Jamal Khashoggi Had Skin in the Game. The Crown Prince’s Cheerleaders Didn’t.

Too often, Westerners treat courageous local experts like pawns in a political game. The journalist’s murder should serve as a reminder that, for some, writing an op-ed is a deadly risk.

Portraits of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulazziz and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are seen on October 18, 2018 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Portraits of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulazziz and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are seen on October 18, 2018 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Over the past few weeks, Jamal Khashoggi has been valorized and cherished. In the aftermath of the dissident Saudi journalist’s murder, pundits writing on the Arab world and the wider region have remembered others who were even more outspoken and critical than he was. And they have been regarded as heroes, particularly those who have pushed for fundamental freedoms and rights, irrespective of whether such freedoms are ridden roughshod over by Saudis or Iranians, Emiratis or Qataris, Egyptians or Turks.

Yet, while those activists and intellectuals might be cherished and celebrated from afar, they enter U.S. and European policy discussions on Western terms; they are seldom engaged as genuine partners. All too often, such heroes are reduced to mere tools to deploy in other political positionings, rather than treated as actors with full agency in their own right. And that has two devastating consequences: infringements of their own security and a total lack of understanding in Western policy establishments.

I confess that I am writing from a dual insider and outsider perspective. I am an Englishman who has worked in Washington and London in different nonpartisan think tanks and advised governments in both countries for a decade. But I am also an Arab and I am deeply invested in the development of the region in the long term.

When it comes to security, activists in the Arab world are not only worried now about the dangers from their own governments that view them as threats, whether they live at home or abroad. They are also worried about the recklessness of outsiders who might unwittingly—or otherwise—expose them to unnecessary risks.

Many commentators, myself included, have pointed out that it was completely inappropriate for comments that were given by Khashoggi off the record to be revealed in print after he disappeared in Istanbul. Thomas Friedman did so in his New York Times column, and the BBC did much the same.

The risk that any explicitly off-the-record comments might later be revealed by a journalist without permission from the source is reckless in the extreme. That makes it less likely that activists and experts on the ground or in exile will say anything off the record. Ever. And that, in turn, will harm Western understanding of the Arab world.

There are also many other dangers that activists in or from the region face when engaging with outsiders who may not fully appreciate the challenges and risks people there face. When commentators do not have “skin in the game”—a phrase I’ve heard a number of times in recent weeks—they must think very carefully about the risks taken by those who do.

Last week, the Financial Times noted that, for several years now, a coterie of Western writers have promoted various young scions of autocrats as virile reformers. Gamal Mubarak of Egypt, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi of Libya, and Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia all proved to be great disappointments in different ways and to different degrees. But as my colleague Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, pointed out: “The people who have to live with these trailblazers usually call them out early on.”

In other words, it’s the people who have skin in the game—rather than outsiders in Washington, New York, and London—who think about and judge all the risks with substantially more nuance than those living comfortably thousands of miles away.

It’s the default position of such rooted individuals to center their analysis on the interests of the people in the region, giving Western analysts a lot more nuance than would otherwise be the case.

I remember one discussion with a Washington-based analyst in 2012, during which I mentioned that his analysis of Egypt barely spoke to the interests of ordinary Egyptians. His response was, almost nonchalantly, “Yeah, my audience isn’t Egyptian. I don’t really care about that. My audience is D.C.” The idea of making those ideas relevant to both audiences didn’t seem to occur to him.

But this is where ethics come into the picture. If those of us with voices on Capitol Hill (or in Whitehall or any other Western policy community) want ethical values to be part of Western foreign policies, then it’s insufficient to just express solidarity with people on the ground.

We must take a lot more cues from them, keeping in mind that there are many indigenous apologists for autocracy, too. Otherwise, what former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook described as an “ethical foreign policy,” or what the Washington Post described as an American values-based foreign policy, is a pipe dream.

All too often, analysis of the Arab world isn’t about the future of the peoples of the region or their agency. It’s about how policy in the region will play in the U.S. midterms; it’s about how the Saudi-British relationship under the Conservatives can be used to rally the population to vote for the Labour Party. It’s not about the people of Syria and the appalling state they find themselves in; it’s about repenting for Tony Blair’s abysmal role in the Iraq War.

That’s a peculiar kind of Orientalism: one that instrumentalizes the suffering of people in the region in order to further certain domestic interests. That’s not solidarity. That’s the abjuring of local agency—from the left and right—and it reduces the peoples of the Arab world to mere objects in some grand game. The alternative means engaging far more deeply with anti-autocratic grassroots voices rather than heaping premature praise on supposedly modernizing elites.

Gregg Carlstrom, the Economist’s Middle East correspondent, put it well: “There’s a frustrating refusal to listen to critical analysis from the region, or to step back and reassess zombie ideas. With exceptions, of course. But so much of the discussion in DC seems utterly disconnected from the reality over here.”

If analysis from far away makes little sense to people living these realities on the ground and fighting against abuses, it means that the analysis is flawed. And the notion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was ever a leader of ‘Islamic reform’ is a case in point.

As an analyst from the region told me off the record: “We’ve been talking about the problems inherent in the Saudi regime for years. We’re glad that so many who essentially ignored us are now listening because of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi—but it’s really late. We’re really glad that they finally made it to the party—and we’re going to ignore how late they are.

“But we never leave the party. We can’t. We love this region too much, whether we are in exile or not, and our families and friends are still in it. If outsiders would really be in solidarity with us, then they really need to start listening to us and not just celebrate us or listen when it’s convenient. Maybe, just maybe, we can minimize a lot more damage in the future.”

If the Khashoggi affair changes anything, it should convince Westerners to treat local experts as real people rather than pawns. In other words, if you do not have skin in the game, you simply don’t have the same moral right to define that game.

The truth is that rooted activists, journalists, and intellectuals opposed to autocracy and extremism of all types already have to deal with autocrats and extremists. This doesn’t mean they are automatically correct. But it does mean their views and perspectives are important and that their wishes about confidentiality must be respected.

Or, we can admit we’re not really serious about our solidarity or rooting our analysis in the realities of the region. But we can’t have it both ways.

H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

  Twitter: @hahellyer

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