Tactical DeliveryAn interview with Saudi journalist Jamal A. Khashoggi
Born in Medina, Jamal A. Khashoggi, 52, is one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent and outspoken journalists. Controversial at times, he set perhaps a world record for the shortest tenure as a newspaper editor-in-chief: 52 days. That was in 2003, when he was fired from Al-Watan after editorials criticizing the country’s religious police and the narrow-mindedness of some religious figures.
Khashoggi, who received his BA from Indiana State University, went on to become advisor to Prince Turki Al-Faisal while the prince served as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to London and Washington. In 2007, Khashoggi returned to Saudi Arabia and to his first love, journalism, when he was re-appointed editor of Al-Watan. Last May, he was asked once again to resign after the paper ran a column questioning Saudi Arabia’s prevailing religious ban on shrines.
Once again, Khashoggi landed on his feet with what promises to be an even more interesting job: Head of a new, 24-hour, all-news television channel being set up by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a Saudi businessman reputed to be among the world’s richest men. Set to launch in about 18 months, the still unnamed channel will compete with Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.
Despite Prince Alwaleed’s business relationships with international news magnate Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp owns Fox News, the channel now in development is solely and entirely Prince Al-Waleed’s project, Khashoggi said. However, like Fox news, it will attempt to appeal “to the masses,” he added. During an interview at his new office in Prince Al-Waleed’s Kingdom Tower, Riyadh’s tallest building, Khashoggi discussed the proposed channel as well as his personal views about political Islam.
The Majalla: What are the plans for the new television station?
It is Prince Al-Waleed’s project. He wants something in between Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. And I’m quoting him now, he said “I want the channel to be to the right of Al-Jazeera and to the left of Al-Arabiya.” I put it differently. I say, I like the objectivity of Al Arabiya but I will add heart to it.
Q: What does that mean exactly?
It is the Fox News tactic. Fox News appeals to the masses. Even though it is wrong to overdo it—and Fox is overdoing it … they manipulate the truth sometimes, they tell half the truth.
Q: Are you going to follow that strategy?
No, no, but we have to have a little bit of … reaching to the masses and trying to understand what they want, what they want to hear, the issues they want us to address. For example, Arabs will always like to hear—and they should hear about—Palestine. So we should tell them about Palestine. But not in a negative way. But I might also be wrong. I’m sure I’m going to have a department at the news channel which studies the market, the audience, to see what the people like, what they dislike, whom they like, whom they do not like. Ask me a difficult question: “How you are going to handle or cover this debate you are having now in Saudi Arabia about allowing girls, women, to work in the supermarkets?”
Q: Okay. How will you cover the current debate on women working in supermarkets?
I want to support it, because I think it is the right thing to do. Even though I know this is counter to the Fox News strategy [in that] I know that the conservative masses of Saudi Arabia are opposing this. So what we’re going to do is explain the reality of the situation, try our best not to make it an ideological issue. It is not an ideological issue. It is a development issue. It is a business matter. It is aspiration for a better life. It is an economic matter. It is not a hallal and harram matter, but the conservatives want to make it a hallal and harram matter. I will try to avoid annoying or challenging the conservatives. I will try my best to bring them to the government, to the practicality fold, to make them more practical.
Q: Is Rupert Murdoch is a partner with Prince Al-Waleed in this televison venture?
No, it is one hundred percent Al-Waleed’s entity. Murdoch is involved in a separate company [of Prince Al-Waleed], Rotana, [which] News Corp bought 7 to 8 percent stake in last year.
Q: So there is no connection between Rotana and the new channel?
No, no relation whatsoever. [The new channel is] not under Rotana … [Initially] there was some misconception, which I always try to rule out completely, that it is Fox or it is related to Fox. We always denied that … Many people are welcoming the idea. They think there is a need for a station between Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera.
Q: How is the project developing, what are you doing at the moment, and where will the Network be based?
We are assembling the staff, mainly the leadership of the channel, and trying to choose the location [of the head office]. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Doha are possibilities. There is no law which allows a [privately-owned] news channel to be broadcast [in Riyadh]. But of course we will have offices in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, and I’m hoping even in Abha.
Q: What about staff? And what are the start-up costs Prince Waleed is advancing?
We are trying to be budget-conscious, around 250 to 300 [starting personnel]. He’s not going with the budget of Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera but we’re going to be just as good. We plan to launch in about one and a half years … We are taking our time. We want to do it just right.
