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Can Khashoggi’s death be a turning point for Saudi Arabia?

Can Khashoggi’s death be a turning point for Saudi Arabia?

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN Host

A CNN Special Report “Saudi Arabia: Kingdom of Secrets,” hosted by Fareed Zakaria, airs Sunday, March 3, at 8 p.m. ET. Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” He is also a columnist for The Washington Post and the author of “In Defense of a Liberal Education” and “The Post-American World.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN

(CNN)Let me begin this brief commentary on a personal note.

I knew Jamal Khashoggi. Fifteen years ago, when I traveled to Saudi Arabia to write a cover story about it for Newsweek, he was one of the people who briefed me beforehand and spent some time with me while I was in the country. I had a television show on PBS before I got to CNN, and I invited him on to talk about the future of his country. He was well-read and thoughtful, a Saudi reformer but very much a Saudi patriot. I reacted to his death personally, viscerally — with a sense of horror and disgust, but also a great sadness for the loss of a friend.

But I have tried to keep in mind some larger factors when thinking about where the United States should go in its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The first is that Washington does not have the power to choose who will rule Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is a strange country, with three distinct features — tribes, religion, and oil — all interacting in complex ways. The ruling family has been able to maintain power for so long because it has managed and manipulated this system effectively.

And if Mohammed bin Salman were somehow toppled, the most likely outcome is the return of more conservative, traditional elements to Saudi Arabia. There are very few Jeffersonian Democrats out there in the kingdom. The fact remains that MBS has done more reform in Saudi Arabia in the past few years than took place in the previous decades — and yet it is also true that he punishes dissent savagely.

Saudi elites will often tell visitors that they need to understand that the Saudi regime, for all is flaws, is more liberal, progressive, and pro-Western than Saudi society. It’s never easy to tell whether this is true in an absolute monarchy where dissent is banned and dissidents jailed. But the society is conservative. Even if that is the product of decades of deliberate social policies, the reality is that Saudi Arabia is not in its intellectual makeup a modern country. It can only move into modernity slowly and fitfully.

The most effective path forward, for Washington and the world, would be to insist that Khashoggi’s death become a turning point to pressure Saudi Arabia to press forward on reform — religious, social, economic, and even political. Khashoggi’s murder shows that limited, piecemeal opening, done under the auspices of absolute dictatorship, is not enough. Saudi Arabia needs to be governed by the rule of law, not the whims of one man, to help it move forward.

It also needs to rein in its reckless foreign policy, for its own sake and for the sake of a Middle East that is being riven by sectarian conflict that could last for generations.

Most of all, it needs to work much harder to reverse the forces it has let loose in the Muslim world, of reaction, backwardness, intolerance, and hate.

If Washington can press the Saudi government in these areas, if it can convince Mohammed bin Salman that the only way to redeem his reputation is to demonstrate his ability to truly transform his country, then perhaps something good can come out of the brutal murder of Jamal.

It will never justify it. Nothing can. But it might ensure that Jamal Khashoggi did not die in vain.

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