The Mystery of Jamal Khashoggi: Both Saudi Dissident and Defender
On October 2nd, prominent Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi walked into his country’s consulate on a leafy Istanbul street for routine paperwork. No one has seen him since.
The mysterious disappearance of Khashoggi has sent shock waves around the world, and is inflaming tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Turkish authorities said this week that a hit squad of 15 Saudi government agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi in the consulate on high-level orders from the Saudi royal court. Saudi authorities denounced the report, and said in a statement that the allegations were “baseless.” But U.S. intelligence intercepted Saudi officials discussing a plan to detain the journalist on orders of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, according to an Oct. 10 report from The Washington Post.
Most news outlets have referred to Khashoggi as a dissident, while human rights groups and demonstrators are using his reported murder as a rallying call to protect critics and journalists around the world. And there is no doubt that his case merits attention. But in interviews and conversations over the years with FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith, Khashoggi emerged as a more nuanced figure who had once been close to — and a vocal defender — of the Saudi royal family. His layered perspectives, expressed in his columns for The Washington Post and in lengthy interviews with Smith, makes the reports of his gruesome death all the more disturbing.
Born in Medina, Khashoggi rose to prominence on the global stage as a columnist who could do what many could not — decode the inner workings of the secretive Saudi kingdom.
“He was a journalist who could explain the royals,” said Smith, who conducted two wide-ranging interviews with Khashoggi in the years before his disappearance. “A lot of outsiders were in contact with him because of what he could provide — a kind of an inside view.”
But the popular commentator had to walk a fine line to maintain his vast network of government connections, or else risk upsetting the royal family. In a January 2016 interview with Smith, Khashoggi downplayed the notion that Saudi Arabia sponsored terrorism, even though the kingdom has long been accused of supporting and bankrolling terrorism.
Defending the kingdom, Khashoggi told Smith, “The Iranian state sponsors radicalism. Our state fight[s] radicalism.” He added: “There are offices in Tehran and Baghdad that recruit militias. You cannot find an office in Riyadh or in Jeddah that recruit militias.”
In 2017, before an opaque crackdown on critics — including journalists, clerics, and bloggers — that resulted in dozens of arrests and disappearances, Khashoggi fled to the United States. Shortly afterward, he began penning articles as a columnist for The Washington Post.
Even then, he eschewed the dissident label. “I don’t want to be a dissident,” he told Smith in August of that year. “But in the same time, I don’t want to go back home and be silent again.”
But while in the United States, Khashoggi continued to champion Saudi Arabia’s more controversial policies, hewing to the official government line.
He defended his country’s extensive bombing campaign in Yemen, insisting the bombs are aimed at military targets, not civilians.
Despite the kingdom’s dismal human rights record, Khashoggi maintained that the monarchy in Saudi Arabia was not as bad as those in other Middle Eastern countries. The kingdom has a documented history of disappearing or imprisoning people who express views seen as critical of the royal court, earning it one of the lowest rankings for press freedom by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
“We don’t have a crisis in Saudi Arabia,” Khashoggi told Smith. “I don’t feel Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship in the same way as [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein was.”
These kinds of views, which were supportive of the regime, deepen the mystery as to why he might have become a target.
At the same time, Khashoggi diverged from mainstream Saudi government officials on their views of the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government and democracy uprisings that swept the Middle East starting in 2010.
“That’s where I differ with some guys in Saudi Arabia and those in government, it is by looking at the people’s choice, Arab Spring, freedom, power sharing, democracy,” Khashoggi said. For the journalist, who viewed Iran as a regional threat, a people-centered democracy movement was also the only way to check the power of Tehran.
When Smith suggested the movement could result in the demise of the royal kingdom, Khashoggi demurred. “I think it will be immune from such calls for major change as long as it succeed[s] economically and provide[s] good income to its citizens,” he said. Saudi Arabia, according to Khashoggi, should have played a leading role in fostering and protecting the Arab Spring.
“We are not a failed Arab republic, so we should not fear Arab Spring. We should embrace Arab Spring. That’s what I hope Saudi Arabia will do.”
On the other hand, in Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post, he became increasingly critical of Salman, the crown prince, whom he had initially championed as a reformer.
The columnist had harsh words for the kingdom’s heir to the throne as the government arrested clerics, journalists and other intellectuals, comparing Salman to Russian President Vladimir Putin and calling the repression “unbearable.” He warned that the crown prince’s foreign policy actions could destabilize the entire Gulf region.
In May 2018, he wrote: “The message is clear to all: Activism of any sort has to be within the government, and no independent voice or counter-opinion will be allowed. Everyone must stick to the party line. Is there no other way for us?”
Saudi Arabia and Turkey have since launched a joint investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance, with a Saudi delegation arriving in Turkey this week. A bipartisan group of 22 U.S. senators released a letter on Oct 10 seeking an investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance. The letter triggered a provision contained in the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which could result in President Donald Trump imposing targeted sanctions on those found responsible.
So far however, Trump has declined to take any concrete action, notably refusing to halt arm sales he promised Salman — whose kingdom’s arms imports were valued at an estimated $4.11 billion last year.