David Ottaway is a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.
Jamal Khashoggi was working on what he described as an “eye-opener” of a book challenging Saudi Arabia to draw inspiration for its reforms from American institutions and practices when he was savagely murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October. His book proposal illustrates that he was as much a visionary of a new Saudi Arabia as Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, author of the highly ambitious “Vision 2030” and the person who the CIA concluded ordered Khashoggi’s assassination.
Khashoggi’s gruesome murder touched off the worst crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with Congress pressing President Trump to name the instigator and to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
The crown prince tried to convince the White House that Khashoggi was a dangerous Islamist threat to the United States, but his book project reveals just the opposite: He was a great admirer of U.S. democracy and society. He had belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth but had long since disassociated himself from what Saudi authorities have branded a terrorist organization.
Khashoggi’s book project was outlined in his application for a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, submitted in June 2017. His daughter, Noha, recently agreed to allow me to disclose its content. His book was to be both a primer for Saudis coming to the United States, explaining how American institutions and practices function, and a plea for Saudi leaders to adopt many of them.
Its tentative title: “United States for Saudis” or “U.S. Made Easy for Saudis.”
“My plan is to explain American life to the Saudi reader and Arabs in general in a simple storytelling format,” he wrote, noting that at least 750,000 Saudis are graduates of American education institutions, and even more have come as tourists or family members of students. ”My focus will be on the schooling, educational reform [and] control of public funds,” he wrote.
He had already compared the per-capita cost of high schools in Saudi Arabia and the United States and found it to be almost the same, although he concluded that U.S. students received much more for their money than their Saudi counterparts in terms of quality of education, facilities and technology.
Khashoggi wanted the crown prince to draw inspiration from the United States to assure the success of Vision 2030, which he endorsed to overcome Saudi Arabia’s “systematic and deep-rooted” problems. He called for “out-of-the-box unprecedented solutions.” And he saw such solutions emerging from the “revolutionary ideas” embedded in the crown prince’s vision, particularly the focus on providing “quality life” to Saudis, a term and idea Khashoggi attributed directly to U.S. discourse.
The two protagonists radically disagreed, however, on whether Saudi Arabia should have an unquestioned absolute monarch. The success of Vision 2030, Khashoggi argued, depended on “expanding the scope of democracy and independence of authorities” in the kingdom. He planned to explain to Saudis the U.S. system of power-sharing among the three branches of government, as well as the “democratic tools” used by Americans to hold their officials accountable. He was proposing to attend municipal meetings in small towns to describe their workings and how U.S. mayors are elected.
Khashoggi had a particular fixation on the U.S. system of home mortgages. He wanted Saudis to know how so many Americans are able to afford their own homes, because “it’s the most important issue in Saudi Arabia today.” He was going to examine how land here is owned, taxed “and kept from becoming a monopoly,” a swipe at the Saud royal family’s status as the dominant land owner in the kingdom.
Years before his falling out with the crown prince, Khashoggi had pressed the Saudi government through his commentaries in the Saudi media to solve the acute housing shortage by adopting the U.S. home mortgage system. The subsequent reforms had remarkable results. In 2012, the government issued its first mortgage law, and in February 2018 it announced another target for Vision 2030 — that 70 percent of Saudis would be the proud owners of homes by then.
The unforgiving crown prince was so infuriated by Khashoggi’s questioning of some of his decisions — in commentaries appearing first in the Saudi media and then in The Post’s Global Opinions section — that he banned him from Saudi outlets, then drove him into self-exile in the United States and finally reportedly sent his trusted security goons to kill him.
In the end, he was also killing a man who believed in a path for progress and reform inspired by American ideals.