Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known and much respected Saudi war correspondent and columnist, disappeared on October 2 following a visit to the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul. At the time of his disappearance, he was a well-established critic of the current Saudi leadership and an op-ed contributor to the US newspaper, Washington Post.
Throughout his decades-long career in the media, Khashoggi worked for several Saudi Arabian and pan-Arab newspapers and until 2010 served as the editor-in-chief of one of the most controversial newspapers of his country, Al-Watan.
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During his time at Al-Watan, Khashoggi managed to set a benchmark for quality journalism in Saudi Arabia. Under his leadership, the national daily dared to call for reform in the educational system and women’s issues and also demanded the government to curb the powers of the religious police.
Khashoggi paid a heavy price for following an independent editorial policy at Al-Watan. He was fired from his role at the newspaper, not once but twice, both times for upsetting the regime and causing controversy. In 2003, he was asked to leave the newspaper only two months after being assigned editor-in-chief, allegedly for pursuing an editorial policy independent of the regime. Khashoggi was reinstated as the editor-in-chief of Al-Watan in 2007, but was fired again in 2010, for “pushing the boundaries of debate within Saudi society” according to his personal website.
To this day, many Saudi journalists, including myself, remember Khashoggi’s tenure as the editor-in-chief of Al-Watan with envy and admiration.
Between 2005-2009, I was working for the Saudi newspaper Al-Madina as a reporter in the city of Jeddah. Like all the other national dailies, it was owned by the members of the royal family and an inner cycle of loyalists. It was under the strict control of the Ministry of Media, which in many ways resemble the infamous Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984.
In this environment, I started following the work of Khashoggi at Al-Watan closely.
As a young, female journalist, I viewed Al-Watan under Khashoggi’s leadership as a perfect example of what a good Saudi newspaper should have been. The newspaper was shedding light on the religious police’s abuse of power as well as the epidemic of domestic violence in the country, among other issues.
While Al-Watan was the emerging, brave voice of liberalism in the kingdom, my newspaper, Al-Madina, was a platform for ultra-conservatives who were happy to follow the regime’s narratives on every subject. Khashoggi’s bravery made it impossible for me to ignore the shortcomings of my place of employment, and I started to feel more and more resentful about the censorship my work was subjected to at Al-Madina.
Eventually, I could no longer bow to the oppressive policies of Al-Madina’s leadership and the Orwellian Ministry of Media, so I decided to publish my censored articles in other Arabic platforms, based outside the kingdom. But I knew that this idealistic stance was undoubtedly going to endanger my life and freedom in Saudi Arabia, so I decided to leave the country.
The very same fear eventually drove Khashoggi out of the country too. Last year, he chose to leave the kingdom to preserve his intellectual integrity and freedom of expression.
Even though I had been following Khashoggi’s work for years, I only met him in person earlier this year, in the Norwegian capital, Oslo. In his eyes, I saw a sense of despair about the future of his homeland. He expressed his fears about the possible consequences of Saudi Crown Prince and de-facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) use of “divide and rule” and “You are either with us or against us” strategies to manufacture social cohesion. He told me how some members of the establishment, who have contributed to the formation of the country, are now being excluded from reform efforts and are constantly humiliated by the crown prince and his close aides. He painted a grim picture of what he thinks awaits Saudi Arabia in the near future, but also insisted that he will continue to write no matter what, even if it is only to contribute to the historical record.
A major threat to the regime
MBS perceived Jamal Khashoggi as a serious threat to his authority for several reasons. First of all, Khashoggi was not a Western analyst or commentator, so the regime could not dismiss his criticisms as a foreigner’s smear attempts. Moreover, he was not only a Saudi citizen but also – unlike many Saudi opposition figures who were forced into exile decades ago and have since been detached from the Saudi society – was a prominent member of the Saudi society and establishment until very recently. He had worked in local newspapers for years, was once a trusted adviser to the monarchy and was even settled in the kingdom until last year. As a result, in the eyes of many Saudi citizens, Khashoggi was one of them – someone who loves and wants the best for his country. His image as an establishment insider who is trying to change things for the better gave him an unprecedented credibility and influence among native Saudis. Furthermore, his close links to the members of the old establishment, who are discontent with the direction MBS is taking the country, has long been a cause for concern for the crown prince, who appears to be very cautious about a possible coup d’etat attempt.
Another reason why Khashoggi became a primary target for the Saudi regime was that he voiced his critique of the regime in the US. Washington has always been an important ally for Saudi Arabia, but ever since MBS became the country’s de-facto leader, relations with the US became even more important for the regime. The crown prince has invested heavily in constructing a reformist image for himself in the US, in an attempt to overcome the crisis of legitimacy he has been suffering at home. He paid for positive ads to be published or broadcast in the US media, invited prominent American journalists to his palace to woo them, put his support behind Saudi lobbying organisations in the US and appointed his younger brother Prince Khaled bin Salman as the Saudi Ambassador to the US. All these efforts had a single aim: to convince the masses back home that he is a legitimate leader that has the backing of a major global power. Through his lobbying efforts in the US, MBS was trying to legitimise his jumping ahead in the line of succession, his attempts to concentrate power in his and his brothers’ hands and his efforts to force the entire Saudi establishment to embrace his reform blueprint without any discussion or debate.
However, all these efforts were seriously challenged by the voice of a single influential Saudi citizen, who had already earned his credentials as a patriot and reformist in the eyes of the Saudi public: Jamal Khashoggi.
When Khashoggi called for reform through pages of Al-Watan, he was forced to resign. When he criticised the exclusion of the diverse views of Saudi citizens in MBS’ 2017 blueprint for reform, he was ordered to remain silent and forced into exile.
Despite all threats, he continued to write, question and criticise.
Now he has disappeared, and if we are to believe the Turkish authorities, has been permanently silenced.
The tragic fate of Khashoggi is frightening for everyone who dares to criticise the Saudi regime. By disappearing Khashoggi, this fascist regime has announced that from now on it will deal with critical voices in anyway it deems fit, ignoring all international conventions on human rights, diplomacy and civility. The regime believes that it can behave in this way, because the international community failed to hold it to account for its previous crimes.
The Saudi regime has long been using its economic and political leverage to terrorise democratic states, track down and harass activists inside the kingdom and abroad, and commit war crimes in Yemen. It has also been incarcerating political dissidents, royalist opponents, reformists, economic/social critics, religious scholars and leaders, human and women’s rights activists. The kingdom did not face any serious repercussions for any of these crimes. In the face of these atrocities, the world chose to stay silent and as a result, the regime felt emboldened enough to disappear a well-known and respected journalist like Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate, in foreign sovereignty.
Khashoggi’s disappearance has to be a turning point. The regime needs to be named and shamed, and it should finally be excluded from international platforms – especially from human rights entities such as the UN Human Rights Council and the Women’s Rights Committee on Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality – where it can do much damage.
By disappearing a prominent journalist and one of the strongest critical voices in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom, under the leadership of MBS, once again proved that it is a threat to international values and order. The world can no longer afford to stay silent.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.