Last fall, journalist and author Jamal Khashoggi left his home country, Saudi Arabia, in an act of “self-exile.”
In “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable.”, his first column for the Washington Post, he described the conditions he aimed to escape, calling out the country’s new young leader by name.
“With young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, he promised an embrace of social and economic reform,” Khashoggi wrote. “He spoke of making our country more open and tolerant. But all I see now is the recent wave of arrests.”
The column marked the return of Khashoggi’s power to speak freely.
“It was a big deal, because in that column he decided to speak up for the first time about why he left Saudi Arabia,” said Eli Lopez, senior editor for Washington Post’s Global Opinions column. “He was breaking his silence.”
Khashoggi disappeared on Oct. 2, and was last seen entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in order to retrieve a document that would allow him to marry his fiance. Turkish officials suspected he was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents inside the consulate. President Donald Trump and his administration urged restraint in judgment against ally Saudi Arabia before the facts were known. But more than two weeks later, Saudi state television confirmed Khashoggi’s death. The regime announced 18 officials had been detained in connection with the incident.
On Wednesday, the Post ran what it called his final column, which lamented the lack of freedoms across the Arab world, leading its citizens to be uninformed or misinformed. Dreaming of an oasis for free expression, he criticized governments “whose very existence relies on the control of information” that “have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate.”
Was Khashoggi silenced for his criticism of the Saudi government? For now, we don’t know for sure. But over the years, he had become a credible, critical voice.
A loud voice in the Arab world
Khashoggi was eager to contribute his voice and integrate Arabic translations into the newspaper, Lopez remembers. In the last few weeks, Khashoggi was excited about a possible Washington Post Arabic section, Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s editor, told The New York Times.
When Canada called out Saudi Arabia for imprisoning two female activists, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, the Post ran an editorial criticizing Saudi Arabia’s response and the Trump administration’s withdrawal from championing human rights.
Thanks to Khashoggi, this was the first Washington Post editorial translated into Arabic.
“I feel like he took that role pretty seriously,” Lopez said. “Being a voice, trying to amplify the voice of people and also trying to get a message across the Arab world.”
Khashoggi’s reach across the Arab world, his visibility, was his power, according to people familiar with his work. It was also what endangered him and got him blacklisted by the Saudi government.
“I think Jamal became threatening because of his connections, his networks of acquaintances, his international appeal and the fact that that he went back and forth and published in foreign outlets, appeared in international television and spoke his mind,” said Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center in Washington, D.C.
Aside from working as a journalist, Khashoggi often worked alongside the same government that sought to silence him. He worked as a media adviser for Prince Turki al-Faisal, who served as the Saudi ambassador to Britain and the United states.
In 2010, Khashoggi was appointed general manager of Al-Arab, a Bahrain-based television channel backed by a wealthy Saudi prince and entrepreneur. On its first day of programming, the channel featured an opposition figure from Bahrain, which infuriated the Bahraini government and led to the suspension of Al-Arab hours after it was launched.
“It’s kind of like a bad marriage, Jamal’s relationship with the government,” Jahshan said. “When you have a bad marriage, you can’t live with him and you can’t live without him.”
A ‘chilling effect’ on Saudi Arabian media
Jahshan met Khashoggi three decades ago, when he was working as the president of the National Association of Arab Americans. Khashoggi, then a young journalist building connections, would meet with Jahshan to compare notes about U.S. bilateral relations with the Arab world. Since those times, Jahshan knew Khashoggi as a staunch defender of human rights and freedom of the press. He opposed Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war with Yemen and was a fierce critic of corruption within the government.
“Personally, that’s what I think killed Jamal,” Jahshan said. He also called Khashoggi a “maverick,” who was committed to fighting for freedoms, civil rights and human rights.
“He was so honest in this form of patriotism of his,” Jahshan said.
With the arrival of Prince Mohammed came the promise of reform, an opening in Saudi politics and society. Some of the platforms touted by the young leader include anti-corruption and reducing the country’s dependence on oil exports. While Khashoggi supported anti-corruption actions, he also opposed hardline approaches, such as purging and jailing individuals.
“When Mohammed bin Salman started gathering these princes and businessmen in the Ritz and pulled the trick of confiscating some of their property or their wealth—he didn’t necessary sympathize with them— but he found the method offensive. It’s part of the new intolerance he objected to,” Jahshan said.
Khashoggi wielded another important weapon against the state: a solid sense of history. His experience working as a journalist gave him insight into what the government would call “freedom” or “reform.” In his article, “Saudi Arabia’s women can finally drive. But the crown prince needs to do much more,” he criticizes the government for not releasing the women who campaigned for the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, yet taking credit for the reform.
In another column, Khashoggi criticized an interview Prince Mohammed gave ‘60 Minutes’ charging that he pushed a “revisionist history” that rewrote the rise of extremism Saudi Arabia.
“MBS would like to advance a new narrative for my country’s recent history, one that absolves the government of any complicity in the adoption of strict Wahhabi doctrine,” Khashoggi wrote.
Khashoggi’s possible murder will have a chilling effect in Saudi Arabian media, Jahshan said. When talking with friends and acquaintances in the kingdom and reading Saudi press, Jahshan gets frustrated at the denial and conspiracy theories surrounding Khashoggi’s death. “Nobody is accepting the facts,” Jahshan said.
“We are all just wishing that Jamal could be here to see how big of a story this is and how he has put a spotlight on the need for freedom of expression in the Arab world, the lengths that people who criticized him would go to try to stifle him,” Lopez said. “I think that will be his legacy.”