Jamal Khashoggi remembered: Saudi ‘phenomenon’ whose death may have changed his country forever

The bilingual journalist and activist who was of Turkish and Arabic origins has been lauded as a symbol of press freedom 

Borzou Daragahi
Friday 28 December 2018 12:48 GMT
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Jamal Khashoggi was a well-connected, bilingual Saudi journalist who became a globally recognised symbol of press freedom and Middle East democratic aspirations during the 17 days he was officially missing. But he never lived to see the campaign by journalists, rights advocates and political leaders worldwide to draw attention to his disappearance and conditions for democracy advocates in Saudi Arabia. The Washington Post columnist had already died on 2 October under murky circumstances in his own nation’s diplomatic outpost in Istanbul, Saudi officials confirmed late on Friday. He was 59.

Good-humoured and boisterous, with a curiosity for ideas and opposing viewpoints, he spent his life travelling within elite, intellectual and activist circles in his own kingdom as well as in Washington and London, moving into self-imposed exile during the final months of his life. He leaves behind four children from a previous marriage, a number of grandchildren, and a fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who has come to public limelight as an advocate for finding the truth about Khashoggi.

“Jamal was a phenomenon in Saudi Arabia,” said Omar Abdul Aziz, a Canadian-based Saudi activist who was collaborating with Khashoggi on a media project.

“He was more than a journalist. But he was not a classic dissident because he didn’t want to be called a dissident. He was in the middle between most of the parties, groups.”

Khashoggi was born in Medina to a wealthy but non-royal family with Turkish as well as Arabic ethnic origins. He grew up in Saudi Arabia but studied in the US at Indiana University, before returning home to work at a succession of journalism jobs at Arab-language daily and weekly publications.

During the 1990s he served as a foreign correspondent for Arab publications, visiting conflict zones in countries such as Algeria, Sudan and Afghanistan, where at one point he interviewed Osama bin Laden.

He held intermittent sympathies for political Islam, but it remained unclear if he ever joined the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian-rooted transnational organisation that advocated a gradual shifting in Islamic countries towards rule by a fundamentalist version of Islam.

He was also open to liberal and leftist ideas, and during his final years reached out to Saudi women’s rights activists whom he considered fellow travellers in his quest to open up political space in the kingdom.

“As we speak today, there are Saudi intellectuals and journalists jailed,” Khashoggi told Al-Jazeera In March. “Now nobody will dare to speak and criticise the reform ... It would be much better for him to allow a breathing space for critics, for Saudi intellectuals, Saudi writers, Saudi media to debate.”

In 2003, he was hired and quickly fired as editor-in-chief of the important Saudi daily Al-Watan for allowing a column critical of a medieval Islamic scholar revered by ultraconservative Muslims. He was taken up as a London-based adviser by the powerful Prince Turki al-Faisal who had served as Saudi’s intelligence chief as well as envoy to the US and UK.

He returned to the helm of Al-Watan in 2007, this time lasting three years, before he was ousted over allowing a poem in the paper that again offended the sensibilities of the kingdom’s ultraconservative guardians. He stayed in Saudi and began serving as a commentator on satellite television channels as well as to foreign journalists. Though he was publicly a strident defender of the Saudi system, he was clearly fascinated by the ruptures and fissures of the Arab Spring uprisings gripping Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Morocco and other nations.

In 2015, he was appointed to head a new satellite channel in Bahrain founded by Saudi billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal in partnership with Bloomberg. Manama authorities, under Saudi pressure, pulled the plug on the network within hours, reportedly for airing an interview with a moderate Bahraini opposition activist.

Khashoggi continued to soldier on as a journalist, but clearly out of passion rather than financial need. According to a source close to the Khashoggi clan, he had access to a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

It was the 2015 rise of King Salman and the emergence of his son Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as a major power that dramatically changed Khashoggi’s relationship with the Saudi state. Pursuing an ambitious agenda that coupled social and economic reform with a crackdown on political space, the prince had little tolerance for even the tempered criticism of Khashoggi. After years of gingerly taking calls from international journalists he often lavished with insights and background as well as incisive but sometimes bland public comments, he began informing them he was not allowed to speak any longer.

“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 told journalist Donna Abu-Nasr. “People are in the dark.”

In June 2017, Khashoggi left the kingdom, travelling to London and then Washington, where he quickly obtained a platform at The Washington Post writing columns increasingly critical of the Saudi regime and confident in calls for democratic opening.

“He was trying to avoid having problems and creating enemies,” said Abdul Aziz. “But for a man like that, whenever you speak the truth, the truth hurts [and] then you’re going to create some enemies.”

Khashoggi knew he was at risk. In a phone interview with Abu-Nasr early last month, he said officials in Saudi were attempting to entice him to return home in exchange for a prominent job. “I won’t fall for that,” he told her. “I don’t want to end up in jail.”

According to friends, he had purchased housing in Istanbul and was about to partially relocate with his fiancee from Washington to the city, which has become a hub of Middle East political and cultural life in the wake of waves of displacement spurred by the Arab Spring uprisings and their violent aftermath.

He was seeking to obtain confirmation of his divorce to present Turkish authorities when he entered the consulate in Istanbul on the afternoon of 2 October. A short and now iconic surveillance camera clip that was released to media by Turkish officials shows Khashoggi in a jacket nonchalantly walking into the consulate through its front doors, a doorman vaguely nodding him a welcome as he enters. It was the last moment he was spotted alive.

“God have mercy on you my love Jamal,” his fiancee, Cengiz wrote on Twitter following the Saudi confirmation that he had been killed. “And may you rest in paradise.”

Jamal Khashoggi, journalist, born 13 October 1958, died 2 October 2018

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