Who Was Jamal Khashoggi? A Saudi Insider Who Became an Exiled Critic

(Bloomberg) -- Jamal Khashoggi was one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent journalists. He had been living in self-imposed exile in Virginia after leaving Saudi Arabia in 2017. Then, after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, he disappeared. Turkish officials said he was killed inside. After repeatedly denying it, the Saudi government acknowledged that Khashoggi died there. Initially, Saudi officials said he was killed after “discussions” turned physical, an account European officials and some U.S. lawmakers cast doubt on. Eventually, the kingdom’s public prosecutor said he had been killed by a team of Saudi agents sent to convince him to come back to Saudi Arabia. Authorities charged 11 people in the case and in December 2019, five were sentenced to death for the murder.

Who Was Jamal Khashoggi? A Saudi Insider Who Became an Exiled Critic

1. Why was Khashoggi so prominent?

Khashoggi, 59, was a leading critic of Saudi Arabia’s current leadership, sharing his views via platforms including opinion columns in the Washington Post that were translated into Arabic. His journalism career included stints in Afghanistan, where he met and followed the rise of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in the 1980s. He was deputy editor-in-chief of the Saudi newspaper Arab News at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., which made him a valuable source for foreign journalists seeking to understand what drove some Muslims into such actions. In the 2000s, he was twice fired from his post as editor-in-chief of the Saudi Al-Watan daily newspaper, which under his leadership ran stories, editorials and cartoons critical of extremists and the waylamv in which the country enforced its religious values. (Saudi newspapers are privately owned but government-guided, and the government approves and can fire top leadership).

2. Why was he so well-known outside Saudi Arabia?

In part because, in between his Al-Watan stints, he was an adviser to the Saudi ambassador to London, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former long-serving intelligence chief. Then, in 2005, when the prince was appointed the Saudi envoy to the U.S., Khashoggi joined him as a media aide. More recently Khashoggi worked as a columnist and commentator before leaving the kingdom for exile in the U.S. in June 2017 and becoming a Washington Post columnist.

3. Why did he go into exile?

He told friends and reporters that the space for freedom of speech under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was shrinking and he feared for his safety. In an appearance on Al Jazeera TV’s “Upfront” that aired in March 2018, he said he’d left the kingdom “because I don’t want to be arrested.” On the worsening environment for journalists since Prince Mohammed took over, he said, “I got fired from my job twice because I was pushing for reform in Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t that easy but people were not being put in jails. There was a breathing space.”

4. What did he write?

Khashoggi didn’t see himself as a dissident but as a critic worried about the direction his country was going under its now 34-year-old crown prince. In his first Washington Post column on Sept. 18, 2017, he wrote about his decision to leave Saudi Arabia: “I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.” Khashoggi wrote in February 2018 that Prince Mohammed maybe “should learn from the British royal house that has earned true stature, respect and success by trying a little humility himself. If MBS can listen to his critics and acknowledge that they, too, love their country, he can actually enhance his power.” In one of his last columns, he urged Prince Mohammed to end the war he started in Yemen: “The longer this cruel war lasts in Yemen, the more permanent the damage will be. The people of Yemen will be busy fighting poverty, cholera and water scarcity and rebuilding their country. The crown prince must bring an end to the violence and restore the dignity of the birthplace of Islam.”

5. Why would he enter a Saudi consulate in the first place?

To finalize paperwork for his wedding to Hatice Cengiz, a 36-year-old Turkish doctorate student. He had recently bought an apartment in Istanbul so the couple, once married, could divide their time between Turkey and the U.S.

6. What happened after his death?

Eventually, after several conflicting statements about what had happened inside the consulate, Saudi authorities charged 11 people in the case, including former deputy intelligence chief General Ahmed al-Assiri. Former royal court adviser Saud Al-Qahtani, a top aide to Prince Mohammed, was removed from his position. Then in December 2019, eight people were found guilty of his murder, with five sentenced to death. Al-Assiri was found not guilty and Al-Qahtani was cleared due to insufficient evidence. Saudi Arabia’s deputy prosecutor said the murder was not premeditated. An earlier report by Agnes Callamard, a United Nations expert who investigated Khashoggi’s death, said Saudi agents had been recorded by Turkish authorities discussing how to dismember Khashoggi’s body several minutes before he had entered the consulate, referring to him as a “sacrificial lamb.”

7. What was the international reaction?

Khashoggi’s murder drew global condemnation, bruising the reputation of Prince Mohammed and prompting bipartisan efforts in the U.S. Congress to limit arm sales to the kingdom. Callamard said the murder bore all the characteristics of a “state killing” and the investigation conducted by Saudi authorities didn’t meet international standards. Saudi Arabia has denied that Prince Mohammed had any role in the death of Khashoggi.

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