in Yemen and eliminate the Brotherhood; we should incorporate them in any future dealing in Yemen as much as we incorporate the government or the tribal [leaders] because they are an important factor here. The same thing in Syria. So the Saudi new position it is not to shift to[wards] the Brotherhood but rather to normalise its relationship with the Brotherhood – which I think is appropriate, that we should do. With an organisation that is so effective and so widespread; it is an organisation that has an international link as far away as Malaysia to the East, or Indonesia to the East and Morocco to the West.”

Khashoggi is nevertheless critical of the drive to see the Arab Spring revolutions as being solely about the Muslim Brotherhood: “Certain circles, they want us to believe that, [for] the Arab Spring [to work] the only option is the Brotherhood, which is not true. But if the Brotherhood are the ones who will benefit from it, let it be, that’s the people’s choice,” he tells me, belying an as yet unprecedented tacit Saudi support for the Brotherhood in the region.

Although reluctant to denounce the current regime in Egypt, to whom Saudi Arabia has traditionally remained very close, Khashoggi does speak out against the current death sentence handed down to former Muslim Brotherhood premier Mohammed Morsi, calling it “very political”. Ultimately, he says, the leader’s possible martyrdom “will give Morsi his position in history if it is carried out. It is the grand prize for Morsi if the regime is stupid enough to create that.”

Inevitably, however, the conversation turns back to the spectre of Iran, which as well as being the impetus for the recent Saudi reversal in its dealings with regional actors also provides the basis for the Kingdom’s most resolute efforts in double-think when it comes to portraying its role in the region. On the issue of Syria, for example, Khashoggi is keen to emphasise the fact that “we [Saudis] are standing more on the moral side of the story because we are with the people,” in reference to Iran’s continued support for Bashar Al-Assad.

In the words of Khashoggi, “Iran has very narrow, sectarian binoculars”, even going so far as to call the Islamic Republic “a middle-ages Muslim dynasty” that is “for a zero-sum game; it’s going to win it all or lose it all.” Yet when questioned about Saudi Arabia’s own human rights record and the Kingdom’s well-documented persecution of religious minorities, the journalist brushes such criticism aside, affirming that “there is no issue of [minorities] in Saudi Arabia”.

“Democracy, it is in the bottom of the list for people in Saudi Arabia,” he affirmed. “I am being a realist. Yes, I would love to have a democracy in Saudi Arabia, but it is not an issue today; the system is working today in Saudi Arabia.” Many, however, would beg to differ.

Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Follow him on Twitter: @JKhashoggi