Q: Will the format will be news only?
Just news. With whatever will make the people come and see it. If somebody comes to me with an idea to make a game show news program, I might go for it, if it is related to news. I’m as open as that.
I’m very interested also in the concept of interactivity. I believe that television watching habits are going to change very soon. People are going to [watch] mainly on their iPads. I imagine one day a family will be sitting and watching and each one will be watching whatever he wants from his iPad. The way we watch television is going to change, and news television is going to change.
All the Arab news channels come out from the closet of the BBC. We have to be different. We have to avoid being a copy of that old concept. You tune in at 10 or 11 o’clock at night and in Al-Jazeera you have ‘Today’s Harvest’ in Al-Arabiya you have ‘The Last Hour.’ Basically both programs are similar. We have to be different. I don’t know how. But we have to be different.
Q: Do you have concerns about censorship and where do you see press freedom in Saudi Arabia going?
Oh they will get angry over this report or that report [but] it’s not [a major concern]. We are experienced enough.
There are two things about press freedom in Saudi Arabia. Number one is the force of history, the technological change. Censorship is a thing of the past, and if you try to gag your media, your people will look elsewhere and you will lose, because elsewhere the information is available right now.
The king genuinely believes in more freedom. I had the honor of listening to him a number of times. And he just keeps saying, ‘Publish what you want, as long as it is truthful, as long as you have your facts checked.’ And I heard the king calling upon the ministers to speak to the media, talk to the media, [and telling them] don’t be annoyed by their criticism. [However] ministers seldom talk to the media. They treat the media with a great deal of arrogance. It’s really difficult to get some of the ministers to give us an interview, not to mention to call him at 2 o’clock in the afternoon to ask for a clarification about something.
I saw how [British] ministers go to the BBC at 8 o’clock in the morning, when I was working there at the embassy … and I admired that. They feel it is their responsibility to speak to the British audience. Our ministers do not feel the same way. It should change.
Q: Is this new press freedom in Saudi Arabia going to continue?
Q: Why did it take you so long to answer?
Because everything is possible. But I believe the world did change. Nobody has the sole monopoly on media any more. Right now as we talk there are alternative sources of news in Saudi Arabia to the six to eight dailies. They’re online and they’re doing good.
Q: What led to your second departure from Al-Watan?
[There was an] article which was addressing the concept of sufism and salafism and respecting shrines. It dealt with a sensitive issue in relation to our salafi indoctrination background. I wasn’t in the paper that day, and if I saw that article, I would have stopped it from publishing, even though I still say it is some writer’s reflection on the issue. He wasn’t calling for respecting shrines.
Why would I not have published it? Because it’s not crucial to the debate. It’s not crucial to the development of Saudi Arabia. I’m willing to stick my neck out for an issue like women’s driving or women’s empowerment or reforming the [school] curriculum because that will have a positive impact on Saudi life. But really, what we think about shrines has no positive impact. In fact I am against shrines. I don’t believe in shrines. What I admire the most in Wahhabism is that it empowers me to reach God directly without the need of anybody else. And I like that and I call that positive Wahhabism.
Q: How did you feel about being asked to resign?
I felt betrayed. I felt bad about it. Okay I got a better job, and everything. But I love my country. I wasn’t working for myself. I think Al-Watan served the country, served the purpose of the country … It’s still a good paper.
Q: So Prince Al-Waleed snatched you up?
Yes, he called me the same day.
Q: What would you like to do if you hadn’t had this job offer?
I want to write a book about Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. I lived through it. And everybody who wrote about Osama talked to me about him. I would write a book about the rise and decline of the Islamic movement through my personal experience because I lived through it and was active in it. I would write a book about this transition time in Saudi Arabia because we are in a transition, a big one.
Q: How did you meet bin Laden?
Osama and I are from the same generation. Almost the same background. We were young Muslim activists who believed in our responsibility to support Islam and create an Islamic state. I was a journalist. One day somebody came to me and wanted to see if I was interested in coming to Afghanistan and writing about the Arab mujahidin. That was 1988. Of course I grabbed the opportunity. It was a scoop. I met Osama in Jeddah right after [returning]. It was a cover story in Majalla. And ever since, I developed a close relationship with him.
Q: When did you last see or speak with him?
