It was 2003. Kuldip Nayer was visiting Jeddah to attend an event of Indian community in Saudi Arabia. He wanted to meet Saudi journalists. I arranged and accompanied him to some of the meetings that he had. Among those he met was Jamal Khashoggi, then editor-in-chief of Al-Watan Arabic daily. He was candid in his conversation, a rarity in Saudi Arabia, especially when foreigners are around. He spoke freely about the challenges that his country faced – from press freedom to human rights to equal status for women.
I remember his mentioning of the problem of unemployment in the desert kingdom had amused Nayer. Perhaps the veteran Indian journalist never thought that Saudi Arabia, which gives employment to millions of foreigners, was unable to provide jobs to its own people. But Khashoggi was saying that that was the root cause of the radicalisation of young Saudis which he said should be a major concern of the rulers.
Khashoggi was a rare breed of Saudi editors. The kind of reporting he was allowing in his newspaper was something unfamiliar in the country.
He started exposing corrupt officials and sought openness in Saudi society. That’s why he could survive for only two months at Al-Watan. Becoming editor of a newspaper in Saudi Arabia is not easy. Even if it is run by a private company, the name of the editor must be approved by the King himself. So Khashoggi becoming editor meant that he had right connections at the right place.
Press comments following his assassination at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 has rightly dubbed him as an “insider who fell out of favour with the Saudi government”. Though a rebel by temperament, he was quite close to the rulers, especially its intelligence agency and some of the important members of the royal family. In the past he had been closely associated with people like billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal and Prince Turki Al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence who has also served as his country’s envoy to the US and UK.
Khashoggi became editor of Al-Watan for a second time in April 2007. This time he survived for three years. In May 2010 he was shown the door. On both the occasions, the reason of his departure was allowing publication of stuff which contradicted the kingdom’s ultra-conservative outlook. But this also helped him win friends in the West who viewed him as a liberal and progressive journalist. The Western media started quoting him as an expert on Islamic radicals and reformist voices.
Unlike other Saudi editors who come from varied fields, Khashoggi was a career journalist. He began his career as a reporter for English daily Saudi Gazette in 1985 where he worked for two years. After that he worked with several Arabic dailies and weeklies including Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Majalla and Al-Muslimoon. From 1991-99 he was managing editor and acting editor-in-chief of Al-Madina Arabic daily.
He got number two position in Arab News, a reputed English daily published from Jeddah. He worked here from 1999 to 2003 before moving to Al-Watan. During 1990s, Khashoggi made his mark as a foreign correspondent covering events in Afghanistan, Algeria, Sudan and other Middle Eastern countries. He was one of those few journalists who had interviewed Osama Binladen several times. And it’s not hard to imagine that he did so with knowledge and tacit approval of the Saudi rulers.
So what went wrong that Saudi rulers decided to get rid of him, that too in such a brutal way that his body was dismembered and destroyed. To do the job, a total of 15 henchmen were sent from Saudi Arabia to Turkey. Another question that arises is the reaction of the West, especially the US which otherwise tolerates all sorts of excesses including human rights violations committed by Gulf rulers. President Tump’s initial reaction was remarkable and reflective of the attitude of the entire Western world: “I don’t want to lose all of that investment that’s being made in our country. I don’t want to lose a million job. I don’t want to lose a $110 billion in terms of investment.”
It’s hard to get direct answers but an explanation may be found in the ongoing tussle within the Saudi royal family where Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman has emerged as the main power broker. In view of his father King Salman’s deteriorating health he appears to be in a hurry to consolidate his power sidelining anyone and everyone coming his way. Kashoggi was not from the royal family. But given his proximity to some of the princes, a link of his assassination to palace intrigue cannot be ruled out. It is quite possible that MBS, as the Crown Prince is referred in the media, has sought to send a message to his detractors. Last year, he dealt a heavy blow to his opponents by detaining 200-plus wealthy prices, senior government and military officials as well as bankers in Ritz Carlton for several weeks. Some of them are still under house arrest.
Kashoggi was one of the strongest dissenting voices. He was in self-exile in the US and writing regularly for Washington Post and appearing on TV channels wherein he was openly criticising MBS. Had he been in Saudi Arabia he could have been dealt differently. But getting hold of someone in exile is not easy. So, when he approached the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to get divorce papers so as to marry a Turkish woman it gave the Saudi regime an opportunity. Kashoggi knew that the rulers of his country were after his blood. He had expressed this fear on several occasions.
Saudis’ initial response after his disappearance from the consulate was of denial. They claimed Kashoggi had left the place soon after finishing his paper work. But Turkish President Tayyib Erdogan refused to believe and led a sustained campaign to get to the truth. He used Turkish press as well as Western agencies like Reuters and BBC to leak information on a daily basis. Since the Saudi journalist was well-known in the West, based in the US and writing for Washington Post, the Western media empathised with his case more than anyone else.
The publicity that Kashoggi’ case got in the media forced President Trump to change his stance from ‘believing’ in Saudi leaders to ‘not believing’ in them. European leaders too mounted pressure on the Saudi leaders forcing them after more than two weeks to admit that the dissident journalist was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul during a ‘botched up’ interrogation. The kingdom also announced arrest of 18 people and sacking of a top intelligence official Ahmad Al-Assiri and Royal Court Media Advisor Saud Al-Qahtani, both top aides to Crown Prince Mohammed. Khashoggi’s body has not been found even as a joint Saudi-Turkish enquiry is on.
The Khashoggi case has presented the Trump administration with one of the most acute foreign policy crises in recent times. Besides a major buyer of its defence products, Saudi Arabia is an important ally of the US in its campaign against Iran. The case has also put the Saudis under unprecedented pressure. Efforts are on to take the heat off its rulers. Crown Prince Muhammad is especially facing the question of his survival. American as well as European leaders have started calling for his removal. Silencing the dissenting voice of a journalist has already damaged him politically. Now it may cost him his position.
[Shaheen Nazar has been a long-time resident of Jeddah where he worked for Saudi Gazette, and later for Arab News. Currently, he is visiting faculty at Jamia Millia’s MCRC.]