Helping Saudis be led by truth, not fear

The best response to the disappearance of a Saudi dissident is to invite transparency in the investigation.

An official is seen at the Saudi Arabia's Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, scene of journalist Jamal Khashoggi's alleged torture and slaying.

Leaders who fear ideas different from their own do not make very effective leaders. This bit of wisdom may help explain why someone in Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy may have wanted to silence a political critic in exile, Jamal Khashoggi, without understanding the dire consequences abroad.

As facts emerge about a probable Saudi hand in Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2, one obvious response is this: What might lessen the fear of dissenting ideas among the rulers in Riyadh?

Since 2016, Saudi Arabia’s effective ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has clearly defined himself as a reformist leader, at least in social and religious areas, but also someone who brooks no dissent. He is a mix of noble ambition and ignoble insecurity. He has rivals in the royal family and among Islamic clerics eager to dethrone him. Perhaps most fearful to him, the young prince reigns over a restless population that is largely under the age of 30, wired to the outside world of ideas, and less and less likely to be ruled by intimidation.

Stepping out of this zone of fear takes courage along with the kind of leadership that embraces openness and honesty. Often this requires an invitation to change rather than a threat. In a visit to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the crown prince to conduct a “transparent” investigation into the disappearance of Khashoggi. It was perhaps the best initial response from an ally.

In authoritarian regimes, fearing the truth is easily seen as a sign of weakness. If Saudi leaders can now reveal the truth about Khashoggi’s fate, they will have shown they might be ready to tolerate different ideas and pluralistic politics. 

Saudi Arabia is in transition from a society ruled by a tribe (the House of Saud) to one ruled on ideas, such as liberty and the rule of law. Its rulers have yet to accept one key idea, that of civil debate and the equality of all citizens to voice their dissent. Being honest about Khashoggi’s disappearance would be one big step in this transition. It would also be a step away from fear-based leadership.

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