It was in 1995 in Khartoum. In that time, he was in the opposition. He had turned against his country. And I went with coordination with his family in order for him to denounce violence in Saudi Arabia. So we could break the ice and start a reconciliation which could lead him to come back to Saudi Arabia.
And he did denounce the terrorist acts in the discussion I had with him. But he would not let me have it on the record … and I flew back to Jeddah. That was the last time I saw him or spoke to him.
Q: What did you believe in when you were active in the Islamic movement?
I was a Muslim Brotherhood type [and believed that by] establishing the Islamic system throughout, it will lead to the [return of the] caliphate.
Now, I believe this is the work of God. If God wants [the caliphate] to happen, He will make it happen. But it is not really my work.
Why did I come to this conclusion? I saw how Muslim activists and Muslim leaders, how they fight, they assassinate, they lie, just like any other politicians. The other conclusion I came up with [is that] creating an Islamic state will lead to forcing people into accepting God, accepting a certain role, certain practices. And that defies the freedom which God wants us to enjoy. I will never enjoy my prayer if I am forced to go to the mosque to pray.
Q: Was this a gradual change in your ideas?
It was a gradual process…in my 30s. I would say it started after 1992 when the Afghans began killing each other in a very brutal way. [Then came] the events of Algeria, the failure in Sudan.
I still have a great respect and I think there should be always a role for religion in our life. And a role for Islam in our life. But I will never work for a state run by clerics and religious people.
I think most Islamic movements see the Turkish [Islamic] movement as the example because it is a success story. And the Turkish model is the model which will allow the Egyptian [Islamic] movement, for example, to claim victory. Let’s assume that one day the Ikhwan won in Egypt. They will have a serious problem with the economy, what to do with the tourist industry. The Turkish model has the solution.
Look, we cannot reverse history. The women in Syria 60 years ago were under the veil. No way are they going to go back there. That tradition of the past which some Islamists have nostalgic views of, when women were totally separated from the men and men were dominant, this will never come back again. This is a different time. If anybody of the Islamic movement anywhere will try to do that he will start immediately an opposition among the people and he will have to subject the people by force and by jail, like what the Iranians are doing.
Q: Do you think Islam is facing difficulties?
There never has been a challenge to Islam as much as [there is] today. Look at the amount of books which are coming out criticizing or debating or critiquing the hadiths, for example. Those books are available now everywhere. [Also] the advancement of science. [In addition] we grew up saying that the Muslims were the light to civilizations in history. But I traveled to Rome and I saw how Rome was like. Rome was way more advanced than Baghdad. Those things do influence Muslims.
One of the most important challenges facing Islam is that Muslim nations are at the bottom of any development list. India’s future is much brighter than Pakistan’s future. Who are we going to blame?
Another challenge facing Islam is Al-Qaeda and our reaction to Al-Qaeda. Why have we failed to ban suicide bombings, which is killing us right now? We failed. When did you last hear of a mass rally in Pakistan against Al-Qaeda?
It’s really scary. Why are we being tolerant, as if we assume this is the right Islam, as if we admire Al-Qaeda but we are not good enough to be like them. We should despise them. Look at the reaction of the Muslims against the Danish cartoons, and compare it to the reaction of the Muslims against Al-Qaeda. Our reaction to it was way more vocal than our reaction to Al-Qaeda. That is a challenge.
Q: Maybe it’s easier to be angry at Westerners than at another Muslim?
But another Muslim who is distorting Islam? Why don’t we see the distortion of Islam? So there are really serious challenges facing us now.
Now, the true power of Saudi Arabia is the middle class…who are looking to the rulers for aspiration, for leadership. That’s why King Abdullah has become so popular, because the people want to grow up. They want to move from old-fashioned ideas without turning their back on our heritage and traditions. We should continue to have the utmost respect for the founding fathers of Saudi Arabia. But we shouldn’t just be stuck in the past. What matters now is the middle class, the producing forces, education, getting jobs for the young, for women, for men.
But again, during Ramadan time we debate if we should have a singing ceremony in Eid. We are still debating those issues of irrelevance, which can be controlled and addressed by a solution: It is a matter of choice. You want to attend? Then attend.
Q: Well, at least you can’t be fired from this job for speaking your mind.
That’s what Prince Al-Waleed said to me. He said, ‘With me you are un-fireable.’
By Caryle Murphy
Published: Tuesday 11 January 2011 Updated: Monday 24 January 2011