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Moment that mattered: Jamal Khashoggi is killed at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul

A man dressed as Mohammed bin Salman protests outside the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC, 8th October 2018


A man dressed as Mohammed bin Salman protests outside the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC, 8th October 2018

On 2nd October, Jamal Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get divorce papers so he could remarry. The 59-year-old journalist and dissident, who had gone into self-imposed exile in 2017 because he feared for his safety in Saudi Arabia, would not leave the building alive.

“My first thought [when I heard Khashoggi had gone missing] was that he had been abducted by the Saudi government,” says Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi scholar-in-residence at New York University’s School of Law and the inaugural recipient of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi Fellowship. “His abduction did not seem that unusual considering the heightened sense of insecurity of the Saudi regime.” According to al-Dosari, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman has been dealing with dissidents by levelling trumped-up charges against them: “They’re an agent of Qatar, of Hezbollah, of the Houthis in Yemen, even of the West…”

Al-Dosari, whose work advocating for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia has been recognised with awards from Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, hasn’t always regarded Khashoggi as an ally. For many years she knew of his work as a prominent journalist and editor as well as an advisor to Prince Turki al-Faisal, a director of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and an ambassador to both the UK and the US. But she only got to know him as a fellow dissident after he joined her in exile in the US.

“After six months of quiet reflection, Khashoggi reached the painful conclusion that he could no longer remain silent”

“To me Jamal was always more part of the government than part of the people,” al-Dosari says, explaining that their friendship developed after they were brought together to discuss the September 2017 arrest of Khashoggi’s friend Essam al-Zamil, a Saudi economist who was reportedly charged with terror offenses after he criticised the crown prince’s economic plans. “In our first chat I asked Jamal, ‘Why did you switch camps from working with the government to advocating the voices of the people?’ He replied, ‘I am a work in progress, Hala.’”

In Khashoggi’s first column for the Washington Post, he explained why he left Saudi Arabia. He said that although Mohammed bin Salman had promised social and economic reform, there was now a climate of fear in the country. Several of his friends had been arrested, accused of being traitors backed by Qatar, whose dramatic falling out with Saudi Arabia in June 2017 sparked an ongoing diplomatic crisis. After six months of quiet reflection, Khashoggi reached the painful conclusion that he could no longer remain silent. In subsequent columns he would compare the crown prince to Vladimir Putin, criticise his “cruel war” in Yemen and accuse him of intimidating anybody who disagrees with him.

In the days after Khashoggi’s disappearance, Saudi Arabia insisted he had left the consulate in Turkey alive. The attempted cover-up was elaborate – an agent wearing the murdered journalist’s clothes with glasses and a fake beard was captured on CCTV leaving the consulate and later visiting tourist sites in the city. On 10th October, Turkey claimed that a 15-person “hit squad” had flown into Istanbul from Saudi Arabia on two private jets on the morning of the murder. “The news was devastating to me,” says al-Dosari, who received confirmation of her friend’s death from a Saudi dissident in Turkey. “I’d been praying that he was safe. Even if he was in prison in Saudi Arabia we could advocate for his return.”

The Saudis changed their story several times in October as Turkey’s bullish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who sees himself as being in a regional power struggle with bin Salman, revealed more details of what appeared to be a brutal and premeditated assassination.

On 15th November, Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said an investigation had confirmed that Khashoggi had been killed by the country’s operatives but that bin Salman had no knowledge of the operation. The “rogue actors” explanation remains the official position of the Saudi state, which has received unwavering support from President Trump even though the CIA reportedly concluded that bin Salman almost certainly ordered the murder.

Al-Dosari is convinced this is the case. “There’s no way they would use planes that belonged to the state and elite security services close to bin Salman in such a daring operation without his involvement.” She believes that the murder of Khashoggi isn’t entirely inconsistent with recent reports on the Saudi authorities’ treatment of dissidents: in November 2018 Amnesty International said that activists, including several women, had been electrocuted, flogged and hung from the ceiling while in detention.

Saudi Arabia refused a Turkish extradition request for the alleged killers, but in January 2019 put 11 men accused of Khashoggi’s killing on trial. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of the group. “Bin Salman will sacrifice anyone,” al-Dosari says. “He does not hold any respect for human life and he will not hesitate to throw anybody under the bus.”

Since too many powerful people have political interests invested in the crown prince, it seems probable that bin Salman will survive the long-term fallout from the Khashoggi killing, says al-Dosari. “What I think would be a good outcome from the whole ordeal is a sense of continuing public pressure in the West, so even if we can’t hold him accountable in a legal court we can hold him accountable in the court of public opinion.”

“Jamal was a man who fought for free journalism, for the protection of people and for their dignity”

The murder has reinforced the fact that Saudi dissidents aren’t safe, even if they’re exiled abroad. “We’re very vulnerable,” al-Dosari says. “There’s a high chance the Saudi government has hacked my phone and my email. They’re informed of all my activities.” Al-Dosari plans to use the Jamal Khashoggi Fellowship, which will see her columns published in English and Arabic in the Washington Post, to carry on his legacy. “He didn’t get to write many articles before he was assassinated,” she says. “I want to continue pushing for people [in Saudi Arabia and other countries under-represented in the Western media] to have a presence and a voice.”

In a May 2018 column, Khashoggi wrote about how he agonised every day over his decision to leave his family, friends and country. Al-Dosari was able to relate. “I know I can never go to Saudi Arabia under the current circumstances,” she says. “I’m deprived of family life. I get photos of birthdays, marriages, weddings, and I’m sitting here feeling sad that I’m missing
these precious life moments. But I understand why Jamal felt he had to leave. He chose not to remain silent and he needed to use his leverage in the world.”

“I will remember Jamal as a man who left a legacy of civility,” al-Dosari continues. “He was a man who fought for free journalism, for the protection of people and for their dignity.”

In the short term, at least, Saudi Arabia’s image has taken a blow. Several big names withdrew from the Future Investment Initiative, a Riyadh business conference dubbed the “Davos of the desert”, and several countries imposed sanctions and travel bans on individuals suspected of being involved in the killing. In November US senators voted to withdraw support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, and later passed a resolution blaming bin Salman for Khashoggi’s death.

In Saudi Arabia itself, it appears the regime has done a good job of managing public opinion. “There’s a sense of hyper-nationalism which has been intensified,” says al-Dosari. “The government says, ‘Why are you singling us out for one mistake when the US did awful things at Abu Ghraib [the Iraq prison complex where prisoners were tortured]?’ It’s very difficult to counter the state narrative from within Saudi Arabia, where there are no political organisations, no independent media… The whole media pushes the government’s line and its conspiracy theories.”

People pray for Jamal Khashoggi on 16th November 2018 at
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