by Giorgio Cafiero
The grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi a year ago today caused severe—and perhaps irreversible—damage to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)’s reputation in the United States. No longer is the Crown Prince making trips to Washington, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley—where, until last year, he was hailed as Saudi Arabia’s new reformer and savior. Nor is he able to come to America and continue meeting with celebrities and billionaires like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos.
Put simply, because of MbS’s purported role in Khashoggi’s killing (which the Crown Prince denies), he has become toxic in Washington. Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cited the murder case as the basis of her opposition to the US conducting any military operation against Iran in response to the September 14 attacks on Saudi oil facilities. In November, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham responded to Khashoggi’s killing by asserting that MbS “needs to go” and calling the Saudi Crown Prince “crazy.”
Over the past year, many articles have been published about Khashoggi and his career. It is important to take stock of what Khashoggi stood for and why this Saudi national was killed in his country’s consulate in Istanbul. According to much of the reporting and analysis in the Western press, Khashoggi was an advocate of democracy, human rights, and freedom in the Arab world. Indeed, some of the columnists who knew him well have eulogized him this way.
Six days after his murder, David Hearst wrote in The Guardian that Khashoggi was “concerned about absolutes such as truth, democracy and freedom.” David Ignatius stated that Khashoggi had a “mature belief that democracy and freedom were the Arabs’ best hope of purging the corruption and misrule he despised” and that he saw the “pro-democracy movement” known as the Arab Spring of 2011 as “a dream come true.” Karen Attiah, the Global Opinions editor for the Washington Post, hailed her former colleague’s “commitment and passion for freedom in the Arab world.” In January, Lawrence Wright claimed in a piece for The New Yorker that the slain Saudi journalist “had a dream of the Arab world being free of tyranny and oppression.”
Such commentary, however, must seem odd for Arabic speakers who were familiar with Khashoggi’s work prior to his “self-imposed exile” to the Washington DC area in June 2017. As As`ad AbuKhalil, who began following Khashoggi’s work decades ago, said, throughout much of Khashoggi’s career he was a “passionate, enthusiastic advocate of Saudi despotism” and the “Salafization” of Islam. Indeed, according to AbuKhalil, the articles that Khashoggi wrote in English for the Washington Post were not reflective of his career in journalism up until his final year.
It should be noted that Khashoggi served in many respects as a de facto spokesperson for the Saudi royal family prior to relocating to the United States in 2017, so we cannot be entirely sure what his real politics were earlier in his career or how they may have evolved over time. We cannot be certain what Khashoggi’s true beliefs were, but based on his public writings and commentary, it would be reasonable to conclude that had he truly believed in democracy, human rights, and freedom for Arabs, he only voiced such opinions publicly after he left Saudi Arabia.
Going back to the 1980s, Khashoggi himself was enamored with the Saudi-backed Arab mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan. During his embedded reporting on these fighters, including Osama bin Laden, Khashoggi joined many not only in Riyadh but also in Washington who glorified the mujahideen’s commitment to fighting communism. In 1988, Arab News published one of Khashoggi’s reports about his tour in Afghanistan, which featured photos of the Saudi journalist armed with a weapon while dressed in Afghan garb. Later Khashoggi would condemn bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leader’s hateful agenda. But he only began doing so as the Saudi government was expelling bin Laden from the kingdom because of his anti-government activities, suggesting the extent to which Khashoggi was a Saudi regime loyalist.
Even non-Arabic speakers who paid attention to his journalism and commentary in English platforms have solid reason to conclude that this uncritical praise of Khashoggi as an advocate of democracy in the Arab world has been, at best, misleading. Indeed, when it came to Iran, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and sectarian-related issues, Khashoggi constantly promoted the Saudi government’s official narratives.
On January 16, 2016, Khashoggi appeared on Al Jazeera English’s Up Front, hosted by Mehdi Hasan, to debate Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the former head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Iranian National Security Council. During the show he attributed the hostile state of relations between Riyadh and Tehran following Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr’s execution to “Iranian expansionism” without placing any blame on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep.
In response to Hasan’s question about Western diplomats and journalists claiming that beheadings in Saudi Arabia give one little reason to see much difference between the kingdom and the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), he said: “No, no, no, no, no, no. Execution is an execution. To hang people from a crane or to behead them with a sword, it is execution. It is brutal. But what we are doing in Saudi Arabia is… through [our] judiciary and we are only targeting terrorists or dissidents who are calling for violence, but we are not executing political prisoners.”
Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program director responded to al-Nimr’s execution differently, stating that it was illustrative of the Saudi government’s use of capital punishment “in the name of counter-terror to settle scores and crush dissidents.” Amnesty also released a statement, claiming: “In many death penalty cases [in Saudi Arabia] defendants are denied access to a lawyer and in some cases they are convicted on the basis of ‘confessions’ obtained under torture or other ill-treatment.”
Khashoggi also said in an interview with the Middle East Eye that al-Nimr’s execution was justified because the sheikh “openly called for overthrow of the system and allegiance to Wilayit al-Faqih, [Iran’s Supreme Leader]” which he claimed “amounts as treason by any democratic country”. As Khashoggi explained, the execution was “a clear message to anybody who wants to overthrow the government.”
When it came to Saudi security forces entering Bahrain in 2011 to help local authorities crush a pro-democracy movement, Khashoggi defended that action too. In doing so, he used arguments that were lock-step with Riyadh’s official narrative about Saudi authorities catering to the request of the government in Manama. Regarding Syria and Yemen, he claimed that Saudi Arabia’s intervention in those two countries was about Riyadh “supporting peace and freedom while fighting dictatorship.”
In November 2017, Khashoggi appeared on RT for a discussion about Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri being held hostage in the kingdom. When addressing the episode that outraged many in Lebanon and the West, Khashoggi stated, “maybe the way this issue was introduced was too hasty or in such an impulsive way, but it succeeded in bringing the issue of Hezbollah on the table.” In defense of Saudi military operations in Yemen, he argued: “Yes, I agree that the war in Yemen is causing suffering, but at the same time the Houthis should not be allowed to rule Yemen…” One of his fellow guests on the program, Sharmine Narwani, later tweeted: “Despite suggestions in the media, [Khashoggi] was a staunch supporter of the Saudi state, system and sense of regional entitlement.”
When asked by PBS’s Martin Smith why Saudi Arabia was in a rush to enter Yemen in March 2015, Khashoggi replied: “If Saudi Arabia waited for Mr. Obama to approve an intervention in Yemen, Yemen would have been gone and lost a long time ago. It would be controlled by the Iranians and the Houthi[s]. So, we did not wait for Mr. Obama’s approval.” In response to a follow-up question about alleged human rights abuses on the part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, Khashoggi responded that the Kingdom was facing a “1939 moment,” comparing Iran to Nazi Germany.
So, what caused MbS to view Khashoggi, who was no dissident, as so much of a threat? Why did the young crown prince have an incentive to order his killing (which is what the CIA and several Western governments believe happened)? The answer has to do with the fact that Khashoggi’s problems were not with the Saudi state, its undemocratic political system, or Riyadh’s counter-revolutionary foreign policy. Khashoggi’s problems were with MbS himself, and the extent to which the prince began to monopolize power within the Saudi state.
Khashoggi was close to Prince Turki al-Faisal (for whom he was the spokesperson and media aid while the prince was Riyadh’s ambassador to London and Washington), Prince Khalid al-Faisal, and Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, all of whom appear to be viewed with suspicion by Mohammad bin Salman. Consequently, the prince also harbored suspicions of Khashoggi, which were further fueled by the reporter’s Islamist past as a Muslim Brotherhood member, before the Saudi government designated that movement a terrorist organization. MbS saw Khashoggi as a threat and refused to accept him as an adviser. Undoubtedly his perception of Khashoggi as a threat only grew when the journalist relocated to the U.S. and began criticizing the prince from his perch at the Washington Post.
Khashoggi took issue with MbS’s consolidation of power and his habit of arresting religious figures who saw his planned economic and social reforms as going too far for the conservative Saudi kingdom. He also opposed MbS’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood agenda, which aligned the crown prince closely with his Abu Dhabi counterpart Mohammed bin Zayed while pitting the new Saudi leadership against Qatar and others in the royal family who saw Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups—as well as Qatar and Turkey—as natural Sunni partners for Riyadh to embrace in a grander struggle against Iran. None of this is to say that Khashoggi stood for democratic change in Saudi Arabia. What he did stand for was the ‘rule-by-consensus’ style of governance that shaped Saudi politics for generations prior to MbS’s ascendancy.
Nothing can justify Khashoggi’s murder. That he harbored illiberal views cannot be the basis for criticizing those who are rightfully outraged by the fact that he was killed, especially in such a heinous way. Yet it is not useful for journalists and pundits to misrepresent Khashoggi and what he stood for throughout his career. As Shenaz Kermalli put it: “In the end, it was Khashoggi’s own ‘friends’ that silenced him.” Indeed, his subtle and polite disagreements with MbS—not any advocacy of democracy in Saudi Arabia or the grander Arab world—are what led to his barbaric death.