Even as evidence mounted last week that a Saudi Arabian hit squad had murdered and dismembered his friend, Jamal Khashoggi, Washington operative Ali Shihabi took to Twitter to do what he does best: defend the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
“Leaders and governments make mistakes, sometimes horrible ones,” the suave 59-year-old wrote in a 13-part Twitter thread on Oct. 20. “At present, the Saudi government has been humbled and chastened … But one horrible murder cannot and will not be allowed to put the country further at risk.”
The reaction from many quarters was scathing.
“Keep cashing those checks, Ali,” wrote Karen Attiah, who edited Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post. “I cannot for the life of me understand how you sleep at night.”
The global outrage over Khashoggi’s murder has forced many Washington lobbyists and public relations pros to cut ties with the Saudi government. But not Shihabi, a Saudi national who may be the country’s most effective defender in the U.S. capital. Media savvy and politically shrewd, Shihabi has relationships with prominent journalists, Trump administration officials and think tank experts throughout Washington. The Saudi ambassador left Washington earlier this month and reportedly may not return, but it matters less given that many already consider Shihabi, who is close to the Saudi leadership, to be the kingdom’s unofficial envoy.
Unlike some Arab envoys who can be culturally out of step with their host city, Shihabi — whose father was Saudi and mother Norwegian — has a gracious European demeanor, a wry sense of humor and a taste for good wine. His daughter is even an actress.
.. Shihabi can often be seen on the D.C. circuit, hitting book parties hosted by the likes of the operative-hostess Juleanna Glover and dining at spots like the Monocle and the Four Seasons with such A-list media figures as Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
.. He calls himself a provocateur, but Shihabi can be just as on-message as any official Arab envoy. He is tall and bespectacled, with a booming voice he uses with little restraint, often talking over his opponents with a wide smile as he rationalizes beheadings as a means of executions, Saudi efforts to counter Iran’s government, and even conditions for the country’s imprisoned dissidents.
.. “Prison in Saudi Arabia is quite benign,” Shihabi once said during a television appearance with Khashoggi. “They are nothing like the dungeons of the Middle East.” (He later clarified he meant jails for political prisoners, but regretted the way he’d articulated the comment.)
.. Despite such head-scratchers, Shihabi has developed a sterling reputation among Washington foreign policy elites who consider him a loyal — but not completely doctrinaire — interlocutor between Washington and Riyadh.
.. “I would describe him as one of the sharpest people I’ve met in this town,” said Walter Cutler, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “I have high regard for him personally.”
“I’ve had conversations with him where I’ve said, ‘The Saudi government just did X. I don’t get it. It doesn’t strike me as smart,’” said Elliott Abrams, a former official in the George W. Bush administration. “He’d say, ‘I don’t think so either. I’m trying to get it reversed.’”
.. Shihabi’s skills are being tested as never before. He’s defending a Saudi version of events — that Khashoggi died after a fistfight with Saudi officials waiting for him in the consulate – that has been widely dismissed.
.. “He’s trying to defend the indefensible, and that never works out very well,” a former Obama administration official said on condition of anonymity. “The fact of the matter is that the story that the Saudis have concocted is so blatantly false that he damages his own standing, his own reputation, by trying to argue in defense of it.”
Further complicating matters is the fact that Shihabi had known Khashoggi for many years. The pair had even appeared on TV together to debate Saudi policy.
.. Shihabi calls himself a foreign policy “realist,” or “certainly not an idealist.” He is skeptical that liberal democracy can take root in his homeland anytime soon and prizes the idea of stability in Saudi Arabia.
.. “Do I worry about criticism going too far?” he told POLITICO. “Sure. Because I want to maintain access.”
Shihabi’s primary organ of influence in Washington is the Arabia Foundation, which he established in early 2017. He says he launched the organization after coming to believe that the Saudi monarchy was getting poor results for the millions it spent on lobbying and public relations in Washington.
.. Shihabi’s background is unusually varied for a Saudi citizen: His late father, Samir Shihabi, was a Jerusalem-born Saudi diplomat
.. He first wrote a novel, “Arabian War Games,” that explored what would happen if Iran invaded Saudi Arabia just as Israel tries to expel its Israeli-Arab minority into Jordan.
.. While Saudi Arabia is known for promoting an austere form of Islam that many experts say breeds terrorism, Shihabi comes across as relatively open-minded and liberal – up to a point.
.. “Ali’s been very clear that the death of Jamal is wrong, is horrible, is indefensible,” said Adam Ereli, a former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain who serves on the advisory board of the Arabia Foundation.
“But at the same time, the death of a journalist is what it is. It’s not the end of the world,” he added. “What are we supposed to do, stop doing everything? And just put the Middle East on hold while we vent our rage and punish everybody?”
Tags: adam-ereli, ali-shihabi, anti-iran, arabia-foundation, austere, booming-voice, defending-the-indefensible, iran, islam, jamal-khashoggi, lies, loyal, provacateur, provacative, realist, reputation, riyadh, saudi-arabia-collaborators, saudi-arabia-lobbyists, talking-over, tucker-carlson