Two years ago in October, Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents in Istanbul, prompting an international outcry. What has the murder done to Saudi Arabia's reputation?
Al-Rasheed: It was the murder of the century and it has done an irreparable damage to Saudi Arabia. MbS is actually running out of propaganda to bring back confidence in his leadership.
Many have blamed MbS for being behind the murder, but we still haven't seen evidence that he knew about it, or even ordered Khashoggi's murder personally. What's your interpretation of what happened in Istanbul?
Al-Rasheed: Khashoggi was not just a journalist. You have to move away from the Washington Post Khashoggi construct. Khashoggi was a man of the palace. He had worked closely with Saudi intelligence, above all with the former director of the intelligence service, Prince Turki al-Faisal. Khashoggi must have had enough information to potentially get Saudi Arabia into serious trouble. They eliminated him because he defected from the regime. He had moved to the U.S. and could have released information about Saudi Arabia – about the inner circle. He wasn't simply someone who wanted democracy. In fact, Khashoggi didn't call for democracy in Saudi Arabia. It's not that he was the greatest democrat.
Did you know him personally?
Al-Rasheed: I met him in London when he was the spokesperson of Turki al-Faisal during the prince's time as ambassador in London.
You seem very critical of Khashoggi.
Al-Rasheed: I'm just stating the facts. I studied his books and articles. Khashoggi called for democracy in the Arab World, but he also wrote: I'm not asking for democracy in Saudi Arabia, because the rule of Al Saud is good. We only need public parks, he argued, we need employment for the young people and freedom of expression. It was absolutely crazy. That doesn't justify his murder, of course. It was a horrible crime, absolutely unbelievable. But this is what happens when you defect from a totalitarian system.
You are probably the best-known scholar on Saudi politics and society on the international stage. At the same time you are an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime. Were you afraid after Khashoggi's murder?
Al-Rasheed: We were all very scared. We know he can send his death squads.
Was this the first time you had felt threatened?
Al-Rasheed: I was threatened way back in 1991, when I finished my PhD in Britain and wrote my first book. Actually, King Salman who was governor of Riyadh at the time warned me through the Saudi ambassador in Paris, where my father was living. The ambassador called my father, apologised and then said: I have a message for you from the Royal Court. The message was: if your daughter publishes her book, we will take 'disciplinary action'. That's how they put it.
Did you publish the book?
Al-Rasheed: Of course. If you live in fear, you might as well go back to Saudi Arabia and be silent. But it was the first time I became aware of the fact that if I continue to write, my life will be in danger. The book was merely a history about the Rashidi emirate in northern Arabia.
It was your ancestors who once ruled that emirate. In the 1920s, before the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded, they fought a war against Al Saud. Does this family background affect your work?
Al-Rasheed: Saudis accuse me all the time of wanting to return to my family's glory days. But my project really isn't about going back to any kind of emirate or dynasty. We've had enough of that. We hope the NAAS party will enable us to rise above the tribal and sectarian divides to which Saudis have been subjected for so long.
Interview conducted by Jannis Hagmann
© Qantara.de 2020
Madawi al-Rasheed is a Fellow of the British Academy and visiting professor at the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics. She has published numerous books on Saudi Arabia and writes for international and Arab media outlets. In December, her book "The Son King" will be published by Hurst in which she focuses on Saudi Arabia under the rule of Mohammed bin Salman.