Jamal Khashoggi and the paradox of Saudi Arabia

In this Jan. 29, 2011, file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks on his cellphone at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Khashoggi was a Saudi insider. He rubbed shoulders with the Saudi royal family and supported its efforts to nudge the entrenched ultraconservative clerics to accept reforms. He was a close aide to the kingdom’s former spy chief and was a leading voice in the country’s prominent dailies. In a dramatic twist of fate, Khashoggi disappeared on Oct. 2, 2018, after visiting his country’s consulate in Istanbul and may have been killed there. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

(RNS) — When it comes to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, we must hold two competing truths in our minds at the same time.

Khashoggi’s murder was vile, a sin against all mankind.

It was also one of the most foolish, one of the clumsiest, political murders on record.

Khashoggi was killed in an embassy. That embassy was in an unfriendly country. The host nation was sure to be hostile. There were video cameras everywhere. The murder had the manner of an afterthought, as though incompetents did the deed and then covered it up. Even the various Saudi information agencies seemed to have a hard time catching up to the stunning stupidity of the entire event.

We will live with the horror of this unresolved episode in our minds for a generation. Other horrors may be being added to it, even now. We are learning that a Saudi-American doctor named Walid Fitaihi, founder of a hospital in Jeddah, is being held in a prison hospital having been shocked with electricity and whipped to the edge of sanity. No charges have been issued, according to the Washington Post.

Clearly, the grotesque mysteries continue.

Yet there is another truth we must keep at the forefront of our minds, and it is that genuine reform was underway in Saudi Arabia before the Khashoggi killing and is continuing even now. This reform is largely the doing of the very man Western intelligence services blame for the journalist’s murder: Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Royal Court, in Riyadh, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. (Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)

We heard much in 2018 about the Saudi government’s decision to allow women to drive. It was a welcome change to those outside the kingdom, and it was widely celebrated. That it would benefit relatively few women and then only among the Saudi upper classes was beside the point. A new day seemed to be dawning.

More substantive were the other reforms Mohammad bin Salman instituted when his aging father named him crown prince in 2017. He famously launched a sweeping campaign against corruption that placed some 381 people, many from his own family, under house arrest at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. This netted over 100 billion dollars in settlements and may yet lead to criminal prosecution of some who remain in custody.

There was more: the intended privatizing of the state oil company, Saudi Aramco, the reintroduction of movie theaters throughout the country, the announcement of plans to build massive entertainment facilities and high-tech cities, and, always, tireless efforts to end the “cancer of corruption” that plagued the kingdom.

Yet Mohammad bin Salman’s determination to lead the country toward religious moderation was perhaps the most surprising of all these reforms, particularly given the historic connection between the Saudi state and a hardline, literalistic version of Islam called Wahhabism. The prince stripped the nation’s religious police of the authority to arrest offenders. He chastised influential clerics and intellectuals for their radicalism and warned publicly that their ties to religious extremists abroad, he called them “foreign parties,” would be taken as threats to the kingdom.

He went further. He told Western newspapers that Saudi Arabia’s recent decades of harsh religion were both “not normal” and “not Saudi Arabia.” Instead, it was time to return to the Kingdom’s true faith, a “moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” What about religious extremism? “It is time to get rid of it,” the Saudi heir apparent declared.

Individuals protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi hold a candlelight vigil outside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, on Oct. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

As all this was unfolding, an embarrassing incident occurred that perhaps signaled reform of another kind.

During a visit by the prince to the United States, Rupert Murdoch hosted a dinner at his Hollywood home. Among the stars in attendance was Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who apparently so reveled in his time with Mohammad bin Salman that he later gushed on Instagram that he looked forward to visiting the kingdom. He then mentioned that he would be sure to bring along bottles of his finest tequila.

Had the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia shared tequila with Hollywood stars? No one gave details, but it was a shocking possibility given that the drinking of alcohol is forbidden under Saudi Arabia’s Islam-influenced laws. Even the Saudi airline is alcohol-free.

Rumors abounded. Hopes soared. It seemed that a convergence might be underway. A reforming prince in his early thirties was stepping into power just when more than half the country’s population was under thirty years old, when Saudi women were among the best educated on earth, and when Saudi Arabia’s economic needs were increasingly best met through connections with the wider world.

There was even growing awareness by Christians worldwide of the huge underground church in Saudi Arabia, officially illegal but unofficially tolerated. It is composed mainly of Filipinos, who make up the Saudi servant class, and it is experiencing explosive growth. What might its future be if the Crown Prince continued to call for a kingdom that was open to “all religions”?

Then came the killing of Khashoggi.

Then came the ghastly details of a murder on foreign soil.

Then came the intelligence that it had all been ordered by Mohammad bin Salman.

We are left to hold two competing facts in our minds. Jamal Khashoggi was likely killed by a team from Saudi Arabia, and that killing may have been ordered by someone near Mohammad bin Salman, if not by the prince himself. And Saudi Arabia is undergoing a breathtaking era of reform, an era led largely by this same Mohammad bin Salman.

We must hold to both facts. Both will make us fierce but compassionate in dealing with Saudi Arabia. Both will encourage the rise of the new in the kingdom.

Both will honor Jamal Khashoggi in his love for his people and in his hopes for his troubled but magnificent land.