MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Did the Saudis murder Jamal Khashoggi? That provocative question is the headline of a New Yorker article exploring what happened to Khashoggi, a 59-year-old Saudi dissident and journalist who walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a week ago today and was never seen walking out. Robin Wright wrote that New Yorker article. She is a longtime chronicler of the Middle East who's been visiting Saudi Arabia since 1981, and she joins me now. Robin, good to speak with you.
ROBIN WRIGHT: Good to be with you.
KELLY: Let me flip back on you that question that you posed in The New Yorker. How real a possibility is it that Saudi Arabia murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi?
WRIGHT: It's just stunning that there has been no proof of life now in a week and that the Saudis have offered no explanation for what happened to him. His fiancee waited for 11 hours outside the consulate. And finally, because he left his cellphone behind with a warning to call authorities, she did. And that's where we stand, and that's as little as we know today.
KELLY: The Saudis have offered a denial of any involvement. The embassy here in Washington put out a statement calling any claims of involvement outrageous and expressing concern for Khashoggi's well-being. It sounds as though you take those denials with a grain of salt.
WRIGHT: Well, I'm very struck by the fact Jamal had talked to me quite frequently over the past year about the threats he felt to his life, even being in Washington, D.C.
KELLY: You've known him for decades, I should mention.
WRIGHT: I've known him for a long time, and Jamal - I've talked to and quoted often over the past year in his growing criticism about the government effectively led by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And he told me in August that he was worried about the threat to his life and said that the kingdom would like to see him out of the picture, as he put it. I think he didn't realize how real that possibility would be. Or otherwise, he would not have gone into the consulate.
KELLY: In Istanbul, yeah. You write that the mystery surrounding his disappearance fits into a broader pattern, a trend of silencing dissent. Talk to me about that. What's the pattern that you see?
WRIGHT: The pattern is a clampdown on activists even as the government talks about reforms and modernizing society and opening up to - whether it's women or the young social life and allowing movie theaters for the first time, it's very striking that the kingdom, just as it allowed women to drive, also started picking up some of the biggest women activists. One has recently been sentenced to death. And one of the most striking things Jamal ever said to me was quite recently when he said that the crown prince was totally autocratic and totally illiberal and that he was concerned not just for his own life but for others, which had led him to take a position he never thought he would.
Remember; this is a man who was a reluctant dissident. He was someone who had supported the monarchy and still did in principle. It was the type of rule and the tactics of the young crown prince that had led him to worry about his own life and to speak out for the first time after years of saying nothing when his own friends were arrested.
KELLY: How far outside the realms of what is normal in Saudi Arabia are the crown prince's tactics? I mean, Saudi Arabia, as you well know, it's never claimed to be a liberal democracy.
WRIGHT: Look, there are many murderous governments around the world. And Saudi Arabia has arguably the most abysmal record on human rights of any country in the world. But this kind of extraterritorial action is really very unusual. And a crackdown against someone who's not in Saudi Arabia - the crackdown on people who should be the face of a new young person who claims that he was a reformer really is very telling about the state of the kingdom.
KELLY: Thank you, Robin.
WRIGHT: Thank you.
KELLY: That's The New Yorker's Robin Wright speaking with us about the disappearance of Saudi writer and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.