BEIRUT – Jamal Khashoggi, whose murder at the hands of his native Saudi Arabia has caused an international outcry that threatens to undermine the kingdom’s powerful young leader, knew he was a marked man.
On Friday, the final confirmation came that Khashoggi had indeed been killed by Saudi government agents.
Two years ago, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was being praised by global bankers, investors and U.S. officials after unveiling his blueprint for an economic transformation, Khashoggi was already agitated. While the rest of the world saw “MBS” as a reformer shifting his glacial nation into the 21st century, Khashoggi looked beyond the carefully crafted image.
“We have a one-man rule, taking decisions that he issues at night without conferring with anyone – this has never happened before in Saudi Arabia,” Khashoggi said over a fish lunch at a restaurant in Jeddah in November 2016. “People are in the dark,” he added, his words of warning juxtaposed by the tranquil turquoise waters of the Red Sea.
It was the last face-to-face interview Khashoggi granted Bloomberg News inside Saudi Arabia. In it, he made comments off the record that he would repeat openly after he left the kingdom less than a year later. Unlike his usual sunny self, Khashoggi was frightened, but also disbelieving that he would feel this kind of fear in a country that had never been as despotic as Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Libya under Moammar Gadhafi.
He was like a man trying to run from a destiny he knew would eventually catch up with him, though he never really thought it would cost him his life. But it did, and in horrific fashion.
Khashoggi disappeared at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 just before his 60th birthday. He was never seen again. The Turkish authorities said he was murdered inside the building.
Prince Mohammed told Bloomberg News a day after Khashoggi disappeared that the journalist left the consulate unscathed. Then his father, King Salman, ordered an internal investigation ordered and the Saudi public prosecutor said Khashoggi died after a fistfight. Eighteen people were detained in connection with the probe.
In his last column, published by The Washington Post on Oct. 17 more than two weeks after he vanished while trying to complete the mundane task of obtaining paperwork for his wedding, Khashoggi lamented the state of state of oppression in the Arab world, including in his own country. But right up until the end, he believed that freedom of expression could have an impact.
“Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face,” he wrote in the Post.
Khashoggi was born in Medina, the burial place of the Prophet Mohammed. Not unusually for some Saudis, there were various birth dates because of a lack of records. His fiancee used Oct. 13 and had been planning a party, according to media reports.
He was an expert on political Islam, a knowledge he derived in part from reporting in Afghanistan, where a jihad against the Soviet occupation unfolded in the 1980s, and later in 1990s. It was there he met and followed the rise of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
The Khashoggi family history was bound up with political intrigue and prominent figures in the Middle East, including a grandfather who became personal physician to modern Saudi Arabia’s first ruler, King Abdulaziz Al Saud. Jamal Khashoggi settled in Jeddah and became a royal insider and confidant who was also critical of extremists and the way in which the country enforced its religious values.
What happened to Khashoggi also tells the story of Saudi Arabia under the youngest leader in its modern history, a story of hopes dashed by arrests, the muzzling of freedoms and a shrinking space for debate that’s moving the country in the direction that Khashoggi had feared.
“I’m glad I took the decision to leave,” Khashoggi would say every time he heard about new arrests in phone conversations from Virginia, where he decided to live in self-exile after leaving Saudi Arabia for good in June 2017.
Khashoggi was in London and in a buoyant mood a few days before his fate was sealed in Istanbul.
A friend who spent time with him in Britain and tried to dissuade from going to the consulate said Khashoggi was determined to tackle that last bureaucratic hurdle: a paper showing he was divorced because polygamy is banned in Turkey.
In London, he talked to the friend about his fiancee, the apartment he had bought in Istanbul and how he hoped to divide his time between Turkey and the U.S. after leaving Saudi Arabia in June 2017. The friend, who spoke to him by phone the night of Oct. 1 after Khashoggi landed in Turkey, said the journalist didn’t share his anxiety over the risk of walking into the sovereign premises of the consulate.
It was perhaps because Khashoggi didn’t fear for his life during his run-ins with his government and top officials under previous Saudi leaders. In the 2000s, he was twice fired from his post as editor in chief of the Saudi Al-Watan daily newspaper, which under his leadership ran stories, editorials and cartoons critical of extremists.
Yet he didn’t stay long without a job. In between, he served as an adviser to the Saudi ambassador to London, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former long-serving intelligence chief, and stayed on as the prince’s media aide after he was appointed the Saudi envoy to the U.S.
“I got fired from my job twice because I was pushing for reform in Saudi Arabia,” Khashoggi said in a March appearance on Qatari-run Al-Jazeera’s “Upfront” program as he explained the worsening environment for journalists under Prince Mohammed. “It wasn’t that easy but people were not being put in jails. There was a breathing space.”
At the lunch in Jeddah in 2016, Khashoggi spoke about why he was nervous that day.
He was being “advised” to be “smart, to be careful, to remain silent,” he said, what he took as a warning to behave. He was soon banned from writing his weekly column in Al-Hayat, a London-based Saudi paper, and from posting on social media. For someone like Khashoggi, one of the kingdom’s most prominent journalists, it was tantamount to being in jail.
During the chat, Khashoggi spoke about Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030, unveiled about six months earlier. As part of his attempts to cut spending, the prince had canceled bonuses that made up to one-third of the salaries of government employees. He said it was causing anger and confusion among Saudis. The prince reinstated the bonuses seven months after scrapping them.
“We want our officials to engage more with us,” Khashoggi said, this time on the record. A few hours later he sent a message saying he didn’t want to be quoted after all. He didn’t say why.
The last shot of Khashoggi alive was taken outside the Saudi Consulate as he strode either trustingly or in defiance that as a Saudi citizen he was entitled to the services the consulate offered. In a phone chat in early September, Khashoggi spoke about how senior officials back home were trying to lure him back to the kingdom with promises of big jobs.
“I won’t fall for that,” he said. “I don’t want to end up in jail.”
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